Plant food helps produce more feed

What do you see when you look at a forage stand? A source of livestock feed or a commodity to be sold? The more forage you have, the more cattle you can feed. Fertilizer is a principal input cost for a forage crop. There are no substitutes or shortcuts for providing adequate nutrients. Cutting back on fertilizer will likely cost more over the long run because of decreased yields and stand longevity.

When you add up all the pas­ture, grass hay, alfalfa, corn and sorghum-sudan silages, millets and grazing small grains, forages account for the most acreage of any U.S. crop, yet they continue to be neglected when it comes to fertiliza­tion. The majority of grazing lands receive no fertilizer of any kind. The resulting low forage yield and daily rate of gain are widely accepted on land with low perceived value.

It is good to look for ways to reduce fertilizer costs, but it’s all about efficiency of production. Indiscriminate reductions in fertil­izer will likely lead to reductions in yield and an increase in the unit cost of hay. Cutting costs in forage production should be done in a way that has minimal impact on forage yield.

Make the investment in fertilizer more efficient by using soil test re­sults. If you do not soil sample and apply fertilizer and/or lime based on the results of those tests, it is likely that the appropriate amount is not being applied. If nutrients are under-applied, the result is forage yield below its potential. If over-ap­plied, then costs were incurred that won’t produce a positive response. Few other practices in forage pro­duction can improve the profitabili­ty more than soil testing and follow­ing fertility recommendations.

Apply fertilizer to fields where soil test values indicate an economic response and where the soil pH is in the optimum range. If the soil pH is too high or too low, you won’t get a good return on investment. Rather, first focus on adjusting the soil pH in those fields. If the pH drifts much below 6 or much above 7, the availability of some nutrients in the soil will decrease. For exam­ple, a pH difference of 5.6 versus 6.2 can effectively reduce the value of nitrogen fertilizer by as much as 35 percent, phosphorus by as much as 50 percent and potassium by as much as 10 percent.

Lime is a key ingredient to im­proving soil fertility. Since water is required for lime to react with the soil, effects of a lime application will be slower in dry conditions. It often takes six months to a year before a response can be measured, even under perfect circumstances. However, a response may be ob­served within weeks of application when soil pH is extremely low. In areas where needed, it is important to apply lime immediately after the growing season or crop removal to allow it to react and correct soil pH before the next growing season.

Nitrogen is usually the most limiting element in forage produc­tion. This major nutrient is involved in chlorophyll development for photosynthetic activities, yield and forage quality. Nitrogen, however, requires some timing and proper manipulations to get good yields and reduce losses. Splitting N applications will reduce the risk of leaching, volatilization and nitrate toxicity.

Nitrogen-use efficiency can be significantly increased by phospho­rus fertilization. Optimal soil phos­phorus level should be between 30-40 ppm. If the P level is low, it could allow only 40-60 percent of total hay production. In the spring, P is a crucial nutrient in promoting the development of new roots and tillering. Phosphorous can be ap­plied to a hay field any time of year since it is very stable and available to the plant when needed. When fertilizing annual crops, however, P should be applied before planting. Avoid spreading phosphorus fer­tilizer when there is risk of runoff, which is the primary way this nutri­ent is lost from soils.

Potassium allows plants to survive in cold weather and sustain produc­tivity during drought. It is involved in many metabolic processes in the plant. There is a very low environ­mental risk with K applications. The major inefficient use of K is a phenomenon called “luxury con­sumption,” in which forage crops take up more K than required for optimum growth. To avoid this, K should be applied in two or more split applications during the hay season. The environmental risk posed by K is low, but care must be taken to ensure it is used efficiently.

Yes, fertilizer can be expensive, but it’s still a bargain when com­pared to dragging down yield and the cost of renovating perennial forage stands. Proper plant food applications will pay off in extra forage and feed for your livestock

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Group newborn calves by age to lower disease risk

The health and well-being of the nursing calf starts before birth with the health and nutritional status of its mother. Nutrient needs of the cow increase during the last trimester of gestation and, by the last month prior to calving, the fetus is gaining approximately 1 pound per day.

