Providing adequate fall and winter feed for cattle during dry years can be challenging. Stockpiling pastures can help, while alternative feeds can stretch or replace traditional forages.
Of course, some alternatives are more feasible than others, depending on what’s available locally, or how much freight is required to haul feed. One thing is for certain: When forage gets short, ranchers become innovative. Here is a roundup of some alternatives.
Try summer annuals
For the past five years, the University of Idaho’s Research, Extension and Education Center in Salmon has researched options to extend grazing with summer annuals.
“We tried species that grew well in dry corners of pivot-irrigated ground to increase hay yield or pasture,” says John Hall, Extension beef specialist. “This evolved into a project to increase forage for fall grazing.” The first test plots contained five species of warm-season annuals: sudex, a sorghum-sudan hybrid; teff, an annual grass; German foxtail millet; pearl millet; and grazing corn.
“Now we just plant sudex about the first of July, to provide grazeable forage in November and December. The most productive year, we grazed 100 head for 40 days on 16 acres,” Hall says.
Under irrigation, with some fertilization, the crop did well, he adds. Only 40-60 units of nitrogen/acre were used as a precaution against nitrate toxicity, because sudex is a nitrate accumulator.
“We strip-grazed it, using a rotary mower to make swaths where we wanted to run our fence — a single strand of poly wire. We estimated the portions to fence according to the number of cattle. We made several passes through the field for easy fencing. In some instances, we gave cattle too much and they wasted a little. Or we gave them too little, and moved fence more often, but it worked,” Hall says.
He reports that the mowed paths thatch over the ground, protecting it from freezing and making it easier to insert the tread-in posts into the ground for the hot wire.
“When choosing a crop for fall grazing, we look at whether it will hold up under a snow load. Sudex works well because it sticks up through the snow. If you want to graze windrows, making them big helps, because once the cattle find the windrow, they’ll root through the snow,” he says.
Another tactic in deep snow is to fence perpendicular to the windrows, rather than parallel. If snow is deep or crusted, the cows can locate the windrows since they’ve eaten on them in the previous strip. Plus, the snow will be broken as they move into the next strip.
One common drawback with annual crops is wildlife damage. Hall found that elk don’t damage sudex as much as other crops during the growing season.
“I don’t know if it’s a palatability issue or that sudex can grow so tall — up to 12 ft. — that elk can’t see through it. By contrast, deer come in and make little tunnels. Deer eat sudex, but don’t do near the damage as they do on grazing corn. There wasn’t an ear that hadn’t been chewed during the three years we planted corn,” he says.
Cornstalks are another option
Rising corn prices have prompted more corn acreage, which means more opportunity for grazing cornstalks, one of the most underutilized crop aftermaths in the U.S. The advantage to grazing stalks over baling is the lower cost, as grazing cattle do the harvesting. The most inhibiting factor to corn grazing, however, is often lack of access to stock water, Hall explains.
One difference in the Midwest, especially in Iowa, eastern Nebraska and Kansas, is that nearly every farm at one time included a small feedlot. While that feeding largely migrated to larger feedyards, those farmer-feeders still have those facilities and water.
Stalks can be baled, but that entails the cost of baling and transportation. Plus, stalks contain a lot of indigestible fiber.
“Can we buy cornstalks, baled and hauled, treat them chemically and have good, dry cow feed that’s still cheaper than hay? It all depends on the price of hay,” Hall says.
Boosting marginal feeds
The palatability and nutrient quality of corn stover can be improved by baling, grinding and treating it, reports Mike Mehren, a Hermiston, OR, nutritionist.
“Grinding is the challenge on a ranch, because the stover must be ground fine enough for cattle to eat all of it,” he says. “We use a wood chipper, because tub grinders and hay choppers don’t have the power to handle baled cornstalks,” he says.
The ground stover then goes into a mix truck, and water is added to attain 50% moisture.
“We put just 85-90% of the needed water into the mix truck with the dry ground stover, then mix it thoroughly before adding calcium oxide to comprise 5% of the dry matter. Calcium oxide is used in pickling and costs about $400/ton. It takes about $12 worth of calcium oxide to treat a big batch of straw or corn stover,” Mehren says.
