Timing is everything when harvesting alfalfa

There are two schools of thought for when alfalfa should be harvest­ed. One method is to increase yield, but that comes at the expense of quality. The second method aims for high-quality forage but comes at the expense of yield.

The higher-yield strategy typi­cally starts at or near full bloom, with cuttings every 40 to 45 days through the season. The higher-quality strategy typically starts at late bud, with subsequent cut­tings every 32 to 35 days through the season. Both approaches have applications. The higher the animal performance, the more pressure is placed on forage quality over quantity. Quantity is the priority for high-production animals.

The quality of alfalfa is especially sensitive to harvest schedule. Tim­ing is crucial, particularly for the first cutting. Producers aiming for quality alfalfa should focus on the ideal harvest conditions to maxi­mize quality without damaging the stand’s longevity. This, of course, is easier said than done. Spring weather often doesn’t allow for ap­propriate drying in the windrow to get to proper bale moisture. Delays in drying can then lead to delays in subsequent cuttings. Thus, un­cooperative weather in the spring often has ripple effects that cause significant decreases in feed quality and stand longevity.

Making haylage is one strategy to deal with spring weather and har­vesting the first cutting in a timely manner, rather than trying to dry the crop in the field. The result can be very advantageous. With hay­lage, growers can manage the start of the harvest season. This produces a quality first crop without nega­tively impacting later cuttings.

When making first-cut alfalfa haylage, target wilting the crop to 55% to 65% moisture or 45% to 35% dry matter (DM). Putting up an alfalfa silage at more that 70% moisture (less than 30% DM) tends to make it susceptible to a clostridia fermentation, which produces bu­tyric acid and breaks down proteins into ammonia. This type of fermen­tation is associated with greater DM losses, reduced animal intake and decreased animal performance.

Depending on weather, it may take a day or more to get to the desired DM content. If the alfalfa is too dry—more than 50% dry matter—it is difficult to pack in a bunker. This increases porosity, which means more air in the mass, heat damage and fungi growth, greatly decreasing the quality and quantity of the feed.

However, if worst comes to worst, it is easier to work with haylage be­ing too dry than too wet. I can feed soybean meal to compensate for heat-damaged protein, but I can’t get cows to eat haylage with a lot of butyric acid.

In addition to moisture content, the length of the chop is important for producing high-quality alfalfa silage. Alfalfa should be at least between 0.75 inch to 1 inch long, depending on your goals. Shorter length increases packing density, while longer length favors physical­ly effective fiber and rumen health.

Alfalfa has a well-deserved reputation for being more difficult to ensile than other forages such as wheat, sorghum or corn. This is because alfalfa in particular, and other legumes in general, have a high natural buffering capacity, due principally to their organic acid content. The higher ash and protein content of alfalfa contributes a small amount to the buffering capacity. The sugar content of alfalfa will be lower than that of corn chopped for silage. The lower sugar and higher buffering capacity make it more difficult for the ensiled crop to quickly achieve a terminal pH, which preserves the crop.

Wet conditions or soiling of the crop at harvest encourage a clos­tridial fermentation and production of butyric acid. To avoid this, use an effective silage inoculant. This will encourage an efficient fermen­tation and reduce DM losses due to ensiling. A silage inoculant can be an effective oxygen scavenger. The inoculant speeds the creation of an anaerobic environment that allows lactic acid-producing bacteria to grow efficiently and results in more lactic acid, less acetic acid and a lower terminal pH. Inoculants de­signed for improved aerobic stabil­ity will produce volatile fatty acids that inhibit yeast and mold growth when oxygen is reintroduced at feedout.

Timing alfalfa cutting is the most important management practice to maximize tonnage potential, quality and profitability. For more information and recommendations on alfalfa production, talk with the crop and livestock experts at your local MFA.

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Deflate bloat with good forage management

The positive benefits that le­gumes provide to pastures and ani­mals include better protein content, higher mineral levels and greater energy than grasses alone—plus the fertility value of nitrogen fixation. However, a potential drawback of many pasture legumes is the chance of bloat.

Bloat is the result of rumen gas production exceeding the animal’s ability to eliminate the gas. Alfalfa and many clovers are all highly digestible. The protein in these legumes is readily accessible to the rumen microbes. When these microbes digest the forage, they re­lease gas. As the rumen swells with gas, it can eventually interfere with respiration. Depending on the diet, a large amount of foam or froth develops in the rumen and inhibits the release of gas, which causes the animal to bloat. Death from bloat is the result of suffocation.

