by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

For many producers the last four or five years have been particularly challenging, especially when it came to providing for the forage needs of the cow herd. With the exceptionally dry conditions that many areas have and continue to experience, many operations found themselves very short of hay, stockpiled standing forage, silage or other roughages. The backbone of a sound cattle operation is it's forage program since, by volume, this provides the majority of the nutrients and dry matter that the cow herd requires year-round. When conditions develop that negatively affect this program, major problems develop. These result in depressed performance long-term and add expenditures of hard-earned dollars. It is always prudent to aggressively plan for the forage needs of the coming year, especially during fall and winter, now when forages are generally more plentiful and we can take a more objective view of what will be required.

Meeting Nutritional Needs

Again, in the typical cow/calf program a very substantial portion of cow's nutritional needs are met by forage. As such we are best served by determining what steps can be taken to make the quality and quantity of our forages as good as possible. In most cases, production of quality and quantity is a balancing act. Production of high volumes of forage often (not always) means that quality is compromised. Subsequently, high quality (i.e. high nutrient content) often requires reduction in the volume of forage that we produce. Finding the happy medium is a challenge and tends to be unique to the operation and management. While it's easy to understand quantity, quality is a little more vague. The term hay quality is used to describe the nutritional density, digestibility and palatability of the hay crop. 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 critical nutrients 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. An obvious example is alfalfa. Most alfalfa hays will far exceed the ~10-11 percent protein that the average brood cow needs in her diet. In many cases, alfalfa can actually be used as a protein supplement in much the same way many producers use a range cube or a range meal. 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 should also be relatively clean, i.e., weed and mold-free. Hay that is dusty or dirty, weed infested or moldy is not 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

Producers should remember several factors when producing quality and quantity of forage. These include:

1) Remember that the nutrient content AND volume of the forage is a direct reflection of 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. Fertilize per the test for the specific forage you are producing.

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.

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.

5) If called for, fertilize between cuttings as necessary to insure that necessary soil fertility levels are available to support plant growth.

6) Once summer is in force and drought or heat stress is a problem, be sure to test for prussic acid and nitrates in many forages.

Planning for Quantity Needs and for Shortages

We all know that you cannot predict weather or weather patterns. With typical grass hays, when feeding round bales, a normal rule of thumb is that you will need 3 to 4 round bales per year, assuming these bales weigh 1100 to 1200 lbs. Remember that the weight of round bales of hay is highly variable and very hard to judge. Also, since environmental conditions are so variable it also makes sense to produce or purchase hay so you have extra or carry over. Many producers will plan for a 30 to 50 percent carry over, i.e. they have 30 to 50 percent more than projected to meet the cow herds needs for the coming year. Also, remember when you are projecting hay needs to include bulls (~1.5X the cows needs) and calves (~.3 to .5X the cows needs depending on age and size). Since shortages are always possible it makes a great deal of sense to develop contingency plans. These could include:

1) Alternative hay sources that can be purchased. Make a list of producers who you can potentially purchase hay from. This is especially important if you think your supply will be close. Talk to these producers in advance to determine availability, quality, delivery and price. In some cases it may be useful to actually work out and agreement or even contract a specific amount of hay (may require pre-purchase) to insure your supply.

2) Consider other forage sources such as silage, or haylage. This may require alternative feeding methods such as more troughs, bunkers, hay feeders etc.

3) Consider alternative forage sources such as cotton burrs or gin trash (same product), a by-product from cotton ginning, also corn stalks and other roughage sources. These tend to be lower in nutrient density and may require additional supplementation. Once again, identify potential sources well in advance.

4) Confinement feeding has been evaluated more over recent years as feed prices have declined, feedyard space has increased with declining cattle numbers and cattle prices have been at all-time high levels. This takes a totally different type of management but has been shown to be a feasible alternative.


It always makes sense to think these situations through well in advance, using lots of “what if” scenarios. In general, planning for situations using forages or roughages also requires that we consider what supplements may be needed to compensate for deficiencies or imbalances that could exist. You may want to consult a nutritionist or university or extension personnel to help with these decisions to insure your program is well balanced and as economical as possible.

Copyright 2015 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached by phone at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at For more information please visit Facebook/Reveille Livestock Concepts.

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