Limit Feeding Cows

Jeff Fisher, Extension Educator; Pike County

The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that the hay supply on farms is the lowest in history. Local and national drought conditions have resulted in the lowest hay production level per acre since 1988. Because of high grain prices, fewer acres are being devoted to hay production, and supplies will continue to be decreased in the foreseeable future. Many livestock producers have been feeding hay since mid-summer and this has resulted in inadequate hay supply and in some cases, reduced cow body condition.

There may be some excess hay inventory on farms, but producers are reluctant to sell until they are comfortably into the next grazing/haying period. The question then is: What options are available to get through the next 60-90 days?

Corn and related by products: grains can be a less expensive source of energy than roughage so we may wish to limit feed diets high in grain. In cow diets, the benefit of limit feeding will be relative to the costs of roughage, concentrates and protein supplements. With corn around $7.25 at local elevators, hay, if available, would have to be purchased around $125/ton to get the same energy value. Distiller’s grains and wet corn gluten feed contain high levels of fiber and may need only mineral supplementation to be limit-fed. Brewer’s grains are available in some areas on a limited basis.

Generally, a diet for cows should contain about 40 percent roughage to maintain rumen function and digestibility of the forage. Steve Loerch, Animal Science professor at OARDC, has conducted studies feeding as much as 12 lbs of whole shelled corn/head/day to cows and limit feed first cutting hay at 4lbs/head/day. A ration can be developed based on the remaining hay supply and calculating the daily usage needed. Cows are basically being moved into a feedlot type situation and will need to be adjusted to the higher concentrate ration, provided mineral supplementation, and provided adequate bunk space.

Cows will not reduce hay intake by themselves. Hay will need to be limit fed by providing access for a limited time or grouping cows so their intake can be matched to the weight of the bale. Consider unrolling hay on a daily basis so all cows have access. Cows may act like they are hungry due to reduced dry matter intake, but nutritional needs can be met.

While there are some increased management and labor inputs into limit feeding, there are also additional benefits besides stretching the hay supply. Increased energy intake will help maintain or improve cow body condition which will result in healthier, higher performing calves this year. More important, better body condition will improve reproductive performance to insure next year’s calf crop. If a contained feeding area is utilized, allowing access late in the evening has been shown to have more cows calving during daylight hours.