A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with a senior cattleman who told me that the months of October, November and December were the direst that North Texas had experienced since 1928. Then, a few days later I heard a report that much of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana are as much as 17 inches behind on the normal average rainfall for those areas. Then, I turn on my television to see repeated reports of grass and brush fires in these same areas driven by the dry conditions AND high winds. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to put these together and figure out it is VERY dry in these and other areas this winter. That's probably the unusual part – the fact that it's winter. It's not all that uncommon for us to experience some degree of drought during the summer and early fall but when November and December come and go and many areas hardly see a drop of rain, there is obvious cause for concern.
The cattle producer experiences this in a very personal (and economic) way. With low rainfall comes poor grass growth and forage production. This means that he may have to purchase hay or other types of feed products that he normally would not. That or he will have to sell off cows that he really doesn't want to. When these circumstances occur and it becomes necessary to buy added supplemental feeds we see this increase in demand reflected in the market place by an increase in prices, especially if a particular ingredient is in somewhat short supply. Then we begin to see things that make you believe everyone in our feed, grain and forage marketing system has taken complete leave of their senses. This happened in the past when we've had similar conditions while I was searching for some cottonseed hulls for a client. Hulls are normally a relatively inexpensive ingredient (well under $100.00 per ton delivered in many areas) One broker I spoke with priced a truckload of hulls to me at $180.00 per ton. It was at that point that I was affirmed that all sanity has left the situation.
Occasionally we run into these circumstances and this year happens to be one. In many areas forages turn up short and producers end up paying exorbitant prices for commodities that may only be actually WORTH 25 percent of the price paid. Such is the case with these hulls. While we are not quite to this point yet, it could very easily happen. Most producers are familiar with cottonseed hulls and we know that they are a good source of filler and that cattle find them very palatable. They are not a particularly good source of protein or energy. As a point of reference, when corn is worth from ~$120.00 per ton, about what it is now, cottonseed hulls are worth only about $60.00 per ton. Current pricing of hulls have them easily at twice this cost right now.
Cause and Effect
What causes these situations and what do we do about it? First, a lot of factors contribute to circumstances like these. One of the most prominent causes in this case is reflective of the drought conditions we've seen through much of this year in many areas. This has resulted in reduced forage production and even in terms of less productive pastures and hay meadows due to reduced plant populations. Second, in some areas we are actually seeing winter conditions. This has come as quite a shock to many producers who have unwittingly become accustomed to mild winters where hay consumption was not very aggressive and a lot of roughage was provided by volunteer winter forages. We are finding this year that even planted winter pastures which would otherwise provide a significant roughage base are being suppressed by the dry and cold weather. Third, with stronger cattle markets, more cattle are going on feed and we are seeing a trend to place cattle on feed at somewhat lighter weights. We are also seeing a greater incidence of cattle being placed on growing rations due to reduced forage availabilities in pasture environments. In many cases this pulls heavily on roughage supplies. All this goes to say that many factors exist that have created these tight roughage supplies and unfortunately, it appears we have quite a bit of winter left. Let's take a moment to review some possibilities that might exist to help us through the “forage crunch.”
Consider the Alternatives
OK so we have to decide how we are going to proceed from here. I'll be the first to say that even the best laid plans get derailed and that even if you have a good plan (which you've heard me harp on here more than once) you can still encounter problems with shortages on occasion. If this happens, here are some steps you can consider.
1) Purchasing Hay
Although a lot of hay is shipped from one part of the country to another in most instances, when the motivation is to meet a shortage in a specific region of the country a couple of factors come into play. One, the cost will be quite a bit higher than if you were able to produce it locally. This is due to the added freight cost plus the profit margin that the seller adds on. This is not wrong it's just a fact of life. Secondly, the quality of the forage shipped in is often not the best. While both of these situations can create circumstances where the buyer is taken advantage of, that's not always the case, and as long as the buyer has some familiarity with buying hay, he can avoid becoming involved in a bad deal.
