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Get more out of your forage

Zeb Gray for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 May 2022

The keystone to any cow-calf producer or stocker operator in the past was having cattle to graze forages. Allowing cattle to graze pastures and crop fields has traditionally been the cheapest way to feed and maintain these animals.

The amount of mechanically harvested feeds has historically had an inverse relationship with producer profitability. The more harvested feeds a producer had to haul back and feed to their cattle, the lower the profitability of the producer.

That old paradigm may have changed recently in several parts of the country as land values continue to soar due to investor and recreational interests. Even when using a sharp pencil, some producers can feed cows and stocker animals cheaper with harvested feed and a feed wagon than renting or owning grazing land.

Whether you are growing and harvesting more forages to feed to cattle, continuing the tradition of allowing cattle to do the harvesting through grazing or a combination of both, the truth is: Feed has gotten a lot more expensive. It will pay dividends to manage forage to maximize quality and tonnage, regardless of how you are utilizing it.

How do forage quality and yield change?

Forages contain nutritional components that are quite digestible, including sugars, starch, soluble carbohydrates and some lipids (fats). The digestibility of the fiber components of forages can differ substantially. Young, vegetative forages (versus mature or dormant) have high amounts of partially digestible fiber (cellulose and hemicellulose) that can be used as an energy source for the rumen bugs and low amounts of indigestible fiber (lignin).

As the plant matures, it adds more lignin and becomes less digestible for the rumen. Additionally, vegetative forages also have higher amounts of crude protein (CP) that steadily decline as the plant matures. This declining protein content also can limit rumen mechanics. The rumen bugs require nitrogen to thrive and convert feed into energy for the animal. They derive nitrogen from the protein of feedstuffs. Mature forages have reduced CP levels. Additionally, some of the protein present will be bound and unavailable to the rumen bugs or the animal.

Armed with that knowledge, it might be logical to conclude you should just always graze or harvest forages when they are young and vegetative. Yet any producer knows that trying to harvest any crop at exactly the right time is logistically impossible. Weather, manpower, breakdowns and, in the case of grazing, a lack of fencing or the ability to move cattle to different pastures are all formidable challenges. Secondly, although the plant’s fiber quality and protein content are highest when it is young and vegetative, its tonnage production is at its lowest. Harvesting forages (whether that is a pasture, hay field or cover crop) is always a balancing act of maximizing quality and tonnage with the limitations of your resources and Mother Nature.

Match your forage to animal production needs

Environmental conditions will dictate how well forages grow during different seasons and how fast they will mature. The two main categories forages are broken into are cool-season and warm-season. Cool-season grasses are most productive in the spring and fall because they respond well to cooler temperatures and higher soil moisture. Some examples of common cool-season forages are clovers, Kentucky bluegrass, fescue, oats, triticale and wheat. Warm-season grasses are specifically triggered by the length of the day and are most productive during the warmer summer months. Some examples of common warm-season forages are bermudagrass, big bluestem, indiangrass, millets and sudangrass. It is important to recognize what kind of forage a producer is dealing with when trying to balance and maximize forage quality and yield.

The goal of a producer should be to match your class of livestock to your forage resources. Younger, growing cattle – because of their lower feed intakes – require a more energy-dense forage with a high level of protein. Lactating cows with calves at side require larger amounts of forage with moderate levels of energy and protein. Dry, pregnant cows can maintain themselves fairly well on quite low-quality forages if the CP of their total diet stays adequate.

Providing proper supplementation to improve animal performance

Animals were able to survive off native grasses long before man began to domesticate livestock. However, there is a big difference between animals surviving and animals meeting the high production goals needed for producers to stay profitable. In addition to providing suitable forage, do not neglect the mineral and vitamin needs of cattle. Forages in general are a pretty poor source for both.

Make sure you are providing a high-quality and well-fortified mineral supplement (phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium and salt) with vitamins. It’s also beneficial to incorporate additional feed additives with your minerals that can improve digestibility of feedstuffs. Some newer feed additives have also been shown to improve animal digestive health and immunity.

When it comes to choosing additional feed additives, make sure you are choosing a product that can be stored under various conditions and will not lose its effectiveness under different temperature and environmental extremes. It is important those feed additives have research that documents efficacy and an animal performance response.

Zeb Gray
  • Zeb Gray

  • Technical Feedlot Specialist
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