In addition to this late-term fetal growth, the cow is preparing for lactation. Research has shown cows that are thin (less than 4 body condition score) have a decreased concentration of immunoglobulins in colostrum compared to cows in a body condition score of 5 to 6. Calves born to very thin cows may be weak and slow to nurse, reduc­ing the colostrum they consume and making them more susceptible to disease.

The newborn calf needs a healthy mother and a clean environment. Manure and mud provide an ideal environment for disease-causing bacteria and viruses. Early in the calving season, calves are exposed to these pathogens and often devel­op minor, undetectable infections. These young calves amplify the pathogen load in the environment faster than adult cattle do.

As the calving season progresses, newborn calves are challenged with increasingly higher levels of patho­gens. Infection with high doses of bacteria or viruses combined with other risk factors such as over­crowding, temperature extremes and precipitation can quickly overwhelm calves’ defenses. Scours may develop. Long calving seasons further exacerbate the situation by providing a steady supply of new calves susceptible to infection over a long period of time.

Segregating cow-calf pairs by age of the calf has helped reduce the incidence of scours outbreaks. Older calves tend to infect younger calves. The Sandhills Calving Sys­tem, developed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a system that utilizes a series of calving pastures to minimize newborn calves’ contact with disease agents. Named after the Sandhills area of north-central Ne­braska where it was tested, the sys­tem prevents direct contact between younger calves and older calves and keeps later-born calves from being exposed to an accumulation of pathogens in the environment. The idea is to minimize both the disease load and newborns’ exposure to the disease agents until their immune systems have sufficiently matured to better withstand them.

Key components of the system are age-segregation of calves and the frequent movement—every seven to 10 days—of pregnant cows to clean calving pastures. Every 10 days, or whenever 100 calves are born, the herd is divided by sorting cows that had not calved from the cow-calf pairs of the preceding group. In this manner, fewer cattle groups are required, although the num­ber of calves within any pasture group never exceeds 100, and all calves within a group are within 10 days of age of each other. After the youngest calves are 4 weeks old, all calves can be commingled.

The timing and the amount of colostrum consumption is also critical for the health of newborns. Ideally, calves need to stand and nurse within the first few hours to maximize antibody absorption and immunity. The best-case scenario occurs when a cow in good body condition gives birth to a vigor­ous calf in a clean environment, promptly stimulates the calf by licking it clean and the calf quickly nurses a large colostrum meal.

That first meal triggers a se­quence of gut changes. To protect the calf from pathogens, the gut begins to “close” (loses its ability to take contents directly into the blood) as soon as food is introduced to the intestinal tract. As a result, fewer and fewer antibodies can be absorbed from each subsequent meal until gut closure is complete.

If a calf has nothing to eat, it can still absorb some antibodies at 24 hours, but if the calf consumes anything, gut closure begins imme­diately. “Anything” can be a dose of colostrum that is too small, milk replacer or debris nursed from a dirty udder or environment. Bacte­ria nursed from a dirty environment can be directly absorbed into the blood and cause disease.

Disease transmission is less likely if colostrum from within the herd is used. Commercial colostrum replacers are also effective and come from carefully tested herds. These products must be mixed carefully according directions. Feeding co­lostrum banked from neighboring herds can be effective but could increase the risk of introducing diseases. Colostrum supplements are relatively safe in terms of disease transmission but typically do not contain a high enough concen­tration of antibodies to guarantee adequate passive transfer. Visit with your local veterinarian when con­sidering these options.

More from this March Today's Farmer Magazine Issue HERE .

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Spring forage management

For pasture and hay producers, spring can be the busiest and most important season in determining this year’s plans for sustainable and profitable production. The key ingredients to your spring forage management are fertilization and weed control.

