Tenn. - Unusual weather conditions this spring and a remarkably dry summer have contributed to a shortage of hay across much of the nation, leaving many cattle producers scrambling to come up with a strategy to extend their hay supplies, says Dr. Paul Davis, ruminant nutritionist with Tennessee Farmers Cooperative.
"With time, effort, and proper planning, a limited hay supply can be overcome and cow condition and productivity does not have to decrease," Davis says. "However, producers should not wait until their hay supply is almost exhausted; this limits the options for adjustments in their feeding program."
Acting early, farmers have a number of options, either through making changes in feeding and herd management or altering the type and/or amount of feedstuffs offered, the ruminant nutrition expert says.
First, Davis recommends producers pay close attention to the management of their hay supplies.
"Up to 35 percent of hay may be lost when bales are stored on the ground and without protection," he notes, suggesting that hay be stored on pallets or worn out tires in a barn or covered by hay tarps which to prevent most of that loss.
Rather than feeding round bales by placing them on the ground, Davis says the use of bale rings reduces waste "by keeping cattle from bedding in or around the bales before they are consumed." Farmers should regulate usage by supplying hay on a daily basis, rather than offering a longer supply at once, and divide pastures into two areas - one with hay supplied and one without - to effectively manage daily consumption.
Herd management can lessen the sting of a hay shortage too, Davis says.
"You'll feed less hay if you're wintering fewer animals," he says. "Pregnancy test and then cull the open, older, less productive, or problem cows."
Making culling an even more attractive option, the IRS announced recently that it has extended a 2002 measure for areas affected by drought conditions in the 12 months prior to August 31 that eliminates the capital gains tax on livestock replaced for the next year.
After herd reduction, Davis then recommends examining the body condition of cows and, if possible, feeding the herd according to their body type. Sort the animals into groups of thin, just right, or over conditioned cattle, and supply nutrients as needed.
After considering feed and herd management, Davis says producers should consider the type and quantity of nutrition supplied. Feeding style changes can include a reduction in the amount of hay offered by grazing the herd on stockpiled fescue or winter annuals such as wheat and ryegrass, which can reduce or eliminate the need for hay.
"Be sure to guard against grass tetany with a quality high magnesium mineral," Davis cautions.
An important part of nutrition management is to know the quality and quantity of available hay. Producers should have their hay tested to determine its nutrient content and feeding value, Davis advises, and then estimate the quantity of hay available for each cow each day.
"Estimate the total amount of hay available, divide by the number of days in the winter feeding period, and then divide by the number of animals in the herd," he explains.
If hay supplies are expected to be thin, he says, it stands to reason that efforts should be made to help cattle glean the most from the nutrients in hay.
"Providing a high quality mineral helps the herd to effectively utilize forages," Davis says, recommending an ionophore such as Bovatec® or Rumensin® to increase efficiency by 10 percent or more. "Likewise, by following a proper herd health plan that includes vaccinations and deworming, cattle remain healthier and more efficient and are not forced to compete with parasites for nutrients."
One other way to overcome a lack of hay is to supply supplemental nutrition through manufactured feeds, blocks, tubs or lick tanks. It is important to choose supplements that do not decrease forage utilization, Davis advises, because most nutrients will still come from hay. He says typical winter supplementation programs should include up to 7 pounds of manufactured feed, 0.5 to 1.5 pounds of a supplement block or tub, or one to two pounds of a molasses based liquid feed. Supplements can be fed daily, he says, or convenient supplements like pressed blocks and tubs are good alternatives.
Ultimately, however, Davis recommends the producer be the judge in determining what the herd needs. "Let your eyes guide you whether to feed more or less, as cow body condition score is the best indicator of nutritional status."