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How to survive a tough forage year

If you’re an Indiana forage producer, you know 2010 was challenging. In many parts of Indiana, persistent rains prevented timely harvesting, resulting in poor-quality hay. In parts of southern Indiana, lack of moisture produced a serious lack of quantity.

How to survive a tough forage year

If you’re an Indiana forage producer, you know 2010 was challenging. In many parts of Indiana, persistent rains prevented timely harvesting, resulting in poor-quality hay. In parts of southern Indiana, lack of moisture produced a serious lack of quantity.

Whether your problem was quantity or quality, Purdue Beef Extension specialist Ron Lemenager says there are things you can do. The very first thing is to test your forage.

“Before I can help you put together a balanced ration, I need to know the dry matter content and adjusted crude protein values of the forage,” he says. “I also need to get some idea of the energy value and the neutral detergent fiber value to estimate how much the animal is likely to eat.”

Key Points

Much of Indiana’s 2010 hay crop was low in either quality or quantity.

Supplement inadequate forages with various choices.

You must test your forages before supplementing.

Once you’ve got an analysis, Lemenager suggests the following options, along with rules of thumb for each. Use them to make the best of a difficult situation.

Corn or byproducts

Lemenager says most Indiana forages are a combination of cool-season grasses, like orchardgrass or tall fescue, with legumes mixed in. As a result, these forages typically tend to be adequate in protein, with energy being the first limiting nutrient.

Corn is traditionally the first choice to add energy. However, Lemenager cautions against feeding more than 0.3% of an animal’s body weight. For a 1,000-pound heifer, that’s 3 pounds of corn per day.

“To feed more than that will confuse the ‘bugs’ in the rumen about whether they’re supposed to digest starch or cellulose, and they won’t be able to efficiently utilize the forage, which is the base component,” Lemenager says.

Other high-starch supplements include corn screenings, which may be fed up to 0.3% of body weight, and wheat middlings, which contain some starch. Feed up to 0.5%. Pelleted soybean hulls are a low-starch supplement option that’s high in digestible fiber. Feed up to 1% of body weight.

For situations requiring additional energy and protein, wet or dry distillers grains with solubles may be fed up to 0.5% of body weight. You can feed corn gluten up to 0.6% on a dry equivalent basis. With either one, Lemenager says you should add some extra calcium as limestone to avoid a calcium-to-phosphate imbalance.

“Using rules of thumb in these situations will keep you in the safe range,” Lemenager says.

Wet distillers grains

Getting first-cutting hay harvested without rain was a big problem this year. Co-ensiling forage with wet distillers grains may offer a good solution in the future.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could take direct-cut hay, co-ensile it with wet distillers grains, keep it and make weather a non-factor?” Lemenager asks.

His research team found it’s not only possible, but also provides attractive side benefits. When the forage-WDG S combination is co-ensiled at about 60% moisture, performance of feedlot steers was equal to or better than adding DDGS or WDGS to the mixer at feeding time. Adding distillers grains increased shelf life compared to regular, ensiled haylage. Co-ensiling may make WDGS more practical.

“We have a lot of small producers who have a hard time buying WDGS in large quantities without spoilage,” he says. “Here’s a way they can buy more WDGS. Mix it with first-cutting forage, which they can make in a more timely manner, and capitalize two ways.”

Other options

Another possibility for supplementing short forage supplies is planting late-summer annuals, like oats, turnips, cereal rye or ryegrass. However, best results occur planting these in mid-August.

Cornstalks can be grazed now that harvest is over. However, expect to supplement for nutritional protein and energy requirements.

To stretch tight hay supplies, limiting cow access time to round bales can significantly reduce amount wasted. Cattle with progressively fewer hours per day wasted less accordingly in Lemenager’s trials.

Cows with four hours access per day reduced hay disappearance, intake plus waste, by 37%, compared to cows with 24-hour access.

Contact Lemenager at 765-494-4817 or 765-427-5972, or e-mail

Boone writes from Wabash.

Test forages to maximize profits

‘Hay quality can vary greatly from one field to another, or one cutting to another,” says Keith Johnson, Purdue University Extension forage specialist. “If you don’t know your nutritional content and overfeed, that’s a cost. If you underfeed, that’s a loss in productivity.”

You need good hay samples, whether you produce hay for your own animals or someone else’s, because you know that every dollar counts. That makes knowing the nutritional content of your hay literally a no-brainer.

Johnson advises that you follow these simple steps:

Get a good forage probe. The average cost is around $150, but Johnson says the investment will easily pay for itself pretty quickly in terms of knowing your nutritional content. Producers can share a probe amongst several individuals. Some county Extension offices have a probe for loan.

After hay is in storage, get a representative sample of each lot. That’s usually about 20 cores per sample.

For small or large square bales, probe into the butt end of the bale to get a good core. For large round bales, take the samples about waist-high on the circumference, or round, not flat, side. One core should be taken from each of 20 small bales, and two cores from each of 10 large bales.

Combine the 20 cores into one larger sample. Send it to an approved lab for analysis.

While testing hay is essential, there’s still something to be said for combining that with good, old-fashioned sensory inspection, including how it looks and how it smells.

“Canada thistle actually tests very high in nutritional value, similar to good alfalfa hay,” says Johnson. “If I sold you some hay over the phone that tested very well, but you found a Canada thistle in every flake, you wouldn’t be a very happy customer.”

This article published in the December, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.

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