2019 Forage Quality Concerns

By Ted Wiseman and Dean Kreager OSU Extension Educators

Much of Ohio’s 2019 first cutting grass hay was beyond optimum maturity when it was harvested. Laboratory analysis indicates little if any first cutting has adequate quality to meet the nutritional needs of bred cows in late gestation or lactation.

You may be thinking enough already with the hay quality talk. Many articles have been sent out on this topic starting before some people even baled their first cutting. Last year a lot of the hay was very poor quality and many animals lost significant weight through the winter. Some animals even died with hay in front of them because the hay did not have enough nutritional value. Hay quality affects all types of livestock but I will concentrate on beef cows since they are less likely to receive supplemental feed than most other animals.

Thin cows are more likely to produce calves that are less healthy and will not grow as well. Those cows often take longer to breed back which will carry into the next year with later born calves. Below is a summary of 45 forage samples from hay made this year. This data represents 2 important test numbers. These 2 items do not tell the whole story when it comes to hay quality but they give us a good start.

Percent TDN (total digestible nutrients) is a measure of the amount of energy in the feed. Basically this equates to the amount of calories.

Percent protein is a measure of the protein that is available to the animal for maintaining muscle and body systems. It is also very important for development of the calf she is carrying.

Table 1. 2019 Hay Analyses

The vertical blue bars represent 1st cutting hay samples while the vertical orange bars represent 2nd cutting. There are 4 silage samples included.

When looking at TDN on the graph, the grey bar at 60% represents the needs of a beef cow at the peak of lactation (such as fall calvers). This bar could be lowered to 54% for last trimester spring calvers. At 54% it would appear that some of the first cutting would be adequate; however, when we factor in the moisture content and the limitation on the total pounds a cow can possibly consume none of these first cutting samples completely met the energy needs of the cattle. If you add in the increased energy needs from rain, mud, cold, and snow, the animals will be loosing body condition through the winter if they are not receiving an energy supplement.

Protein content is represented by the yellow bar on the graph. Typically you will want at least an 8%-9% protein level to meet the needs of a cow in its 3rd trimester. You can see that some of the first cutting samples are closer to 5%. The protein needs are met by more samples than the energy needs but still may require some protein supplementation.

First cutting forages provides the largest amount of your supply compared to second, third or fourth. Taking inventory of what you have now for each cutting will give you time to plan your winter feeding program. Most importantly if you haven’t tested your forages before, this would be the year to do so. The cost of a forage sample is minimal compared the costs associated with lower body condition scores, low birth weights and poor milk production. I am glad to help with sampling and interpretation. We can have your hay tested for $25 including shipping for most standard testing.

Once you know what quality of forages you have, work with a nutritionist to help decide what other feed stuffs you can use to develop a proper beef ration. Just getting the numbers on a spreadsheet or computer program is only the starting point. Understanding the complexities of the ruminant digestive system and knowing the limitations of certain feeds is critical. In addition, the Ohio State Beef Team website (beef.osu.edu) has some great resources addressing feed and feed shortage issues.

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