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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Calving season starts with bull maintenance

Bulls are worth a lot of money. Yet, it is easy for cow-calf producers to semi-neglect bulls due to other concerns during the winter. This can lead to soundness issues the following breeding season, and that can hurt your bottom line.

Cows and bulls each provide half of the genetics in a calf crop. However, when you consider the 25 to 40 cows a bull should breed with in a season, it is easy to see that bull fertility outweighs cow fertility. One infertile or poorly performing bull can cause lots of open or late-bred cows in your operation.

Getting cows to conceive early in the breeding season is important to the financial success of an operation. It is particularly important for younger, smaller cows—they are more at risk of not getting bred. Having an increase in open and late-bred cows this year will result in fewer calves and a longer calving season next year, as well as calves that are younger, lighter weight and less valuable.

It is common for bulls to have lost 10 to 20 percent of their bodyweight during a single breeding season. As a result, bulls should be given a period of time to recuperate during the post-breeding season. Each of your bulls should be evaluated annually for its health and ability to breed. After the culls are removed, the remaining bulls should be divided into two groups, one with older bulls that have decent body condition, and the other with younger and thinner bulls. It is important to separate bulls into these groups because each group will have different nutritional needs.

The goal of proper winter nutrition for young bulls is to turn out young bulls at the start of breeding season with a BCS of 5.5 to 6.5. After the breeding season, young bulls will often have lost significant weight. They also are still growing and usually need to gain upward of 1 to 2 pounds per day during the off season to be in proper body condition by the start of the next breeding season. In practice, this means that young, or thin or high-risk bulls will typically need a forage diet that is about 2 percent of their bodyweight as dry matter. They should also get enough supplement to bring their total diet to about 11 percent protein and 60 percent TDN. This can usually be accomplished by feeding 5 pounds of

MFA Trendsetter per day. Most mature bulls in good body condition will be fine on a nearly all-forage diet. The exception is if they need to gain weight. But do make sure mineral and vitamin needs are covered.

A daily feed intake between 1.75 and 2 percent of bodyweight as dry matter is a common maintenance feeding level for mature bulls in good flesh.

Beyond feeding, the design and layout of a winter bull pen is important for offseason bull management. Make an effort to promote activity in bulls. You can do this by putting substantial distance between feeders, waterers and loafing areas. Protection from wind chill and severe weather is particularly important for bull wintering facilities. Extreme cold weather can cause tissue damage to the scrotum—this appears as discoloration, scabbing, and/or sloughing of the lower part of the scrotum. Frostbite to the scrotum can lead to permanent damage and a dramatic reduction in bull fertility. Frostbite can be prevented by adequate protection from extreme weather. Just use common sense: provide heavy bedding to keep them warm and dry; provide shelter and a windbreak.

At springtime it is important to spend time getting your bulls ready for the breeding season. Four variables generally affect bull fertility, these are:
• Testicle size/scrotal circumference,
• Semen quality,
• Libido
• Structural soundness

One of the best things to do to get your bulls ready is to evaluate every bull one to two months before breeding season with a breeding soundness exam. Your vet will measure scrotal circumference, a collect and analyze semen and perform a soundness evaluation. Libido is more elusive to measure. An annual exam on all potential bulls is a very good practice.

It might sound as if I don’t think you are already busy enough. So I’ll just add that there are other tasks you should do for proper bull performance. Before the breeding season, it is important to plan ahead sufficiently so that bulls expected to share a breeding pasture can be grouped together beforehand. Additionally, bulls should be tested for trichomoniasis, vaccinated, treated for insects and have their feet and legs checked prior to being turned out with cows.

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Turning out on turnips

Brassicas require thoughtful grazing management

Interest in grazing brassicas is on the rise. In effort to extend the grazing season, producers are planting more turnips and radishes. And, as sod-seeding techniques are further fine-tuned, I expect to see even more livestock grazing brassicas.

Brassicas such as turnips or radishes produce high yields of nutrient-rich leaves and roots. They make good grazing. These crops have been helpful at two critical time periods in the year, midsummer and late fall to early winter. Summer-planted turnips may be the best grazing option for late fall and winter. But, like everything else, they can cause problems. Problems that might arise from feeding turnips include hemolytic anemia, polioencephalomalacia, pulmonary emphysema, nitrate toxicity, infertility, bloat and goiter. That’s a nice list of scary stuff, but you can avoid most problems with proper management.

Basic strategies for managing brassica grazing are similar to how you handle alfalfa or lush spring pasture.

Don’t start feeding turnips suddenly and extensively. Instead, let cattle adapt to a richer diet by feeding high quality forage for a couple weeks before grazing turnips.

When you do introduce the herd to brassicas, allow access for just a few hours a day. While grazing turnips, continue to provide a dry forage source like grass hay or corn stalks.

