Forage is more valuable today
High hay prices mean producers need to improve yields and reduce waste.
Winter feeding and care always have been a critical aspect of cattle production in the Northern Plains.
Meeting the most basic needs of the stock—adequate feed for efficient production and well-being—represents the major cost to and activity of producers.
“That makes hay and forage, the basic feed for cattle, more valuable today, whether it is standing in the pasture, rolled into a bale or packed into a bunker,” John Dhuyvetter, area Extension livestock specialist at North Dakota State University’s North Central Research Extension Center near Minot, said. “As such, it may deserve greater attention in valuing its costs, and maximizing its use and value.”
Historically, hay and forage have been abundant and inexpensive, but that’s not the case now. The opportunity to harvest low-quality, low-cost hay on Conservation Reserve Program land is disappearing fast, and producers do not want to raise a forage crop on high-rent land capable of producing a high-profit grain crop.
“This scenario is creating some new forage realities,” Dhuyvetter said. “Differing situations are bringing forth unique challenges that are being addressed in a variety of ways, often with some trade-offs.”
With hay at $100 per ton, producers need to enhance yields through management, reduce losses and minimize needs, he adds. Here are ways he suggests producers could accomplish that:
• Renovate old hay stands that no longer are productive. Including a legume such as alfalfa in grass-dominated fields can boost nitrogen levels without the cost of applying a commercial fertilizer.
• Plant newer forage species and varieties because they likely are more productive.
• Plan for more timely cuttings to maximize feed nutrients.
• Keep harvesting equipment well-maintained to minimize losses.
• Ensile forage where available acreage is limited and you need a high quantity of feed or high-quality forage is beneficial. The cost per nutrient can be favorable in spite of silage production costs when yield is high.
• Select hybrids that do well in your area, plant early, and provide good weed control and fertility to increase yield potential.
• Harvest at the optimum moisture, pack the forage correctly and cover it to help reduce potentially high storage losses.
• Maximize the use of lowcost roughage by providing supplementation, particularly in corn-growing regions.
• Graze stover left behind when corn is harvested to reduce the need for hay and to extend grazing, further reducing feeding costs. New procedures are being developed to harvest, grind and treat residues to enhance their digestibility as a feed.
• Grow a second crop (for example, a mixture of oats, radishes and turnips) after the early harvest of peas or barley in areas where fall moisture can be anticipated to germinate a second crop to provide additional fall grazing.
• Consider planting a highyielding annual forage such as oats, millet or hybrid sorghum-sudan when cash crops fail (hail, disease, poor emergence, etc.). With attention to fertility and weed control, these forage crops have the potential to yield more than 2 tons per acre of a high-quality forage. If fencing and water are available, these crops can be grazed or windrowed and left for late grazing rather than cut, cured and baled.
• Use bale feeders to reduce hay waste when feeding more than a day’s feed to smaller groups of cattle. The design, durability and price affect the effectiveness and cost of using bale feeders. Consider hay-saving designs that allow for more room per bale, and have slanted bars, greater height and a means of suspending the bale off the ground.
• Bale graze larger groups with a multiple-day supply of bales in the field to reduce feeding commitments and leave the manure dispersed in the fields. However, this option must be managed carefully to minimize waste and maintain cow condition. Include some low-quality forage as cereal straw in combination with some moderate and higher-quality bales for no more than three to five days. A good estimation of cow weight and bale weights is helpful when bale grazing.
Dhuyvetter also recommends providing adequate protein in the ration to supply microorganisms with nitrogen, which is critical to the efficient breakdown of fiber and forage utilization. Forage analyses can help determine if and what may be needed, and how best to deliver it.