Spring growth sets the stage for your overall forage production, and applying the right amount of plant nutrients at the right time is critical. Nitrogen will boost grasses at green-up, but applications can be risky in the spring no matter what type of forage you are raising. Will it be too dry or too wet at application time? After application, will we receive rain and how much will we get? It’s hard to make decisions around these factors.

One way to manage your risk is to use nitrogen stabilizers. Products such as SuperU and Agrotain are good tools to minimize losses any time you apply nitrogen.

Soil testing should always be part of your program. Without knowing what we have, it is hard to plan for the future. MFA can handle your sampling needs with either grid or composite samples. If you are looking at increasing your stocking rates, a grid sample program will help put you on track to a profitable future.

Weed control is essential to good pasture management. Weeds compete with desirable plants. They’re generally low in feed quality, and some can be toxic to livestock. Identify and plan a control program best for your farming practice. There are many herbicides available for use on grass. This list is not exhaustive, but does include most of the frequently used products:

GrazonNext HL: This potent broadleaf weed killer is my top choice for general weed control in pastures and hay ground. No license is required to buy or use it. It is safe to use on all grasses. There are no grazing restrictions, and it has 45-90 days of residual activity.

Chaparral: This is the strongest broadleaf weed control available and has the longest list of controlled weeds. No license is required to buy or use it. Fescue is sensitive to this product, but it will recover soon after application. Chaparral has 45-90 days of residual activity. This is a dry product that mixes easily with water. It’s safe to use on all grasses, keeping the caution about fescue in mind, and there are no grazing restrictions.

Graslan L: This broadleaf herbicide is a high-load version of Grazon P+D. It requires a license. Brome is sensitive to this product, and it’s toxic to fish. Leave a buffer strip of 40 feet when approaching any waterway, pond or lake. It’s safe to use on all grasses, with the caution about brome in mind. This is the first year for Graslan L, which will replace Grazon P+D.

Remedy Ultra: This potent broadleaf herbicide also controls certain woody plants. It is often tank-mixed with a Grazon product or Tordon 22K for more broad-spectrum control. No license is required. Remedy Ultra is toxic to fish. Leave a buffer strip of 40 feet when approaching any waterway, pond or lake. It has little to no residual activity and is safe to use on all grasses.

PastureGard HL: This should be your “go to” product for fencerow and spot treatments of brush. This potent broadleaf herbicide and brush killer may cost more per gallon than similar products, but it costs less per acre. There is no license required. PastureGard HL is toxic to fish. Leave a buffer strip of 40 feet when spraying near any waterway, pond or lake. It has very little or no residual activity and is safe for use on all grasses.

Tordon 22K: This potent brush herbicide is effective on many species and controls a large number of broadleaf weeds. It requires a license to buy or use it. Use caution when spraying near any body of water. Tordon 22K has 45-90 days of residual activity and is safe for use on all grasses, although it can stunt brome.

Tordon RTU: This ready-to-use product is primarily a cut-stump treatment. Do not dilute. Tordon RTU does a good job of killing the root system and preventing resprouting of most tree species. There are no grazing restrictions for cut-stump treatments using Tordon RTU.

Here are a few other points to consider:

  1. Always read and follow the herbicide label. It trumps anything I’ve written.
  2. Be sure the weeds you want to control are on the label of the product you are using.
  3. Always use Astute or Astute Extra at 1 quart per 100 gallons. This is your “spreader/sticker,” and its use is as important as using the right herbicide.
  4. Spray when the wind is 3-10 miles per hour to avoid unwanted movement via drift.
  5. Spray when weeds are small for best control.
  6. Spray brush that has at least 18 months of growth.
  7. With brush control, don’t bush hog until they are all dead. Bush hogging too early is like starting over.
  8. Consult your local MFA agronomists. They can provide valuable insight to increase your success.

