Weather extremes seem to characterize what is now a “normal” growing season, and 2018 was a year when nearly every region in the U.S. experienced excessive rainfall, scorching drought, or both.
Such extremes in weather also lead to large variations in forage quality. This fact was recently highlighted by forage and animal scientists at the University of Georgia in an extension fact sheet released last week.
The Southeast was one of those regions that received an abundance of rain from May through July. This resulted in a plethora of low-quality forage being made and most likely soon to be fed during the upcoming winter. Looking at forage quality tests from a couple of forage testing labs in their state, the Georgia specialists cited hay quality values as low as 3 percent crude protein (CP) and 34 percent total digestible nutrients (TDN).
Most of the bermudagrass grass samples received by the labs were sufficient to meet the basic needs of a dry cow in mid-gestation, but would come up short in fulfilling the nutritional requirements of a cow in late gestation or one that is lactating. The below-average hay also falls short for growing calves and breeding-age heifers.
To mitigate the issues associated with feeding poor-quality hay this winter to beef cattle, the Georgia specialists suggest that cattlemen heed the following list of recommendations.
- Know your resources.
Obtaining an accurate forage test on stored hay is perhaps the most important step. It’s impossible to formulate a diet without knowing the nutrient profile of the hay being fed. Along with knowing forage quality, it is also important to determine what supplement options are available and at what price. The final goal is to develop a feeding regime that is both nutritionally and economically sound.
- Monitor body condition.
Maintain cows at a body condition score (BCS) of 5 or greater. This is critical to realize acceptable conception rates and calving intervals. Brood cows with a BCS of 5 or greater are better able to withstand winter weather extremes or short-term nutritional deficits. To recover a cow’s BCS from 4 to 5 requires a ration with 9 percent higher TDN above the maintenance requirement for about 70 days.
- Don’t use additives that boost the intake of poor-quality hay.
If forage quality is exceptionally low, higher feed intakes of hay that is mostly indigestible will raise the risk of an impacted digestive tract, possibly leading to death. Cattle can actually starve to death on a full stomach of indigestible, poor-quality hay.
- Consider grain or by-product-based supplements.
Fiber-based energy supplements are often a better choice than liquid feeds or protein blocks when also feeding low-quality hay. Supplements such as soybean hulls, corn gluten feed, distillers grains, citrus pulp, and whole cottonseed are preferable to those supplements with high levels of starch (corn or oats) or simple sugars (molasses). The fiber-based supplements will help to maintain a more favorable rumen environment and in many cases they are more cost effective.
- Use winter annuals judiciously.
When hay quality is low, there is the temptation to overgraze winter annuals. If winter grazing pastures are available but not at a quantity sufficient to sustain the herd, consider limit grazing the winter annuals for only a few hours per day. Though this may not be enough to completely meet nutrient requirements, the addition of winter grazing to the diet will help to prevent digestive impaction issues and will improve the ruminal fermentation of both forage sources.
- Don’t background calves on poor-quality hay.
Though backgrounded calves often generate a premium price over weaned calves, this advantage is lost if the excessive supplement costs needed when feeding low-quality hay more than offset the higher market price. In this situation, it’s often more profitable to sell calves shortly after weaning unless higher quality hay is available for feeding.