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Every region faces forage challenges: hot weather, cold weather, dry conditions, wet conditions. Assumptions about feed, water, salt and nutrient levels can be costly: lack of weight gain, reduced reproductive capacity and sick or dying animals. But you can make proactive decisions to improve the health of your forages and your herds.
As heavy and tough as hay bales are, they are open to risks when exposed to the elements, especially in a freeze-thaw scenario. During a winter season, they can shrink by up to 10-15 percent of their weight and lose 10 percent of their overall digestibility, according to Barry Yaremcio, Beef/Forage Specialist with the Alberta Agriculture Information Centre, in Stettler.
“If you had a 14 % protein bale in the fall, by the following feeding season you could be down to 11 percent,” says Yaremcio.
Even if you had a test done when you made the hay, he recommends a second test before starting to feed it again the following year. Knowing the exact levels is critical to making decisions. You may need a new feeding strategy to solve deficiencies, including integrating supplements.
Out with the old
Time is not a friend to forages. Two-year-old hay will lose its nutrients. Yaremcio knows of a case where 20-30 percent of new calves died due to lack of nutrition from consuming old feed.
“The quality of the hay stays constant until the head emerges, then you see a two percent reduction in protein per week.”
Fresh or supplemented feed is the best solution.
Hot and dry conditions
If hot and dry conditions persist, grasses can mature three to five weeks earlier than normal. Nutritional values decrease and help is needed to provide herds with required levels. The solution may lie in a combined Creep Feeder and supplement strategy to prevent costly productivity reductions.
Research during droughts has shown big gains, up to 150 lbs on calf weaning weights, when using a Creep Feeders, adds Yaremcio.
Already at low levels in western soils, trace mineral losses during high temperatures mean adding supplements can be critical. Vitalix’s #1 Conditioner, #4 Natural and #30-13 Beef Cattle Supplement feed tubs are all designed to help out during low quality feed times, especially during droughts.
Salt of the earth
Cobalt and iodine are non-existent in Western Canadian soils. Changing from a blue salt block to fortified salt can lead to a 25-pound weight gain for calves, an investment Yaremcio says will pay for itself.
“Cattle consume up to 75 percent of their salt at night.,” he adds. “If you have a deficiency, put a salt station where they sleep.”
Clean water works wonders
Producers who fence off water supplies and control intake get advantages like increased weight gain for calves and healthier cows. Animals walking in their water source stir up mud and solids, filling up on unhealthy substances. If they drink from a clean water source, they will drink more, eat more and gain more weight.
Find the answers in feed tests
Unfortunately, the vast majority of producers are not accessing valuable feed test information, a trend that has been around for some time.
“It’s one of the underutilized management practices out there,” Yaremcio says.
When results are returned, he recommends you review them, get advice and use standard or customized products to make up the losses.
Planting new forages, adding in legumes and winter species, and rotational grazing can all help alleviate nutrition losses. Leaving cattle out in pastures longer can increase retained soil nitrogen substantially, just from their own waste.
The bottom line is to know the health of your feeds so you can effectively enhance the health of your animals. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s where best practices and supplements come in.