Check MFA’s Agronomy Guide for grazing restrictions and more information. If you have questions, feel free to contact me. I’m the new range and pasture specialist for MFA, taking over for David Moore who has accepted a different position with the company. My wife and I operate a small cattle farm in southwest Missouri, and I have worked for the past 17 years at the Lamar MFA Agri Services location.

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Adding clovers now can benefit pastures later

Legumes increase yield, improve quality of grass-based forage systems   

This is the time of year when legumes, such as red clover and white clover, can be frost-seeded into pastures by broadcasting seeds over the frozen ground. This no-till method works seeds into the soil as it freezes and thaws during the transition between winter and spring.

Fields sown with clovers now will produce high-quality forage for livestock producers in summer. Adding legumes to grazing pastures can improve animal performance, soil health and forage production. The legumes will increase the yield and protein of the forage while fixing nitrogen.

In a well-managed rotational grazing system, the forage supply should be monitored closely and adjusted to the appropriate stocking rate during specific times. Controlled grazing is an important factor to improve utilization.
In this regard, electric fence is a wonderful thing. Here are some suggestions for success:

Choose a species based on traits
Not all clovers are the same. The type of clover used should be determined by what type of livestock you plan on grazing, your soil type and your environment. Concentrate on the quality and traits certain species offer and match them to your situation.

Monitor dry matter production instead of just plant height
Recommended pasture heights should be 4 to 5 inches for cattle, and rotational grazing systems should also focus on pasture mass. For sheep, the height can be shorter. At least 2½ to 3 inches for sheep will achieve maximum feed intake. This corresponds to around 1,350 to 1,800 pounds of dry matter per acre.
The target pasture mass before grazing correlates with the target post-grazing residual mass and rotation length. This varies by the season and livestock. In seasonally calving dairy operations, target pasture cover for dry cows is recommended to be in the range of 1,800 to 2,200 pounds dry matter per acre and generally in the range of 2,500 to 2,700 pounds of dry matter per acre for wet cows.

Give plants a rest
When plants are grazed too short, two things happen. First, the plant’s energy reserves are depleted, increasing the timeframe for a pasture to recover. So what may have been a 30-day rest period could extend to 40 days. Second, plants are less resilient and more susceptible to drought and cold weather. The rate at which livestock can effectively graze pastures also needs to be considered. Cattle have a tough time eating enough dry matter if the pastures are shorter than 2 inches.
Grasses accumulate carbohydrates in their bases and generally can be grazed closely as long as they are given enough time to recover. The recovery period is also related to rotation length, which is generally driven by the leaf appearance rate and fully expanded leaf numbers. If the plants are defoliated before recovery is complete, lack of energy will result in slower regrowth, prolonging the recovery period and eventually leading to plant death.

Time grazing when plants are at their highest nutritional value
To make the most out of a rotational grazing system, producers need to graze the regrowth when forage is at its optimum fiber, energy and crude protein contents.
There is substantial variation in the forage due to moisture, temperatures and individual pastures. Grazing management must consider needs such as pasture cover targets, feed demand requirements and pasture quality. The leaf stage of the grasses has been used as an effective indicator of when a pasture is ready to graze. As an example, in spring, perennial ryegrass produces a fully expanded leaf every eight to 10 days with a lifespan of three to four weeks. The best time to graze ryegrass pastures is at the three-leaf stage. Increasing rotation length to graze pastures after the three-leaf stage reduces pasture quality as older leaves begin to deteriorate. Grazing pastures repeatedly at the two-leaf stage will decrease forage yield and animal production.

Use clovers to increase feed intake
Forage intake of grazing animals can be restricted by the high moisture and fiber contents of the forage. High legume content in pastures is desirable for greater forage intake and animal performance. Legumes have a higher nutritive value than grasses. At the same stage of maturity they will have lower fiber concentrations, more energy and higher protein than grasses.

