The other day, I was having lunch with some buddies who happened to all have cow herds. We got to talking about feeding cows. I will refer to them as A, B, and C to protect the guilty and to allow me to steal their good ideas. There is no such thing as a free lunch, comrades.
Here is how I remember it.
Me: Say, when do you determine your winter feed and forage inventory supply compared to your cows’ winter feed needs?
A: Usually about when I start to feed hay.
B: I look at cow BCS at weaning, determine if the cows are thin or not, and count bales between football games on Thanksgiving day. It gets me out of the house, which is full of in-laws.
C: I am constantly monitoring both, I try to maintain cow BCS at a 5 to 6.
Me: So, when do you cull cows?
A: When they do not raise a calf.
B: If they are open, aged and unsound. Or, if they have a bad disposition—these get culled at weaning.
C: Cows are culled when they are found to be below average in production, or if they are unsound or wild. If they are candidates for feeding, they are fed high-energy diets for 90 days and sold as white-fat cows. I have wondered about if I should establish an “old-cow rest home” for older thin cows to go to, get fed hard and pushed toward white-fat cows. It doesn’t make any economic sense to sell a thin cow.
Me: I suppose that you do stockpile winter forages. So, briefly, how do you manage the stockpiled forage?
A: Let the cows run—they will eat the leaves and better forage and leave the stems.
B: They get a field at a time, depending on where the water is.
C: I strip graze the swards. Electric fence is a wonderful thing.
Me: When do you determine what you are going to feed and how much you are going to feed?
A: They eat all they want, or all they can. They’ll be alright; they are cows.
B: Around Thanksgiving I estimate about what they are going to need, then feed them to that level.
C: I compare all available forages and feeds. I am not going to feed them more than they need, but I am going to make certain that they get what they need. They will not get 5 pounds of Super Cubes a day if forage quality and availability is such that their requirements are met with feeding 2 pounds of Breeder cubes.
Me: How do you decide which hay to feed when?
A: They get the hay I can get to.
B: We feed the lowest quality to animals in mid-gestation and save the best material for feeding when they start to calve. There are discussions that we might be better served by feeding hay before grazing stockpiled fescue. The fescue holds its nutrient value fairly well, and as it ages the alkaloid level drops off. It is a hurdle for me to get over to decide to feed hay when there is adequate forage standing available.
C: We test all the lots and allocate according to the animal’s nutrient needs. If the hay is dairy quality, we will sell it or use it to pull up the energy and protein in growing rations.
Me: What are ways to limit waste of the hay that is fed?
A: Don’t feed more than they will eat in an hour, and unroll the round bales.
B: Use a bale feeder, especially one that reduces waste, such as an inverted cone.
C: The same thing our buddies mentioned, plus grind the hay and feed in bunks or as a TMR. It cuts waste percentages.
Me: How do you store your hay?
A: Out at the fencerow.
B: Net wrapped, in rows four feet apart; I try to tarp them when I can.
C: In a shed, and the base is rock, not dirt.
Me: Do you test your forages?
A: No, they are going to eat it anyway. I have yet to have a cow ask me “has this hay been tested?”
B: Sometimes I get a forage analysis, but certainly “yes” if my friendly nutritionist is going to pay for it.
C: Yes, my friendly nutritionist can make better recommendations with the feeds having been tested. I’m not real good at guessing, and if I thought the hay was 10 percent protein, but it was really 13 percent, the extra 3 percent is not free. I’d be wasting it by not adjusting for it.
Me: Do you separate your cows?
B: I split the young cows from the older cows.
C: We separate them into groups based on age, stage of production and BCS.
It would have been bad table manners to inquire about profits and loss. But you can see which of my buddies spends the most time on his herd. And you can guess, I bet, the one who is best paid for his time and labor. That’s something to think about as the winter finishes out and you look at next year’s hay crop.
Dr. Jim White is ruminant nutritionist for MFA Incorporated.