As cattle producers you are squarely in the start of forage production season. As you are well aware, the bovine animal was created to utilize grasses and forages of many types to act as a fuel for the production of meat and milk. As producers concerned with efficient performance of our cow herds, growing cattle and so on, we realize that management practices that promote the production of quality forages for consumption by these animals is very important. It is probably one of the most important things a producer does and subsequently requires attention year round.
Consider this for a minute: If the average cow in your herd weighs an average of 1100 lbs. year round she will eat approximately 8000 lbs. of dry matter in a year's time. Multiply that by a herd of 100 head and you have to supply in some shape, form or fashion, around 800,000 lbs. of dry matter in terms of grass, hay, supplement, mineral, etc. About this time of the year our thoughts turn to this year's hay crop and in fact, we are running a bit behind since a lot of fertilizer needs to be in the ground by this point. However, since there's a lot of hay ground that hasn't been prepared yet, let's discuss some of the upcoming decisions and thought process that must be made.
Meeting Nutritional Needs
Since a substantial portion of a cow's nutritional needs are met by forage we are best served by determining what steps can be taken to make the quality of this forage as good as possible. In this case we are talking about how we can harvest and store the best, most cost effective hay we can. To clarify this discussion somewhat, let's determine what is meant by the term "hay quality." Hay quality is used to describe the nutritional density, digestibility and palatability of the hay crop. The hay needs to contain adequate amounts of nutrients such as protein, energy, minerals, etc. which can be digested, i.e. broken down in the gut and absorbed by the animal. Much of the nutrient need of the animal can be met through hay possessing high enough levels of the nutrients mentioned so that exceptional amounts of supplementation may not be required during winter feeding. In other words, your stored forage needs to be of high enough nutritional density in order to minimize the amount of supplementation needed to meet all their nutritional requirements.
We can meet or exceed protein requirements with many types of hays. Energy needs are more difficult to meet since hay is naturally high in fiber and therefore lower in energy. The fiber content, more specifically certain types of fiber, have a direct effect on how well the hay can be digested and how much can actually be consumed. If we take the appropriate steps to boost hay quality, subsequently increasing it's nutrient content and digestibility, we can go a long way toward reducing supplementation costs.
The hay must also be relatively clean and weed and mold free. Hay that is dusty or dirty, weed infested or moldy is not very palatable to the cow and she may not eat an appropriate amount to meet her nutrient needs. Let's remember that one very important aspect of hay consumption in cattle is that in winter, the breakdown of hay in the rumen, or first stomach of the cow creates a lot of heat that helps keep the animal warm.
Improving the Quality of Hay
1) Remember that the nutrient content of the hay is a direct reflection of the soil fertility. If soil fertility is low, not only will the volume produced be reduced but so will the levels of various nutrients, especially protein and minerals. Ideally, it works well to soil test the land where hay is to be produced in the fall of the year after hay production has ceased. These soil samples should be taken every one to two years and sent to either a university soil lab or an independent lab. Many fertilizer suppliers will assist with soil sampling at a very minimal cost. Be cautious if analyses come back with exceptionally high fertilizer recommendations which may indicate a desire on the part of the supplier to boost fertilizer sales. Ideally, if sample analyses can be received by late fall or by the first of the year ample time is available to plan fertilizer needs and shop for the best prices. It might even be possible to contract some of your fertilizer needs early in order to lock in prices. Fertilizers are commodities just like grains and feed ingredients and are subject to market variability. Obviously in the spring and early summer of the year, demand is high which will force prices up. You can also prepay some of your fertilizer costs for the following year which can provide you with some tax advantages as well.
2) If producing a summer annual such as a sorghum sudangrass hybrid, time must be taken to insure that planting areas are prepared in time for planting. Naturally this is contingent upon weather patterns and what type of planting methodology is to be used. It also helps to carefully research the varieties of these forages available and what projected maturities, tonnages, etc. might be. Any given seed company will have comparisons between their own "in house" varieties and possibly between their varieties and the competition. I would recommend contacting your county extension agent or the agronomy department at a state university to determine what research they might have differentiating between brands, varieties and so on of different forages. As mentioned before, the type or variety of plant established can have dramatic effects on nutrient density, digestibility and palatability.
3) In both summer annuals and perennials it may be necessary to treat for weeds. In many cases if weeds can be largely eliminated this process can be as useful as applying a load of fertilizer since it eliminates plant which would compete with desirable forages for soil nutrients.