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Less stress helps cattle weather winter

Winter came early this year. We can expect the rest of this season to be cold; cold and wet; cold, wet and windy. While beef cattle can tolerate winter conditions pretty well, cold stress will negatively affect animal health, welfare, performance and production.

If cows are thinner than usual going into winter, they are more susceptible to cold stress. Consider sorting cows by body condition. Smaller cows, young cows and thin cows all benefit from a higher-den­sity ration, reduced competition and improved protection from the elements.

During cold conditions, cattle re­quire extra energy to regulate body temperature and maintain body condition. The colder the tempera­ture, the more nutrition the animals will need. The thermoneutral zone is the temperature range in which animals do not have to expend en­ergy to maintain body temperature.

The lower critical temperature (LCT) is the lower limit of the thermoneutral zone. Temperatures below the LCT require animals to use energy to produce heat for regu­lating body temperature. To survive, cattle must maintain basal metabol­ic function and core body tempera­ture. If necessary, they will burn stored energy reserves to meet these needs. Thus, to maintain body con­dition, cattle must receive enough daily energy to maintain body temperature in addition to the en­ergy required to meet maintenance requirements. For each degree of cold stress below the LCT, cattle require approximately 0.7 percent more energy just to maintain body condition. (I use 1 percent rather than 0.7 percent because it makes the math easier.)

The LCT is variable and depends on numerous factors such as hide thickness, coat thickness, wind speed, moisture, etc. The LCT for an animal in good body condition with a heavy, dry winter coat could be as low as 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Alternatively, if an animal is thin or the hair coat is thin, wet or mat­ted, the LCT could be as great as 50 to 60 degrees. When estimating cold stress, try to think in terms of effective temperature or wind chill. In other words, how cold does it feel? Wind exposure can have a dra­matic impact on effective tempera­ture and LCT.

Keep a particularly close eye on thin cows and lactating females. Thin cows lack the insulation of fat cover and could benefit greatly from windbreaks and protection from precipitation. They may also need greater energy supplementation as compared to cows in adequate body condition.

For each degree of cold stress below the LCT, thin cows may require as much as 1.5 to 2 per­cent more energy to maintain body condition. Even more than that will be necessary for them to gain body condition.

Fall-calving cows lactating through the winter may need extra supple­mentation as well. These mamas often lose some body condition as they support a calf through winter, but this effect can be more dramatic when weather conditions are severe.

Dry matter intake is usually great­er during cold stress. Keep in mind, however, that severe cold stress, es­pecially in combination with mud, ice, extreme wind, etc., may lead to lower dry matter intake.

Additionally, there is a relation­ship between water intake and dry matter intake. If water freezes or becomes inaccessible, cattle are not only at risk of dehydration, but lower water intake may cause a secondary decrease in dry matter intake. Cattle need adequate dry matter intake to help with regulat­ing body temperature and maintain­ing body condition.

Beyond feeding additional energy, it is important to think about cattle comfort. To mitigate cold stress and improve cattle comfort, consider providing windbreaks to reduce the wind chill effect. Bedding also pro­vides a layer of insulation between the cold ground and the animal’s body, similar to the sleeping pad issued to me when I was in the U.S. Army. It wasn’t a cushion but served as insulation, so the sleeping bag didn’t freeze to the ground.

Shelter can protect animals from precipitation, helping them to stay dry and improving the insu­lation properties of the hair coat. Pay attention to the footing for cattle. High-traffic, muddy areas that freeze create rough terrain to traverse. Mud, ice and deep snow are difficult to navigate, and cattle dislike slippery surfaces. Try to improve these surfaces.

Proper nutrition will go a long way toward mitigating the nega­tive effects of cold stress. Evaluate your winter feed supply in terms of quantity and quality. Test forages for nutrient content. The forage test results provide significant help in developing winter rations. Visit with your local MFA or AGChoice livestock specialists to ensure your herd has everything they need to weather the winter.

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