Once the calcium oxide, which breaks down lignin, is mixed in, the rest of the necessary water is added, followed by 10-15 minutes of additional mixing for uniformity. The thick mixture is then dumped onto a cement slab and cured for two to four days, during which the mix heats and pH rises to 12. Once it’s cured, the pH drops to 8 or 9 and some of the heat dissipates, Mehren says. At this point it can be fed.
“We mix the treated roughage with a little hay in a feed truck, and spread it in a windrow on the ground or in a hay feeder,” he adds.
If a rancher is mixing enough to last the winter, he recommends storing it like silage. Properly packed, the product won’t mold, and mycotoxin development is unlikely due to the neutral to slightly alkaline profile.
There are a few cautions when using calcium oxide, however. “When mixed with a little water, or if the bags of calcium oxide get damp, they’ll catch fire. If you put it on dry corn stover, it will catch fire. So you want a lot of moisture. When we work with calcium oxide, we wear long-sleeve gloves, goggles and dust masks,” Mehren says.
Mehren’s firm provides this feed for many clients. “We can do the same thing with wheat straw, which can be done on the ranch. It’s the same process, except that straw bales can be ground in a tub grinder and put into the mix truck, adding the appropriate amount of water and calcium oxide. It comes out a beautiful golden color,” he says.
While he’s only treated grass straw and wheat straw, Mehren believes any straw is a candidate. The bottom line is that the process creates higher-quality forage that reduces the supplement needed to balance the cattle diet.
“I’ve fed cows late in the winter — just starting to calve or with calves at side — 40 lbs./cow of treated straw (50% moisture) and 8 lbs. of alfalfa. This provides a complete diet that holds body condition,” Mehren says.
He’s also used treated corn stover in backgrounding rations for 2.5-3 lbs./day gain. “We use it at about 25% of the ration’s dry matter. I also use it in bull-developing rations at the same level. And we’ve used it in back-to-grass rations where we simply want 1-1.5 lbs./day gain, using the corn stover in higher levels. In every case, we’ve been very happy with the results,” he says.
The University of Nebraska conducted some of the original trials, with treated cornstalks and straw. They were then used as a partial replacement for corn in finishing rations, with satisfactory results in feed conversion, gain, cost of gain, carcass merit, etc., Mehren says.
“This was one of the big steps in converting low-quality byproducts into something that could be part of a high-quality finishing ration. In the future, we’ll see a lot more innovation applied to different feedstuffs,” he concludes.
Other alternative feeds
Mehren says one of the toughest challenges is trying to stretch forage when hay or pasture isn’t available. Without some forage in the form of grass, hay, straw, etc., it’s hard to feed a proper ration, he says.
“I haven’t found any pellets that completely replace forages unless waste from a vegetable processing plant is available. In our region, ranchers buy corn cannery silage. We also do this with peas, carrots, onions and other vegetables,” Mehren says.
Another common byproduct is corn distillers waste. In the absence of feedbunks, it can be fed on the ground on old elevator belts, just like any other protein supplement.
If a rancher has nothing to feed cattle except released Conservation Reserve Program acres, wheat straw, or any low-quality forage, this can be balanced with a protein-energy supplement like distillers grain. “You just need some feedstuff that has a lot of nutrient kick in just a few pounds,” he explains.
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Mehren says wood chips may be a possibility someday. “We’ve done this experimentally and know certain woods can be treated and digested by cattle,” he says. In addition, certain species of sagebrush are palatable and nutritionally adequate as part of cattle diets during some times of year. In the right environment, cattle can be wintered on sagebrush, with a little supplement.
“With grinding, other types of sage may also work. Some of the plants and shrubs we thought were unwanted pests can be beneficial,” Mehren says. In Texas, for instance, research shows that juniper can be chipped and processed into wholesome livestock feed.
“The higher-quality feedstuffs we’ve traditionally depended on are now being bought by industries that can afford to pay more for it than livestock producers. Simple, inexpensive chemicals like calcium oxide can be used to treat some alternative feedstuffs, and we’ll eventually see more ingenuity applied to feedstuffs that we can feed cattle,” Mehren says.
Heather Thomas is a freelance writer and rancher in Salmon, ID.
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