Junk Feed = Thin Cows, Weak Calves!

Stan Smith, PA, OSU Extension, Fairfield County

My cows are eating all they want, and they are full . . . but it appears they keep getting thinner.”

I’ve got some cows that act like they are open.”

My fall born calves seem unthrifty, and some are week. I’ve lost a few.”

I had a cow that could hardly get back up after she calved . . . just seemed weak.”

I just got this forage analysis back . . . it’s not very good, is it?

No, it most cases it’s not. Yet, those quotes are representative of the recurring statements I’m still hearing and receiving. While I know many are tired of hearing it, it’s apparent the poor quality hay that was harvested and ‘stored’ over much of Ohio in 2011 is now coming back to haunt some of us. In most cases, cows and calves are weak because momma isn’t getting enough energy. And, she’s not getting enough energy because it’s simply not contained in most of our 2011 harvested forage. With weaned calves having the potential to be worth $1000 a head in 2012, we’ve simply got to find a way!

It seems sometimes we struggle with identifying the difference between the total volume of feed we offer a cow, and whether she can actually digest enough nutrients from what she’s offered 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, most of the first cutting hay made in Ohio in 2011 simply isn’t good enough, especially when fed as long stemmed unprocessed forage!

While the wettest year in Ohio’s history (at least over most of the state) was good for abundant forage growth throughout Ohio, it made it impossible for many of us to get hay made in fashion that resulted in quality. Many hayfields were cut in mid June and beyond when the forage was in full bloom or going to seed. And, we 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.

Last winter OSU Extension Educators Jim Skeeles and Rory Lewandowski took an in-depth look at the quality of several samples of Hocking County area hay. What they discovered then was that the average first cutting hay was NOT good enough alone to sustain cows in their last trimester of gestation or beyond.

Most of the forage sample results this year suggest the same thing, if not worse. In order to provide adequate nutrition, the hay samples I’m seeing need to be supplemented with corn or a similar form of energy in order to suffice. In fact, its taking as much as 6 pounds of corn per day be fed to a 1300 pound cow in late gestation to balance a ration sufficiently during third trimester with many of the forages we harvested in 2011.

Going one step further, last year as the group in Hocking County 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 expected to command $2.00 +/- a pound at local auction barns this spring, a little 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 last winter’s 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.