No matter what type of livestock you raise, chances are they’re either lactating now or will be soon. Many beef producers, for example, breed for calving in March and April. This is a key time to make sure you’re feeding your best forage. Lactating animals need higher levels of nutrition compared to gestating animals.
Hopefully, you kept your best forage until now. If not, size up the nutritional value of the forage you’re feeding and supplement to supply enough energy, protein and minerals. You may want to invest in forage testing if you’re not sure of the quality of your forage.
With my own small beef herd, I have a strategy for where I place big round bales when making hay. I may end up with a couple of rows of first-cutting bales, then rows of second- and third-cutting bales. When I begin feeding hay, I feed across the rows instead of down the rows. In other words, I feed some bales of first-cutting hay and then some bales from later cuttings, and rotate back and forth.
Here’s my reasoning: This allows my cows to have a more consistent ration of mixed-quality forage instead of lower-quality forage for a long stretch. First-cutting hay tends to be lower in quality because it’s the most mature. That was especially true in 2019, because wet weather delayed harvest. It’s the cutting that produces the most volume, but usually not the best quality.
The hay I will feed this spring during calving is rather mature alfalfa that was net-wrapped. Feeding mature alfalfa provides more nutrition than feeding mature grass hay during this crucial period. Net-wrapped bales have considerably less damage and loss.
In general, alfalfa hay tends to have higher crude protein and energy levels than grass hay, and less crude fiber. An alfalfa-grass mixed hay falls somewhere in between. When animals are pregnant, they don’t require as much energy or protein as when they’re producing milk.
One way to know how much nutritional value is in your forage feedstuff is to pull samples or have a consultant pull a sample and send it to a lab for analysis. Some county Extension offices have metal probes which can be attached to a drill to core into bales to prepare samples.
Lab results will report crude protein, total digestible nutrients (TDN), crude fiber and relative feed value (RFV). For alfalfa or most mixed hay forages, crude protein should be in the double digits. Grass hay can run under 10% crude protein. An RFV of 100 is based on a full-bloom, mature alfalfa hay. A very good alfalfa hay cut on time might have an RFV above 125, whereas a poor-quality grass hay might be 75 or lower. More mature forages will tend to test lower for protein, higher in fiber, and lower in TDN and RFV compared to a forage cut at beginning bloom or younger, no matter what species it is.
There is still a place in feeding programs for grass hay, even with lower nutritional value, but it fits best for nonlactating animals. If it must be used for lactating animals, supplement with protein and minerals accordingly.
Parker is a former Extension specialist and raises cattle near Morgantown, Ind.