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Managing limited hay supplies


Ag Notes

Having a limited hay supply can cause stress, but sound management will allow you to conserve hay without sacrificing animal productivity. Remember that the animals’ nutritional needs should always come first. Here are a few tips to help you figure it out.

Determine your hay needs. If you know the mature weights of your cows, multiply the average weight by three percent and then by the expected number of days you will feed hay. If a cow at a body condition score of five weighs 1,300 pounds, it needs 39 pounds of hay per day. That cow needs about 5,850 pounds of hay for a five-month period. If bales provide 800 pounds of good forage (excluding rot/spoiled hay), you would need 7.3 bales for one cow. Always add 10-20 percent more to cover feeding losses, spoilage and longer feeding periods.

Ideally, you took inventory of your hay in the early winter as hay is cheaper at the start of the winter as opposed to later. Match hay quality to what your animals need. Use limited forage wisely by matching quality to stage of production. Growing and lactating animals have the highest nutritional needs.

As we consider the annual production of a beef cow, nutritionally we tend to break them out to late gestation, early lactation, late lactation and the dry, mid-gestation period. During late gestation, particularly the last 60-75 days before calving, the fetus grows rapidly, increasing the nutrient needs of the cow. Additionally, mammary tissue development and colostrum formation require additional nutrients. Nutritional requirements increase with milk production.

Peak milk production occurs around eight weeks post-calving and corresponds with the highest nutritional needs during the production year. Nutritional needs may decrease after peak as milk production declines. However, some research has shown that cows may sustain high levels of milk production 120 days post-calving. It is important to monitor cow body condition through lactation and make necessary feeding adjustments. Fall calving beef cows may require additional supplementation to support higher milk production levels.

Feed the highest quality forage during lactation to minimize body condition loss and supplementation needs. As you wean cows and milk production ceases, nutritional needs greatly decrease. Dry, nonlactating cows that have weaned 6-8-month-old calves should be in the second trimester of gestation. The nutritional needs to support fetal development at this point is low and corresponds to the lowest nutritional requirements for the production year. Use lower quality forages to conserve higher quality forages for other phases of production.

You can stretch limited hay stores if you can limit the amount of time cows have access to the hay. You can only do this for mature cows that are in the dry, mid-gestational stage of production and are five to six body condition scores. Young and thin cows need additional feed to grow and replenish body stores and should not have their feed limited.

Don’t restrict low-quality forage. Cows will need to consume as much low-quality forage as they can due to the low digestibility and low nutrient concentrations. To do this, separate the herd by age and production as lactating cows, late gestational and young or thin cows.

Reducing feed loss is key. Research demonstrated increased losses when unrolling hay on the ground. Cows trample hay into the mud by walking and laying on it. Defecation and urination will prevent intake as well. If you are using a processor and want to minimize losses, place processed hay in a feeder or bunk rather than on the ground. Hay rings should have sheeting around the bottom to minimize hay losses.

Improved designs that keep bales elevated off the ground while allowing dropped hay to fall within the hay feeder also lower feeding losses. These feeders are more expensive up front but if hay is expensive, they can lower feeding costs. It is important these hay feeders are managed. If hay builds up inside the feeder and the cattle don’t consume the hay due to rot or mold, move the hay ring. If the hay is not of low quality, allow animals to consume the hay that is lying on the ground within the ring before placing a new bale in the feeder. Allowing the hay to build up to the top of the ring/sheeting/tire in these newer designs will increase losses when a new bale is offered as hay will fall out over the edge of the ring or tire. Placing hay rings on a feeding pad can lower losses from hay that falls outside the ring on the ground.

Consider replacing hay with other feedstuffs to supply necessary nutrients. Use caution when restricting hay; the rumen will not be full. Stretch receptors on the rumen will cause cows to eat even though nutritionally, they won’t need to eat. This can lead to  tree and fence damage or even cows getting out looking for something to eat. Giving access to low-quality forage can curb this behavior. You can use corn stover, wheat straw and other low-quality forages.

Typical fescue hay contains 50-54 percent of total digestible nutrients and 7-9 percent protein on a dry matter basis. If you offer one pound of dried distillers grains, the protein is equal to 3-4 pounds of hay, while the energy from the distillers grains would replace 1.75 pounds of hay. For dry, gestating cows, you can use soybean hulls to replace average grass hay at a rate of 1.5 pounds of soyhulls per pound of hay.

Always offer cows at least 8-10 pounds of long-stemmed forage to maintain rumen health and lower the incidence of bloat. Be sure to work with a nutritionist to ensure you are meeting the cows’ nutrient needs and lessening the risk of digestive disorders.

Don’t overlook other nutrients. A beef cow may need 10-20 gallons of water a day. Restricting water availability leads to lower feed intake and reduced milk production. Always provide a high-quality loose mineral to meet mineral and vitamin requirements. Consider supplementing an ionophore such as monensin or lasalocid to improve energy efficiency.

For more information, contact the Boyle County Cooperative Extension Service.

Jerry Little is the County Extension Agent for Agriculture/Natural Resources.