Are Your Cows Slowly Starving on a Full Belly?

Stan Smith, PA, Fairfield County, OSU Extension

“My cows are eating all they want, and they are full . . . why does it appear they might be losing weight?” Seems like a dumb question doesn’t it? Over the years I’ve heard it many times . . . “look at those cows . . . their bellies are full . . . and to think you told me they wouldn’t do any good on (you fill in the blank here) my first cutting hay or corn stalks or soybean stubble or tree twigs or . . . ” You name it, I think I’ve heard it.

It seems sometimes we struggle with identifying the difference between what a cow will eat, and whether she can actually digest enough nutrients from what she eats in a 24 hour period to sustain her body, her fetus, and her ability to provide high quality colostrum and milk when the time comes. Fact is, lots of the hay made in Ohio in 2010 simply isn’t good enough! While abundant spring rain was good for forage growth throughout most of Ohio, it made it very difficult for many of us to get hay made in a timely fashion. Many hayfields were cut in mid June and beyond when the forage was in full bloom or going to seed. And, we all know that for any forage plant, quality as measured by crude protein, energy and digestibility declines as the plant matures. While livestock may eat it, that doesn’t always mean they are being sustained by it.

In a recent effort to investigate the actual quality of local hay, and then determine what might actually be needed to sustain cows effectively on it, OSU Extension Educators Jim Skeeles and Rory Lewandowski recently took an in-depth look at the quality of several samples of Hocking County area hay. What they discovered was that the average first cutting hay made last summer was NOT good enough alone to sustain cows in their last trimester of gestation or beyond! In fact, when you take into account the weather we experienced in January (according to NOAA the average temperature for the month was 25.6 degrees F in nearby Fairfield County), NONE of the first cutting mixed hay they analyzed was found to be sufficient. In order to provide adequate nutrition, the hay they were looking at needed to be supplemented with corn or a similar form of energy in order to suffice. In fact, one of the hay samples required that 6 pounds of corn per day be fed to a 1300 pound cow in late gestation to balance her ration sufficiently.

Going one step further, as the group explored possibly supplementing the low quality first cutting hay they were evaluating with high protein lick tubs, the conclusion was that the tubs not only cost nearly 40 cents per head per day more than simply offering a little $6.42/bushel shelled corn, but the tubs didn’t always meet the energy requirements of the cow. Simply put, the primary concern of typical late made, low quality, mixed Ohio hay is that it is deficient in energy . . . not protein! And, with feeder calves presently topping out at something more than $1.35 a pound at local auction barns, a quarter’s worth of corn might be a wise daily investment for a pregnant or lactating cow.

If you’d like the entire story, the slides along with the audio of the program were recorded and can be found under the following links.

Evaluating and Using Hay for Beef Cattle part A

Evaluating and Using Hay for Beef Cattle part B

If you are presently feeding cows first cutting hay, especially hay made after June 1, and the cows are in their last trimester of gestation or beyond, the two hours it takes to view this 2 part presentation by Rory Lewandowski and Jim Skeeles will be time well spent.