Forage analysis critical to plan for cow herd winter feed needs

By Gene Schriefer, Iowa County UW Extension Agriculture Agent

In preparing for winter feed needs for the cow herd, beef producers need to consider cow nutrient needs; pros and cons of different feeding methods; and possible alternative (and cheaper) feeds to reduce costs to the cow/calf enterprise.  By knowing what you have for feed in terms of quantity and quality tells you what you may need to purchase for additional feed for the winter-feeding.  Taking inventory on quantity is easier than knowing quality, however a forage analysis is essential in determining winter-feed needs and making an informed purchase decision.

When hay was “cheaper” beef producers might have thought they were able to afford the luxury of over feeding cows.  It wasn’t true then and is less true now.  If producers are going to expect cows to pay their own way, you may have a wreck on your hands if cows are underfeed over winter. If cows lose too much weight and have less than BCS 5 at calving this can cause problems such as cows won’t claim her calf; will produce less milk; and increase the chance of the cow turning up open next fall.  There is not much profit to be gained with these results. Conversely, if you feed $150/ton alfalfa hay all winter because you have always hay to winter cows and will not consider alternatives, you might avoid the problems outlined above, but your lender or pocketbook will not be happy.

Hay prices this fall in southwest Wisconsin have averaged over $100/ton for CRP and “beef hay” and up to $170 for premium dairy hay.   Is hay still our best cow feed?   Is the “beef hay” our best buy?  How can I reduce my winter-feed costs?

A few ideas to reduce winter-feed costs for your cow-herd:

  1. Storage losses: While it may be too late to reduce feed losses for this winter, you can makes plans for next winter. How hay is made or stored hay can vary significantly from the time the hay was harvested to when the hay is fed. The losses can be low as 2% are possible up to 30% or more at $100/ton this can result in loss of $2-30 per ton of hay.  A storage facility may easily pay for itself in feed loss savings.
  2. Feeding losses: Feeding a week’s worth of hay bales in the pasture does not take much labor, but it can waste up to 50% of the hay.  Invest hay feeders which reduce feed losses and limit the supply to three days or less to reducing waste to the single digits.
  3. Feed to your cow’s needs: Is your hay as good as you think it is? Maybe it’s actually better! Spending $16 on a basic forage analysis can be a great investment to manage your hay to meet your cows’ needs.  The hay you harvest maybe is such good quality you may be over feeding.  You can reduce the amount fed of high quality hay by feeding some corn stalks to stretch your hay supply while meeting the cows’ needs.  On the other hand, you may have lower quality hay, which may not meet your cows’ needs for energy and/or protein and you may consider it feasible to supplement with distiller grains or something else.  Yes, these supplements may appear more costly on a per ton basis, but if you figure what the cost is per unit of protein and/or energy and it might be “cheaper” than cheap hay or purchasing a higher quality forage.

Managing our herds and managing our feeds infers a certain level of control over these areas.  It is impossible to manage if we do not measure, and a forage analysis is a key measurement that should be done yearly.

Contact your local UW Extension office for assistance in obtaining hay samples and forage analysis.  Here is a factsheet (Hay Analysis Guide for Beef Cattle: Determining Winter Feed Needs) to step you through the process of determining if your hay will meet your cow herd’s winter feeding needs.  If you have further questions, contact your local UW Extension agent for more assistance.



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