It pays to know your hay
A forage test is necessary to determine supplement needs
Unless you are my spouse, spending money isn’t always fun. But sometimes, spending some money now can help you save more in the future. This is true when it comes to the cost of testing stored forages such as hay and silage. A good forage test will cost around $40 to $160 but is worth it in the long run.
Why should you bother having a hay test done? Because if you don’t know what you are feeding, you are guessing, and it is very likely that you will guess wrong.
It is valuable to know the quality of your forage. Of course you should visually inspect the hay for mold, foreign objects and weeds, but in order to really determine hay’s quality, send a sample to the lab. Hay quality really can’t be determined just from looking at it. Often, hay that doesn’t look so good may actually test rather well, while hay that looks outstanding can test low.
One possible result of feeding low quality of hay is that you watch cows munch away and lose body condition until it’s time to rescue them with supplements. I’ve seen it often: if you don’t know the quality of your hay, it is very easy to make costly/money wasting feeding and supplementation decisions.
On the other side, knowing forage quality can help you prevent over-supplementing. It is expensive to supplement more than necessary. In certain instances, especially in dry cows, hay may be enough to meet protein and energy requirements. In other instances, it may be sufficient to supplement by feeding 2 pounds of a 20-percent cube per day. For example, let’s say the hay looks questionable, but is good enough quality to allow supplementing with MFA Breeder cubes that come in at about $0.45 per head per day. That could keep the cow in the same condition as feeding 3 or 4 pounds a day of MFA Super Cattle Cubes costing about $0.64 to $0.85 pounds per day. The savings achieved from reducing supplement needed per day can quickly add up and can be substantial. But you can’t be sure without the hay test, and it’s your herd’s fertility on the line.
Indeed, knowing forage quality can help you prevent reductions in performance. If the hay is of lower quality than anticipated, and not enough supplement is fed, problems may arise. If feed quality is not good enough to achieve or maintain desired body condition scores, pregnancy rates will decrease. A forage test will give you the information you need to know to prevent this. While it will cost more to supplement the appropriate amount if hay quality is found to be lower than expected, the extra cost in supplement is economically much better than having dramatically fewer calves next year.
People sometimes dismiss the need to test forage quality because they are planning on feeding it all anyway. Even if you’re planning on feeding all your hay, it is still beneficial to know the quality of it. If the quality of hay is unknown, you may end up feeding your best hay to dry cows. If you do, it can cost you. And, it may be difficult to supplement the lactating cows enough to make up for the remaining lower-quality hay. Matching hay quality to animal requirements will reduce the cost of supplementing.
To aid in making cost-efficient decisions, hay should be sampled and analyzed properly. Each load or cutting of hay should be tested. To sample, use a forage probe and collect samples from at least a 10th of the bales in the load. These samples can then be combined and sent to the lab.
A common mistake is only being interested in the protein content of sampled hay. However, protein content is only slightly correlated with energy content. For example, hay that is rained on when it is in the windrow will often have higher protein concentrations than non-rained on hay, because some highly digestible soluble carbohydrates are washed out of it. Protein is not the only measure you should look for. At the very least, forages should be tested to determine crude protein, and to get a good estimate of energy, TDN. Crude protein is straightforward to measure and results typically are consistent between labs. In contrast, TDN is not directly measurable and the equations used to calculate it and the methods for fiber used to get the fiber values will differ by labs. The energy values are calculated from principally the fiber values: acid detergent, neutral detergent—but the fat, non-fiber carbohydrates and protein contents also influence energy values.
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