Fall Forage; Surpluses and Shortages

Published on Mon, 08/26/2019 - 11:22am

 Fall Forage; Surpluses and Shortages

 By Michael Cox

 Forage supplies across the nation are trending towards larger variations than normal between surplus and shortages of winter feed stocks. The challenging weather patterns that hit most of the country throughout Spring with large amounts of rain, followed by variable rains throughout summer across regions has posed challenges to putting up good quality winter feed. With hay stocks brought over from last year almost non-existent, many extension offices are recommending producers take account of their feed inventory now and assess whether they are in the green or the red facing into wintertime. With no ‘cushion’ carried over from last winter, many producers find themselves deep in the red, while producers that caught summer rains have replenished their reserves, and then some. Both scenarios can pose different opportunities and challenges to profitability of the business.

The saying goes that, ‘What’s not measured can’t be managed’ so the first recommended step is to figure out what the feed demand will be on the ranch this winter. Animal numbers, tons of feed on hand and feed quality will be needed to calculate the amount of feed needed by the herd.
General rules of thumb assume that cows will eat between 1.8% and 2.8% of body weight in the form of dry matter intake, depending on stage of lactation and environmental conditions. It is important to calculate feed supply and demand on a dry matter basis first, and then calculate on as ‘as-fed’ or ‘fresh-weight’ basis depending on what type of feed is being offered. For example, lush winter wheat will have much lower dry matter than dry hay or silage. However not all intakes are created equal; 2.5% of bodyweight of poor-quality hay is not the same as 2.5% of bodyweight of high-quality wraps. Indeed, intake on good quality feed is often at the upper end of the scale, as the nutritious forage is more easily broken down in the rumen and has a faster passage rate through the digestive system, whereas as high lignin, poor quality stemmy feed will allow the cows to feel ‘fuller’ for longer, but the slow passage rate of digestion may not be meeting the energy demands of the animal. Observing cows before feeding when they look ‘empty’ can highlight any changes in body condition score throughout the feeding period. Sometimes it can be tricky to assess body condition score accurately when cows are after a full feed of forage and have good rumen fill.

Another general rule of thumb is that a lactating cow requires 50% more energy than an equivalent sized dry cow. The best quality feed should be identified and budgeted separately for lactating and younger cow groups.
Wastage must also be factored into consideration. Even when bales are fed in ring feeders, which allows excellent utilization, there is still often 10% or more of the feed wasted. So, if we assume that a bale of dry hay is 90% dry matter and 10% of that dry matter will be wasted, we can quickly see how cows can be underfed if these allowances are not accounted for. If bales are fed-out across a pasture, wastage rates will be significantly higher, typically 40% wastage or higher.

Planning for progress
Producers should also think back to how the herd has come out of winter in previous years. Have you been happy with cow condition in Springtime? Have you been happy with how heifers and young cows handled winter? Did you separate cows into age and lactation groups during winter and preferentially feed to higher demand animals? What about the poorest 10% of the herd; did you take remedial action at any stage and separate these lighter animals into a different mob for ad-lib feeding? Taking note of last years shortcomings can be beneficial to budgeting into this year’s plans. Once a plan has been put in place with provisions for severe weather events and carrying a little extra in reserve, producers will be in a good position to make decisions on buying or selling feed this Fall.