4) As initial harvest approaches be sure that cutting and baling take place as close to optimal harvest time as possible for whatever forage you are producing. In grasses such as coastal bermudagrass, significant levels of protein are "lost" for each day over optimal harvest time. In addition to the loss of these nutrients, as grasses continue to grow and mature they become higher in fiber components such as hemicellulose and lignin which lower the digestibility of the forage. In most cases you are better off sacrificing some volume for improved nutrient density.
5) If called for, fertilize between cuttings as necessary to insure that necessary soil fertility levels are available to support plant growth.
6) If drought or heat stress is a problem be sure to test for prussic acid and nitrates in many forages. Nothing can reduce the profitability of a cattle operation faster than dead cattle. If you have even the least question whether either of these conditions may exist in a given crop test it. You are much better to be safe than sorry.
Proper Storage is Critical
Once your hay has been cut and baled it must be stored properly to maintain its quality and to reduce potential losses as much as possible. Most hay in the south is now stored in round bales weighing 1,000 to 1,200 lbs. each. Stored outside on the ground losses can range from 15 to 30 percent. If your total costs to produce a 1200 lb. bale are $25.00 per bale the cost per ton is $41.66. Once you figure in a loss of around 20 percent your cost per ton of utilizable hay becomes $52.00. That's getting pretty expensive.
If at all possible hay should be stored in a manner as to protect it from the elements. This may mean in a barn, stacked and covered with a tarp or plastic or simply stacked several bales high in a pyramid. This gets many of the bales off the ground and also protects the surface areas of many of the bales.
It is very helpful to weigh a number of bales from each cutting. You'll be amazed at how much hay can vary in weight from cutting to cutting, field to field and even bale to bale. You'll also be amazed at how inaccurate visual estimations can be. It is important to have a relatively accurate idea of what bales weigh so feeding can be accurate.
Hay should also be stacked in groups according to the fields from which it was cut and the cutting made (i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.). Once hay has been produced and stored I recommend taking as many hay samples as possible to determine what you actually have. Many times I have heard from producers, "I just don't understand it, my cows look lousy and I put up really good hay this year." I will ask them if they had it tested and supplemented accordingly. Unfortunately, the answer in most cases is low. Take for example a friend of mine who had gone through most of the motions and put up what he considered to be very good coastal bermudagrass hay. He had fertilized the fields, cut and baled at close to the optimal time, stored his round bales stacked under a barn. I asked him what he thought the protein content would run on this hay. "Oh," he said proudly, "I'm sure it will run 12 to 13 percent protein if not better." I suggested to him that to be sure we'd have it tested. Oddly, and much to his disappointment it only tested a little over seven percent protein. Had he fed this to his cattle all winter and supplemented according to his estimate, his production level as well as cow body condition would have been greatly affected.
Sample each cutting, taking random, composite samples of several of the bales from each field. This will tell you what cuttings and fields have produced hay with what nutrient levels, you can then plan which hay will be fed to which cattle and how you will need to supplement to provide for their protein, energy, mineral and vitamin needs. I recommend sending samples to a good independent laboratory. A typical forage lab will be able to rapidly run virtually any test you desire. They also retain the samples for several months after they were run in case there is a question about a sample or a problem and it needs to be re analyzed. Many of these labs can get your results back to you within ten days to two weeks.
For hay samples I will normally have a lab test for dry matter, protein, acid detergent fiber (ADF), neutral detergent fiber (NDF), (the net energy levels can then be calculated from these numbers), and mineral content such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, copper, zinc, iron and manganese. This will give you a pretty good feel for the overall nutrient content and what you will need to do in terms of protein and energy supplementation. By using fairly extensive hay testing you can save a tremendous amount of money in supplements and insure nutrient levels to meet desired production goals are in place. It is an investment that will more than pay for itself every time. It will also help you build a database of what types of hays can be produced from different fields under different conditions. Be sure and document for each hay field the circumstances surrounding a given production year such as fertilizers applied, rainfall timing and amounts, harvest dates and timings, storage methods and hay test results. After several years this can give you a very good idea of what to expect under given production conditions.
Since the different hay production systems vary so greatly across the United States it is impossible for us to give all the varieties and practices adequate coverage here. What I recommend is spend as much time as you can researching and gathering information on what you are trying to produce as possible and become a hay production expert. Your pocketbook and cattle will thank you.
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a consulting nutritionist with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.