Making fescue work for you

It's a tough-growing plant; let's capitalize on it

Fescue has done its share of the work to hold soil on Midwest hills. And it’s also knocked some hair off a cow or two over the years. We tend to abuse fescue through grazing and then curse it for lacking the nutrients our cattle need to gain.

But, tall fescue has plant characteristics and nutritive value similar to those of other cool season perennial grasses like orchardgrass and bromegrass. So we’d figure ruminants eating fescue would perform about the same as if they were on the other grasses. In fact, vegetative cool-season grasses have energy and protein levels that would be expected to support splendid animal performance. Yet, when you see the cows in the pond in high summer, and when you dig through research reports and look at field results, it becomes most apparent that animal performance on fescue can swing from being good to being pitiful.

Looking at the equations to predict beef performance on very high quality fescue, (say 14 to 15 percent protein on a dry matter basis with net energy of gain about 40 and NDF in the low 40s), we would figure this type of forage should deliver somewhere around 2 pounds per head of average daily gain to unsupplemented stocker calves. Then we turn them out and they gain something south of zero. They actually lose weight, which is akin to debt in that there is a way to be worse off than broke.

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Put weight on cows this summer

Body scoring cows during summer can help plan for winter

If you follow a body condition scoring system—evaluating the cows to keep them in good flesh—you can likely keep a healthier and more easily bred herd. But if you’re behind now (say you’re looking at a cow that calved with a BCS less than 5), you’ll have a hard time getting her bred, even if pastures are in good shape. If that’s the case, preg-checking cows this fall will be crucial.

On thinner cows, you need to start working them into adequate flesh now—a BCS of 5 or better. We often see the summer as a time to let cows slide—they can eat all they want and there’s no real reason to check on them every day. I have noticed that since I’ve been in Missouri, I’ve probably seen as many instances of feeding hay in the late summer as I do of seeing hay being fed in the winter. That means there is an understanding here that it is important to keep cows on the BCS wagon, if she gets off, her survivability will decline.

The first thing in the process of keeping cows in the right body condition is to understand where you’re at with your herd.

“I am here” and “the cows eat all they want,” are both accurate statements—just not very satisfactory.

You need to evaluate forages: what is the pasture condition, fertility and weed pressure. The MFA agronomy group is tremendously helpful with fertility and weed control recommendations. You can call on them for answers.

By mid- to late-summer, the expected maturity of fescue has resulted in a forage base that is both protein and energy low. Forage availability may also be compromised. This situation will be more troublesome if you calved late, and your breeding season has crept into the summer. If the cows are thin, and still need to get bred, the way you supplement cows becomes paramount.

As the summer wears on, I would expect to supplement protein, maybe not to the extent that I would on an older stockpiled pasture, but I would check and see if the cows will respond to protein. When pasture grasses have become overly mature, a protein supplement is very helpful.

Supplying supplemental protein helps in a couple of areas. First, it supplies protein to the rumen bacteria. This increases bacterial growth and reproduction, and it aids in rumen breakdown of forages, which increases the nutrient yield from mature plant material. This increases energy intake and availability. It leads to increased cow weight gain.

Second, it increases the actual protein available for absorption by the cow. Additionally increasing availability and uptake of protein and energy levels will improve cow reproductive function.

If forage availability is good (i.e. you have plenty of grass, but it is mature as discussed before) a couple of pounds of a supplement is called for. Good choices would be handfeeding Trendsetter or 20-percent cubes, offering MFA Salt mix No. 1 or using 20-percent protein tubs. Any of these products could help meet the cow’s protein and energy requirements.

While on pasture, cows might be able to achieve their energy and protein needs, but it will be impossible for them to meet all their mineral and trace mineral needs. A quality, loose, free-choice mineral such as MFA Fescue Equalizer or Super 10 is always needed. Your mineral should be matched to your forage base and kept available at all times.

In many cases a cow herd will come into summer and gain weight through mid season but subsequently lose some of these gains. In other words much of the ground gained earlier in the spring and summer is lost by late July and August. If cattle are managed to gain and maintain weight through the summer and into the fall, they enter the winter in better condition. That means there’s a chance you’ll need less supplemental feed through the winter to maintain condition and performance. Think of it as a summer savings plan that pays you dividends in the coming winter.

Dr. Jim White is ruminant nutritionist for MFA Incorporated.

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Benefits of MFA Health Track

And other cattle marketing thoughts

I was just looking at the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s Weekly Market Summary as a reference point for this article and noticed a couple of very important things. Cull cows are bringing up to $70 per hundredweight and slaughter bulls are bringing as much as $85 per hundredweight. I also just saw that the percentage of heifers placed in feed yards in April was the second highest for any month since they have been keeping track.

Here’s what I get out of that: The U.S. cow herd is not going to grow in the foreseeable future, and the shortages of lean trim and feeder cattle are going to continue. Add that to a hungry, growing world population, and it surely adds up to a positive future for U.S. production agriculture. MFA is committed to be a part of that future. One of the ways we do that is through programs like the MFA Health Track program.

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Haven’t we been here before?

Farmers in the squeeze between expenses and returns

Some 45 years ago, MFA president Fred Heinkel was pondering how his farmers could navigate increasing input prices without increased commodity prices. Of course, back then, the U.S. average corn price was $1.16, and the world commodity trade was a different landscape. From the nation’s technocrats and planners, there was a call for increased farm production. Government was for pushing for increased production for different reasons back then, but it brings to mind our nation’s urge to increase biofuels today.

Heinkel’s ruminations were cogent. As price takers, farmers have real control on either side of their ledger. He titled his editorial “The Farmer’s Dilemma,” which, it turns out,

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