You can restrict grazing area to limit access as well as encourage full plant consumption.

Use an electric wire or tape to stripgraze. This will encourage animals to eat the leaves and bulbs.

Provide a mineral supplement. Providing a supplement with monensin (Rumensin) improves the energy value of the diet. Feeding monensin is helpful in reducing the incidence of pulmonary emphysema (ABPE). ABPE is most likely to occur when mature cows quickly move from a coarse forage base to a lush, high-quality forage base. It’s technically caused by the metabolism of tryptophan, an essential amino acid. In the rumen, lactobacillus bacteria convert tryptophan to 3-methylindole, a toxic compound that causes lung damage, edema and emphysema.

You may hear about choking risks from brassicas like turnips, but the only case I have ever verified was on drought-stricken turnips that had bulbs the size of carrots, and the animals had limited feed availability. Cows do chew.

Turnips can be very productive, they grow fast and can be grazed as early as 70 days after planting. They reach near maximum dry matter yields at 80 to 90 days. The protein content will be high in the leaves-often in the mid 20s on a dry matter basis. Leaves are 10 to 18 percent of the total plant mass. Bulbs make 82 to 90 percent of the mass.

If you plan to grow turnips or other brassicas, your fertility program is best determined by soil test and MFA agronomist recommendations. My experience is that phosphorous and potash recommendations are similar to a small grain crop, and 70 to 80 pounds per acre of nitrogen is needed.

For a source of turnip seed, MFA offers the purple top white bulb forage turnip, product #2612540 and the Barkant turnip, product #2612585.

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Nutrition is the first defense

A healthy immune system is led by a balanced ration and planning for stress

Most beef herds are exposed to multiple health challenges. Viruses, bacteria, parasites and toxins can come from air, water, herd mates and wildlife. Stress factors such as weaning, co-mingling, handling, transportation and extreme temperatures exacerbate these challenges and can further suppress the immune system. Optimal nutrition is the first defensive measure. Optimal nutrition supports health functions and sends the animal toward its top genetic growth potential.

The immune system is composed of three general defense systems. The first two are called non-specific, in that typically the “defense” cells are indiscriminate against most foreign substances. First are skin and mucous secretions within the body. The second involves white blood cells from the blood stream and lymphoid tissues. These cells and sub-cells are released when there is injury to the body or by parasites and byproducts from allergic reactions. The cells seek and destroy harmful bacteria to prevent/fight against infection.

The third defense system is yet another set of white blood cells called T and B cells, but these are specific in nature. The primary function of these cells is to build specific ‘memory’ for the body against a particular invading virus. For example, giving a vaccine for BVD (Bovine Viral Diarrhea) is immunizing the body against invading BVD viruses. The T and B cells will act by producing specific antibodies that will bind to BVD only and will continue protecting against the organism.

It is a proficient and complex system. For it to work correctly the right nutrient profile for the animal is critical. All the basic nutrients have been shown to impact immune competence, including protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. For ruminants, by far the most important are protein and energy. Energy is the power source for the synthesis and function of immune cells, while protein regulates and provides structural element for cells and antibodies. During times of stress protein and energy are particularly important because stress can reduce intake, thus furthering the suppression of immunity functions through low intake of feedstuffs. When stress situations are impending, for example at weaning, supply a protein- and energy-dense feedstuff designed to compensate for low intake.

The roles of vitamins and minerals overlap for proper immune function. While there are several vitamins that are needed to support immune function, vitamins A and E need to be supplemented in the diet, whereas vitamins B6, B12 and C are supplied by rumen bugs and body tissues in sufficient levels. Multiple studies have demonstrated that vitamin E will increase the function of neutrophils (white blood cells), which are important scavengers of non-specific immunity.

Although several minerals are important for overall body function, zinc, copper and selenium are specifically important for the immune system and should always be offered to cattle in amounts that supply their requirements. Zinc is a well-studied trace mineral on immunity, particularly in stocker and feeder cattle. Zinc is essential in the formation of enzymes that work within cells thus making it vital for cell production, growth and function. A solid immune system is dependent on rapidly dividing cells and cell movement, therefore, a deficiency of zinc can have negative implications on animal health.
Negative interaction between trace minerals can also tie up availability of these nutrients.

University research recently found diets high in sulfur reduced retention of trace minerals copper, zinc and manganese in steers after only 20 days. Corn byproduct commodities, such as distillers grains and gluten feed, are high in sulfur. Thus, with diet high in these ingredients, consideration should be taken to insure there is adequate supplementation of the negatively affected elements.

Severe copper deficiency is generally due more to antagonistic effects of other minerals and/or organisms that make copper less bioavailable to the animal. Dietary molybdenum, sulfur and iron in excess can inhibit uptake of copper digestively, in tissues and bloodstream of ruminants. Consumption of heavy endophyte-
infected pasture starting mid-summer causes a reduction in overall intake, thus causing a deficiency of copper through simple lack of feed consumption.