To begin, never buy hay by the bale or by the roll. There is entirely too much variability from one bale or roll to the next. Hay needs to be bought by weight (normally dollars per ton) delivered to your location. When you consider that a round bale of hay could vary well over 500 lbs or more per bale, that's a huge difference. Second, know what type of hay you are buying. Is it bermudagrass, ryegrass, sorghum-sudan grass, alfalfa, etc. Make sure the seller guarantees the hay to be weed free or at least very low in weed contamination. Have the seller provide a hay test on the load he is delivering -- not on the overall lot of hay he may be pulling from. Once again, there is a lot of variability in nutrient density as well. Compare your cost based on units of protein and/or relative feed value (RFV). Relative Feed value is a calculated index based on fiber components in the forage. The higher the RFV the better the digestibility of the forage and the more nutrients the animal can extract. Finally, if the hay received is not what you were promised/guaranteed, do not be afraid to refuse the load or negotiate a better price.
2) Other Roughage Sources
On several occasions we have examined alternative feed and forage sources that can be used in feeding of cattle. In some situations these are effective to help us reduce costs. In other situations it becomes a matter of finding SOMETHING that can provide for these nutrient needs.
In situations when hay or pastures are short, similar to when we encounter drought conditions, a number of alternatives exist to provide the necessary nutrients. Something that the producer must consider is that it is not mandatory that you feed a cow hay. Hay and grass are the normal base sources of nutrients in the cow's diet primarily because her digestive system is designed to handle large amounts of fiber based material from which required nutrients are extracted. In most cases, pasture and possibly hay sources are the least expensive sources of these nutrients. Another role of roughages in the cow's diet, especially in colder weather situations, is to provide warmth. When a cow consumes roughage, the bacterial action in the rumen which breaks down the fiber produces heat and a lot of it. This helps the cow stay warm. In many cases I'll recommend for a producer to feed slightly lower quality roughages during cold periods to increase the amount of activity which must be input to breakdown the plant material, thereby increasing heat generation.
So what can we use as a roughage source when hay or conventional roughages are short. Table 1 provides some examples.
Roughage sources such as corn and milo stalks, peanut hay and soybean stubble can be purchased in a baled form. The other products such as gin trash, cottonseed and peanut hulls are often delivered in loose, bulk form but in some situations can be found in a pelleted form which makes handling quite a bit easier.
You will notice with these roughages that in general they are low in protein and energy so it is a basic assumption that some form of supplementation will be necessary. Typically 3 to 5 lbs per head per day of processed corn or milo or another grain source may be used to meet energy needs. Additionally it is necessary to provide protein as well. Other feed ingredients such as corn gluten feed or whole cottonseed can be used to satisfy both protein and energy needs to a certain degree.
Regardless of what roughage source you decide to use, loads need to be tested regularly to ascertain nutrient content. Products must be compared based on economics. In many cases a really “cheap” feed can cost you much more in the long run.
3) Feeding Reduced Hay Along with Increased Supplemental Feed
In many cases the cost of forages exceeds the cost of a variety of feeds including manufactured supplements. Often, at least some of the normal dry matter intake can be replaced by a variety of feed products that may in fact be a better value for you in terms of cost of protein and energy. These feeds should be somewhat bulky to provide some added fill and help maintain normal rumen function. Consult a nutritionist or extension personnel in your area to evaluate the cost comparisons and determine what may be the best value for your situation.
4) Other Management Options
In some situations it may become an issue of making do with what you have. This may be the perfect opportunity to cull some of those individuals you have had questions about, if they have not bred back, if the calves they wean are not particularly productive, etc. These less than productive individuals need to be moved out of your herd, especially when resources are tight and need to be used for those that will produce a profit.
Another option to consider is early weaning. We have evaluated this program before and in certain circumstances is an effective management tool to reduce the nutrient demand by cows which would otherwise be nursing larger calves.
Another option may be to move the entire herd to an area where forages and pasture is available. Depending on the economics when you compare buying and bringing in feed and forage as compared to taking the cattle to another location. Factors such as stress effects, potential injury to the animal and so on have to be evaluated for the costs.
If there is a positive side to these situations it would have to be that the cattle market continues to be aggressive, driven largely by demand which outstrips our supply. Thus the cow/calf producer has a continued opportunity to be profitable. As it is, with profit margins wider than normal, a bit more room exists to cover some additional costs for supplemental or replacement feeds and forages and still maintain a profit. Once again, this illustrates the need for complete and accurate records and knowing what your production costs are. This is the basis of decisions you may need to make in a season of tight forage supplies.
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant 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.