Discontinuous grazing, such as the removal of animals from legume pastures overnight, is often associat­ed with bloat issues. Problems may also occur when grazing is inter­rupted by biting flies or adverse weather, such as storms. Anything that alters normal grazing habits will increase the incidence of bloat.

Environmental factors also contribute to bloat risk. That’s why animals may be fine for weeks and then experience a high degree of bloat overnight while grazing the same or similar pastures. Daytime temperatures around 70 degrees coupled with a cool overnight tem­perature will lead to a greater risk of bloating. High soil moisture, which results in high plant moisture, will also elevate the risk.

Alfalfa can cause bloat in the spring, summer and fall. Fall bloat conditions are caused by frequent heavy dew or fall frost. Following a killing frost, after enough time has passed, alfalfa has a reputation of being bloat-safe. However, if the plant stays green, or the leaves ap­pear glassy-shiny, the potential for bloat remains.

Pasture forages have different levels of bloat risk, as shown in the chart above.

To prevent bloat in pasture cattle, manage pasture for no more than 50% legumes. This becomes trickier if animals can selectively graze. Turn out cattle only after letting them eat dry hay or grass before grazing legume pastures. And don’t turn out cattle on wet pastures. Wait until the dew is burned off or the rain has dried.

The feed additive Bloat Guard (poloxalene) will prevent pasture bloat if consumed in adequate amounts. Begin to feed poloxalene for several days before turning cattle out on legume pastures. If using blocks, do not put them close to the water source, which tends to be less effective. Ionophores, such as Bovatec or Rumensin, will reduce the viscosity of the rumen fluid. This will reduce the incidence of bloat.

Frosted alfalfa will have an increased risk of bloat. When frost occurs to the initial spring growth of alfalfa, it’s best to wait at least several days to a week before mak­ing an evaluation of plant damage. Freeze damage and plant recovery are influenced by factors such as the actual overnight low temperature, soil temperature, field topography, possible snow cover, stand age, plant maturity and stand vigor. Frost damage will cause wilted leaves and stems.

If the freeze damage was slight— affecting less than a quarter of the upper stems—the wilt will dissi­pate in a couple of days. There is no need to do anything other than wait. Severe damage usually shows up later. If most of the top stems are damaged, and if the plants are less than 10 inches tall, the plants will recover without mowing. If the stand is taller than 12 inches in height, the damaged alfalfa should be harvested and allowed to re-grow.

Pasture bloat is a mostly prevent­able disease of grazing cattle. Fol­lowing these recommendations will help reduce chances your herd will experience the issue this spring.

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Healthy as a horse? Only with proper nutrition

With so many feed, supplement and hay choices available, many equine owners may find themselves wondering exactly what their horse needs for good health and nutrition. When feeding horses, there are six basic nutrient categories that must be met: carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and water.

If using a quality complete feed, the first five nutrients are likely bal­anced for you. But it is critical not to forget about water—the most im­portant nutrient. A horse will need more pounds of water than pounds of feed. Typically a 1,000-pound horse will drink 10 to 12 gallons of water daily.

Horses will need more water when temperature, humidity or ac­tivity increases. Thus, it’s important to always provide unlimited access to clean, fresh water. Keeping water between 45 and 65 degrees encour­ages consumption.

Beyond water, nutritional require­ments for horses differ from indi­vidual to individual. While body mass, age, physiological condition, activity level and metabolic efficien­cy all factor in to an equine feeding program, there are some general considerations to keep in mind:

Maximize the amount of forage

Horses are, by nature, consumers of forage. Whether it’s fresh pasture or harvested hay, silage or haylage, for­ages are the ideal energy source for horses. Most mature horses should consume 1.5% to 2.5% of their body weight as dry matter forage. Monitor the amount of concentrate a horse eats. Owners frequently feed cereal grains when horses need more energy than forages can provide. To reduce the chance of colic and gastric upset, do not feed mature horses more than 0.25% to 0.5% of their body weight in cereal grains per feeding.

Meet mineral and vitamin needs

Horse supplements are great ways to ensure you are meeting nutrient requirements of your equine when they’re not receiving a complete feed. It is important to establish a balanced ration for horses that includes the right ratio of energy, protein, minerals and vitamins. Some producers will also provide free-choice salt. Horses may get enough vitamins in feedstuffs or microbial production in the gut. However, most horses respond to vitamin supplementation, particu­larly vitamin A, vitamin E, ribofla­vin and biotin.