During times of increased metabolic or immunological strain, overproduction of free radicals called reactive oxygen species (ROS) are formed as a normal end product. The over-accumulation of ROS can result in substantial damage to the animal’s tissues. Vitamin E and selenium are both highly effective antioxidants that will counter the effects of excessive ROS by preventing cellular dysfunction or premature protein degradation.

You should determination risk levels for your herd and plan for nutritional compensation during the most stressful periods. It will help you build an effective barrier against health challenges. The cash value of beef animals is at all-time highs. Along with those record prices, the return on supplementing the right nutrition to support your investment is at its peak.

Mark Epp is Ruminant nutritionist for MFA incorporated. Questions? Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Standing winter forage

A few thoughts on stockpiling fescue

In the love/hate relationship you have with fescue, one characteristic that should be tallied on the “love” side of things is that fescue is well adapted for fall stockpiling. It allows you to graze longer into the winter.

In a stockpiling system, fertilizer is applied in late summer and forage is allowed to accumulate until it goes dormant. Grazing the pastures usually starts in early winter. For stockpiling fescue, MFA forage specialist David Moore recommends application of fertilizer between Aug. 20 and Sept. 15. The application consists of a third of the year’s nitrogen, all the year’s phosphorus and half of the year’s potassium plus 5 pounds of sulfur.

If you don’t have a soil test for reference, in general terms, the application would be 40 pounds N, 50 pounds P and 75 pounds K with 5 pounds of sulfur.

Moore told me, “This should promote good fall pasture and stockpiling as well as support an early wakeup of healthy grass that is poised to grow well the following spring.” His mantra, which you can read more about on page 14, is “Don’t feed the weeds. More grass equals more beef.”

For the most appropriate fertility recommendations on your pasture, you should get a soil test. And, going forward, consider grid sampling and using some level of variable-rate application to get the right fertility to the places in your forage program that most need it.

Putting nitrogen on grass pastures is a bet that you cannot lose. Let me explain: the typical response is that 1 pound of nitrogen gives an additional 20 pounds of forage dry matter. There are some trade-offs: the earlier you start stockpiling, the higher the yield response, but stockpile forage will be more mature and lower in nutrients. And, rain is required.

When talking about stockpiled forage, I like to think of cows as self-propelled forage harvesters, keeping my labor down to moving fences. The way to achieve the highest utilization of the stockpiled fescue is to manage the pasture by frontal strip grazing. With this method, you will be managing cattle grazing behavior. By restricting grazing to strips, you’ll get a more complete forage harvest. In most cases, a new strip is offered every other day. Using this method, harvest efficiency can be better than 70 percent (a similar use efficiency to hay systems).

What makes fescue a high candidate for stockpiling is the fact it retains its nutrient value better than other forages and manages to stay standing. The feed value of stockpiled fescue is usually close to or greater than the nutrient requirements for dry beef cows, and with luck and good management, it comes close to covering energy and protein needs for wet cows of moderate milking ability.

If you are trying to put weight on calves, results might differ. When you test the stockpiled forage, results might indicate you ought to be getting a higher average daily gain than what you actually get. The traditional nutritionist excuse for slow calf gain on stockpiled fescue is to blame endophyte infection. Fescue infected with endophyte will slow intake and performance. If you need to push calves on stockpile, they will respond well to Cadence, Cattle Charge or Full Throttle.

University of Missouri agronomists Rob Kallenbach and Craig Roberts reported that stockpiled fescue typically will have a nutritive quality high enough to support wintering beef cows. Their research show average values of 12 percent crude protein at greater than 36 percent acid detergent fiber and 56 percent neutral detergent fiber. That would be a relative feed value of at least 100 with in vitro digestibilities in the 70s. Of course, there is a tremendous year-by-year variability to nutrient values of stockpiled forages. Snow cover will set you back, and ice is a plan wrecker.

Supplementing the stockpiled forage comes down to an art. You want to balance available stockpile with hay supplies and the cost of supplements along with the body condition or rate of gain you have targeted. The response to supplementation will depend on the availability and quality of the forage.

As a general rule, increasing the degradable protein and energy on stockpiled fescue will improve daily dry matter intake. Using ionophores such as Rumensin and Bovatec will significantly improve animal performance and help cows hold their body condition. Feeding a vitamin and trace mineral source will ensure the herd’s nutrient requirements are covered. You can piecemeal a supplementation or feed something like Cattle Charge as a single-product solution. If you have endophyte-infected fescue, the supplementation helps dilute or reduce the ergot alkaloid load in your animals’ bloodstream.

Dr. Jim White is the Director of Nutrition at MFA Incorporated. Questions? Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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