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It's Time to Develop a Hay Feeding Strategy

Posted Nov. 1, 2005

It's November, and winter is fast approaching. Some folks have started feeding hay, others are going to start soon, and the rest are at least thinking about it. Nutrition, namely hay and concentrate feed, accounts for about 40 percent of operating costs in a cow-calf production system. This fact causes some producers to try to cut cost of production by cutting corners in the area of the nutrition program. This presents a problem because, if too many corners are cut, reproductive efficiency can suffer dramatically. It doesn't take long to figure out you don't want to skimp on nutrition; however, you can be more efficient if you put together a strategy for feeding hay this winter.

Keep in mind that not all forage or hay is created equal. There is great variation between forages, and nutrient content can vary dramatically even within a particular type of forage. There is no guarantee that one cutting of hay from a particular pasture will be the same or even similar to the next cutting. The best thing to do is to take a sample of all available hay and forage and have a lab analysis performed to determine the nutrient content. The lab analysis will reveal exactly what you are working with and whether or not any additional protein and/or energy supplements will be necessary to meet the requirements of the herd.

Another thing to keep in mind as you start feeding this winter is that not all cattle are the same, nor do they have the same nutrient requirements. To be most effective with winter feeding, cattle should be sorted into groups based upon stage of production. At the very least, separate cows from replacement heifers. Further divisions can be made within those groups based upon stage of pregnancy, age and body condition. These groups can then be fed at the appropriate rate to reach the production goals for each individual group.

In general, heifers and cows in early lactation have the highest nutrient requirements followed by heifers in late or mid gestation and then cows in late or mid gestation. With this in mind, the quality of the hay fed should be matched to the nutrient requirements of the cattle being fed. In general, the lowest quality hay should be fed to "dry" or non-lactating cows, and the highest quality hay should be fed to lactating heifers or cows. Hopefully, the hay on hand will meet the requirements of the cattle being fed. If not, it will cost less to supplement these cattle with a protein and/or energy supplement if the hay fed is properly aligned with the group of cattle that is being fed.

A couple of items to keep in mind are that nutrient requirements of cows increase about 10 to 15 percent during the last trimester of pregnancy and can increase by almost 50 percent after calving during early lactation. This is a critical period in a cow's production cycle, as a large amount of body weight can be lost if adequate nutrition is not supplied. This is especially true for first-calf heifers that are not only going through their first pregnancy and lactation, but are also still in the growth period themselves. Cows or heifers that lose much weight during this period will not be in good condition when the breeding season rolls around and will take longer to rebreed. By all means, do not limit the intake of heifers during the last trimester of pregnancy in an attempt to limit the growth of the fetus and decrease calving problems. This will create problems, not eliminate them. The result of limiting intake prior to parturition is a loss in body condition of the heifers causing them to be weak at parturition and less able to deliver their calves. These heifers also will be in poorer condition than they would have been to begin with and will take even longer to rebreed.

If you haven't done so already, now is the time to get a nutrient analysis of all available hay and forage, sort your cattle based on their nutrient requirements, properly match available forage and hay to the different groups of cattle and make sure their nutrient requirements are being met. Feeding cattle is never cheap, but producers with information about what they are feeding can be more efficient. Remember, you can't starve a profit out of a cow!