If you’re feeding one of MFA’s Easykeeper products according to label, your horse will be receiving adequate minerals. MFA Horse Mineral is a good option to ensure unsupplemented horses have the minerals and vitamins they need. Owners and managers are strongly encouraged to work with your MFA key account manager or feed spe­cialist to ensure that horse nutrient needs are met.

Monitor body weight and body condition score

When deciding a horse’s nutritional needs, it is necessary to know its body weight and body condition score (BCS). Body weight can be determined by weighing on a scale or estimated using weight tapes or mathematical equations. Body condition scoring determines the amount of fat deposit under the horse’s skin in certain areas. For most horses, a BCS between 4 to 6 is ideal. Body weight and BCS should be tracked monthly.

Routinely care for your horse’s teeth

A horse’s teeth continually erupt and are simultaneously ground down as they chew feedstuffs, especially forages. Sharp points occur on the teeth, which can cut the inside of the mouth or cause gum irritation. Routine filing down or floating of teeth by a veterinarian or equine dentist will alleviate the problem and make an even grind­ing pattern for the horse’s chewing, which aids in digestion.

Change feeds gradually

When changing hay or grain types, replace only 20% to 25% of a horse’s current feed every other day. This will allow for a complete change over a week or more. A gradual change from one feed to another provides enough time for microbes in the gut to adapt.

Remember, some horses are easier to feed and require fewer nutrients. Other horses are very difficult to feed and require special attention. It is important to know how to feed your horse and to make sure it gets all the nutrients it needs.

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Colostrum intake has lifelong impact on calves

The worst thing that can happen to a newborn calf is to not get colostrum, that all-important first milk produced by the mother after birth. Colostrum is high in nutrients and antibodies, which provide calves with their initial protection against disease.

The quality and timing of getting the colostrum are also critical to calves. Years ago, Dr. Jim Quigley, who was a professor at the Universi­ty of Tennessee at the time, outlined the “5 Qs” of feeding colostrum effectively. I found these tips to be a great calf-raising resource:

1. Feed quality colostrum.

2. Use the proper quantity.

3. Provide it quickly.

4. Keep equipment squeaky clean.

5. Quantify passive transfer.

If you can guarantee that calves are fed adequate amounts of high-quality colostrum soon after birth, using clean equipment and making sure that appropriate passive transfer takes place, you can protect the young animals from many diseases, increase their immune systems, improve their growth and help ensure healthy and productive lives.

Colostrum contains high levels of immunoglobulins and other bioactive compounds that protect the young calf. To have colostrum with the appropriate immunoglob­ulins, the cow must be producing them. For your calves, follow the vaccination program recommended by the herd veterinarian. Generally, vaccinating cows six to nine weeks prior to calving and giving boosters three to six weeks prior to calving is one of the best ways to protect against common calf diseases.

We have seen increased colos­trum yield and density in cows that were fed MFA Ricochet Mineral for at least 60 days prior to calving. The effect is more pronounced in heifers and in the summer, but then one would expect lower colostrum production in heifers and in the summer.

Every calf should get colos­trum—bulls and heifers alike. Aim to feed 10% of calf bodyweight in colostrum within two hours of birth. Feed another 5% bodyweight 10 hours later. For a 90-pound calf, that typically looks like feeding 2 quarts of colostrum 30 minutes af­ter birth, 2 quarts an hour later, and 2 quarts 11-12 hours after birth.

Every calf should get colostrum, but not every cow will produce colostrum that should be used. Some cows are not good sources, such as Johne’s-positive cows, cows with mastitis, cows leaking milk, etc. Thus, it is important to have a supply of colostrum for calves whose dams are compromised. A colostrum replacer should provide at least 100 grams of immunoglo­bins; if under 100, the product is a supplement, not a replacer.

Even with the best colostrum ever, you need to feed enough— and more is better. I used to think that 2 quarts of good colostrum was more than enough. Dr. Roy Ax, professor of dairy science at the University of Wisconsin and University of Arizona, changed my mind. He tracked the survivability and longevity of cattle in which the only difference in management was whether the calves at birth got 2 quarts or 4 quarts of colostrum. The calves that received more colostrum had greater lifetime productivity.

Colostrum feeding and collection equipment must be adequately cleaned. This step is critically im­portant. The equipment should be rinsed with warm water to get rid of dirt and colostrum residues. Then, while wearing appropriate PPE, scrub all surfaces with chlorinated alkaline soap and hot water. Make sure that the water stays hot—really hot. Note that most household water heaters are factory set for “hot” water to be 120°F, but to clean and sanitize equipment, the water temperature should be 165°F. Use an acid-sanitizing solution to rinse all equipment, and let everything dry completely.

