Figuring out the heyday of hay

On our family farm in northeast Nebraska, we bale crop residues and forages to sell or use on the farm.

On our family farm in northeast Nebraska, we bale crop residues and forages to sell or use on the farm. Products include crop residues like cornstalks and wheat straw, annual forages with sudangrass and winter cereal rye, warm- and cool-season grass mixes grown on conservation reserve program acres, and perennial forages like alfalfa and red clover.

In 2009, I will try teff, another annual forage native to Ethiopia, where it is grown as a cereal.

I need to better understand the available market. I want to sell cornstalks and wheat straw to finishing feedlots, other feedstock to backgrounding feedlots, and alfalfa and hay to cow calf operators – if such opportunities exist.

Normally, I bale off the material and then sell it to feedlots. I price it according to its market value, but get pushback on price when I try to position the feed according to its nutrient quality. I never really understood why, since most of the bales go to a finishing feedlot.

Putting it into perspective

Rick Rasby, extension beef specialist at the University of Nebraska, put it all into perspective. He explained finishing rations only contain 10 to 15 percent roughage, as fiber to the rumen’s requirement, when the fat cattle get all their energy, nutrients and protein from corn and DDG (dry distillers grain). The fiber prevents acidosis in the rumen. “If the feedlot buyer is grinding the hay only for roughage filler,” said Rasby, “he will probably lump cornstalks, sudangrass, switchgrass and grass hay all into the same category and value it at the same price.”

To understand the quality of the forage I sell, I always send in a sample to a commercial laboratory for NIR (near infrared) analysis of forage quality. I get back readings on moisture, dry weight, crude protein, ADF (acid detergent fiber), NDF (neutral detergent fiber), TDN (total digestible nutrients) and RFV (relative feed value).

Rasby said the three most important readings I should pay attention to are moisture, crude protein and energy (TDN) when I sell into the beef market.

Moisture important but misleading

Moisture is important, explained Rasby, because feed rations are based on dry matter. Buyers need to know the moisture so they convert each ingredient to a dry matter basis. However, moisture values can be misleading because the samples I submitted were taken from the windrow before they were baled, and not from the actual bale before being ground.

I always put a lot of stock in RFV, but Rasby said that really only applies to the dairy industry, which uses those values to price hay. RFV is an index that combines the digestibility estimates of ADF and the intake estimates of NDF.

“For RFV, the reference is alfalfa and is useful in comparing one lot of alfalfa to another,” said Rasby. “For the dairy industry, it is an estimate of intake that will relate to milk production, and is a function of digestibility. The more digestible, the faster the hay will pass through the rumen, and the more intake. And an increase in RFV means a decrease in ADF and NDF (measurements of fiber content).”

Bruce Anderson, extension forage specialist at the University of Nebraska, explained that a reference value of 100 is used, based on the quality of full-bloom alfalfa. As it is an energy term, hay with an RFV of 110 would have 10 percent more energy than full-bloom alfalfa. Prime alfalfa hay will have an RFV greater than 150, while poor hay will have an RFV of less than 75. Comparing RFV values between cool-season and warm-season forages, or grasses and alfalfa, is not an accurate comparison and meaningless.

He added, “farmers and ranchers often tell me their prairie, sudan, or grass hay looked really good, but the relative feed value (RFV) was surprisingly low. Protein was good, TDN was okay, and the animals did just fine. So what’s wrong with relative feed value?”

“First, it is calculated using only fiber values,” said Anderson. “Even though protein certainly affects the value of hay, it is not part of the RFV calculation. Second, the RFV was designed to help rank the potential energy intake of different hays by lactating dairy cows and alfalfa is the standard.”

Grass more fiber than alfalfa

Grass hay has more fiber than alfalfa. The higher fiber content lowers the RFV and intake. But the fiber in grass hay is more digestible than fiber in alfalfa.

Anderson prefers that cow-calf producers focus on crude protein and TDN (total digestible nutrients). The RFV is less important for beef cows and especially when they are over-wintering on a low-cost forage. What is more important is to make sure they have ample amounts of protein.

Rasby said the operators running finishing lots won’t value crude protein or TDN because roughage only makes up 10 to 15 percent of the ration: they get those from corn and wet or dry distiller’s grain.

“However, if he uses the better materials like grass hay, sudangrass and alfalfa for backgrounding calves that are just coming on the lot and have a ration with 30 to 50 percent roughage, he will value these higher quality materials and pay more for them,” said Rasby.

Nutrient levels of feedstocks

So what were the nutrient levels of the different baled feedstocks? Corn stalks were around eight percent moisture, four to six percent crude protein and 56 to 58 percent TDN. Wheat straw was 10 percent moisture, four to five percent crude protein, and 40 to 45 percent TDN. Rasby said these values were in line for these baled crop residues and make excellent and cheap feedstock to meet the rumen’s scratch factor.

For sudangrass, the moisture content when sampled in the windrow ranged between 50 and 60 percent, crude protein ranged from 12 to 20 percent, and TDN ranged from 60 to 68 percent. Because it was harvested when it was green and since it is a forage, it had more than double the crude protein and about 10 percent more energy. It makes a much better protein source than crop residues and would be better used in the back grounding ration.

We also harvested switchgrass, canarygrass and a cool- and warm-season mixture. Switchgrass was harvested brown in mid August and contained 12 to 15 percent moisture, six to nine percent crude protein and 48 to 56 percent TDN. The canarygrass was harvested green in mid August and contained 13 to 15 percent moisture, nine to 12 percent protein and 65 to 70 percent TDN. The mixed grass species was cut brown in mid August and contained 20 to 25 percent moisture, five to seven percent crude protein and 50 to 60 percent TDN. Rasby said these values were in line, but that the canarygrass was probably superior because it was cut while still green.

Lastly, I harvested some small blocks of alfalfa and red clover. The alfalfa was 10 to 12 percent moisture, 22 to 22 percent crude protein, 48 to 55 percent TDN and a RFV of 110. Red clover contained about 20 percent moisture (much harder to dry down in the field), 20 to 26 percent crude protein, 60 to 70 percent TDN and a RFV of 130 to 160. Rasby said the alfalfa values were common for hay put up in eastern Nebraska and not managed for dairy quality.

Rasby said he was impressed with the quality of the red clover because it exceeded alfalfa, but he said he had no experience with this species as a forage. Red clover is rarely grown as a solitary stand because it is very difficult to dry down in the field. Instead, it is interseeded in pastures or grown in a grass and legume hay mixture.

I have three markets to sell into: cow, backgrounding feedlots and finishing feedlots. But really the biggest and only market is the finishing feedlot whose operators buy cornstalks and wheat straw at a price related to its 10 to 15 percent scratch factor value, and then buy grass hay at a premium over crop residue.

They pay an established market price and then decide at the feedlot how to use the material for the different pens of cattle based on where they are at in the finishing cycle.

Dan Davidson can be reached at [email protected]