Strategies to deal with forage shortage

Hay season ended early for many cattle producers in MFA country this year, mainly because there wasn’t much of it to cut. Cold, dry weather didn’t provide the spring growth cattlemen needed, and May was the hottest on record for Missouri. Compounding this year’s forage shortage, long-term precipitation deficits going back to summer of 2017 have made the hay supply situation even worse.

There are several means of addressing the situation. One is to bring in hay. While very effective, this can be difficult due to supply and availability issues. Reducing forage requirements and improving forage utilization are more viable options.

Reduce forage requirements

First, consider culling animals. If culling is inevitable, don’t put it off. Delaying the sale of at least part of the cattle inventory further reduces forage supply and potentially exposes you to greater market risk if the drought persists.

Wean calves early. Many dairy replacements are taken off milk or milk replacer at 1 month old, which is a bit young, but 60-90 days of age is certainly an effective solution. Weaning greatly reduces the cow’s energy requirement and helps her keep body condition, which means she is more likely to get bred. If you’re relying on pasture to put weight on cows, hold the quality pasture for calves. A better option is to put them in a yard and feed them. A calf under 400 pounds has a tough time gaining 2 pounds a day exclusively on forage, and putting the calves in a lot will further stretch forage for the cows. Small calves have excellent feed conversions. We routinely see feed conversions of 3.8 to 4 on calves fed MFA Cattle Charge or Full Throttle.

To reduce forage requirements, you can also feed concentrate to replace total digestible nutrients (TDN) and protein as well as provide adequate vitamin and mineral fortification. Feeding 6 to 7 pounds of forage extender cubes/pellets will replace 10 pounds of hay. I recommend MFA Forage Extender Cubes to help stretch forage supplies. A limit-fed concentrate program means cows are always happy to see you.

Consider tactics of maintaining the body condition score (BCS) of cows. The winter months are the most expensive time to put body condition on cows. Cows are not going to gain weight just after they calve and most likely not until they get adequate spring grass. Keeping cows in a BCS of more than 5 and heifers above 5.5 will allow them to use fewer total calories.

Improve forage utilization

Treating low-quality forages with oxides, such as ammonia and calcium oxide, improves fiber digestibility and energy value. The ammonia treatment raises the crude protein equivalent. Keep in mind, there are handling issues when oxide-treating forages, so be sure to know what you are doing before you start.

Start feeding hay and/or supplements before pastures become too short. This will stretch pasture forages, reduce the incidence of overgrazing and ensure that cows do not become thin before winter. Lower-quality hay could be fed now and pastures grazed during late fall and early winter, assuming we get some moisture to stimulate fall regrowth. But as we know, in the Midwest, a normal August is hot and dry.

To improve forage utilization and harvest efficiency, strip graze or rotationally graze pastures. Likewise, feeding a total mixed ration in a yard improves harvest efficiency.

Feed a balanced supplement, making sure you don’t overfeed starch, protein, etc. 

Provide an ionophore such as MFA 14% Stock Grower BT or Super Beef Supplement with Rumensin. The higher the energy of the feed, the bigger the response to using an ionophore. On a rough forage base, the best rate of Rumensin might be 100 milligrams per head per day for brood cows. On an all-they-can-eat, 200-bushel-per-acre corn silage buffet, they will take 300 milligrams per day and think it is a good start.

The National Drought Mitigation Center’s long-term and short-term drought models are online at If you’re looking for ways to stretch your forage supplies, talk with your MFA feed specialist about recommendations for your farm.

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