Cooling colostrum is also an important quality-control step. A milk jug full of colostrum put in the refrigerator takes a lot longer to cool than does the same amount of colostrum in a line pan placed in an ice bath. Fresh colostrum should be fed or prepped for storage within half an hour of harvest.

A calf’s colostrum intake follow­ing birth can impact them through­out their life, either positively or negatively. The right amount at the right time can benefit overall calf health and reduce risks for calfhood diseases, increase average daily gain and more. Talk with your MFA live­stock experts for more information on helping your calves get off to the right start.

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Eating too many acorns can make cattle sick

Acorns drop off oak trees in early fall, and cattle often like to eat them. But acorns, along with oak buds and very young leaves, can be poisonous when eaten in excess. Cattle and sheep are more susceptible than goats, but the toxic compounds in oak, called “gallotan­nins,” are tough on the kidneys in all ruminants. Immature green acorns are the main culprit as they contain the highest levels of toxins, but cattle could be affected if they eat too many acorns no matter what time of year.

Cattle with acorn poisoning will have lower dry matter intake and may be weak and listless. The oak gallotannins irritate the gastrointes­tinal tract, so cattle tend to “hunch up” and have off-color or bloody manure. Often there will be sores in their mouths, and they will become dehydrated. If producers don’t catch these signs early on, the cattle may experience rapid weight loss.

The best way to prevent losses from acorn poisoning is to preclude cattle access to them. Move the herd away from dropped acorns or con­sider fencing off larger areas where oak trees are growing.

Recognizing that this is not possi­ble in many situations, it’s import­ant to provide enough forage and supplements to keep cattle from wanting to eat acorns instead. Most of the time, acorn consumption is tied to a feed availability issue. Problems usually occur in pastures where there is not much grass left or not much hay fed. The amount of acorn toxins tolerated by an animal is influenced by the protein content of its diet. If the protein intake is high, the animal can con­sume more acorns without having poisoning symptoms. Making sure cattle stay hydrated will also help.

Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire antidote for acorn poisoning. If signs are noticed soon enough, cattle supplemented with protein and good-quality hay should recov­er. For more progressed symptoms, there are a few care options. Ac­cording to the Merck Vet Manual, a pelleted ration supplement contain­ing 10% to 15% calcium hydroxide plus access to more palatable feeds may be used as a preventive mea­sure. Calcium hydroxide, anti-bloat medication and purgatives (such as mineral oil, sodium sulfate or magnesium sulfate) may be effec­tive antidotes if administered early in the course of disease. Fluid and electrolyte replacements may also help keep kidneys operating and correct dehydration.

One of the most practical means of providing calcium hydroxide and other things that will help alleviate the problem is to offer MFA Perfor­mance First 20% Shield tub or MFA Performance First 16% tub. It is not effective to use a low-intake “all-in-one” tub, nor is it effective to use a cooked, low-moisture tub.

MFA does offer a supplement specifically formulated for this situ­ation, Acorn Special Cubes, which are meant to be fed at 2 pounds per head per day to cattle. These cubes also contain calcium hydrox­ide and modest energy and protein content. However, they are not floor-stocked at MFA locations and would have to be ordered at a 2-ton minimum. That usually makes the Performance First tubs an easier, more economical solution.

If you are going to provide cattle with calcium hydroxide, feed 0.2 to 0.25 pounds per head per day. Calcium hydroxide is hydrated lime or “builder’s lime.” It is dusty and noxious to handle. If you put calcium hydroxide into a grain mix to top dress, keep the moisture off it. Dry, oily things cattle like to eat work best as carriers, such as extruded soybeans or dry distillers’ grains. Calcium hydroxide that gets wet sets up like mortar, which is why it is used in the brick and block masonry building trades. It is much easier on all concerned to use pressed or poured tubs rather than to add calcium hydroxide directly to feed.

For acute cases of acorn poison­ing, ask your veterinarian about specific treatments. My experi­ence has been that cattle exposed to acorns for a long time do not respond well. Producers need to be aware of the disease and get more nutrition into cattle so that they don’t eat the acorns. Well-fed cattle are more resistant to the toxins, and they are less likely to eat acorns if they have enough forage and feed. Prevention is far more effective than treatment.

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