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Optimize Nutrition with Forage Reserves, Supplementation

Posted Nov. 1, 2007

I don't want to resurrect bad memories from the summer of 2006, but what a difference a year makes. Last year we were searching for ways to keep our cow herds together, and this year we are searching for ways to replace the females we culled. Presently, most cattle are in good condition, and reported pregnancy rates have been very good. Pastures that weren't overstocked are in surprisingly good shape after producing sufficient hay and are providing manageable residue going into the winter. It is hard to believe that this time last year we were dry-lotting cows and pretty much feeding them everything they ate.

Most climatologists say that 2007 is a wet year during an extended drought. Let's hope they're wrong, but what if they're not? How do we fully capitalize on our good fortune this year? One way is to optimally utilize forage reserves with a complementary supplemental feeding program. In order to do so, you need a game plan. Here is how to develop one.

1. Quantify how much standing crop you can optimally utilize.
Many problems are created when forages are grazed too close to the ground just prior to and during dormancy. Allow at least 6-8 inches for native grass communities (e.g., bluestems, indiangrass, switchgrass) and 4-6 inches for introduced species (e.g., bermudagrass and old world bluestems) going into the winter. Excess forage availability can be estimated at 115 lbs./ac./in. for native grass species and 200 lbs./ac./in. for introduced grasses. For example, 20 acres of bermudagrass with an average height of 10 inches would yield approximately 20,000 pounds of standing dry matter, while still leaving 5 inches of stubble to insulate plants during winter.

2. Estimate daily forage allowance and project a potential date to provide additional roughage.
A good rule of thumb to use is that mature cattle eat between 2 percent and 2.3 percent (dry matter basis) of their body weight (depending upon stage of gestation and milking ability) per day. Therefore, using the example above, these 20,000 pounds will provide the roughage necessary to run 30 1,200-pound cows in their second trimester of gestation an additional 27 days before additional hay is provided.

3. Determine nutrient content of standing pasture and hay resources.
Although not exact, "grab" samples do an adequate job of quantifying nutrient content of standing pasture, while hay reserves can be tested very easily.

4. Identify whether or not additional supplementation is necessary.
To do this, you will need to quantify the nutrient requirements of the class of cattle you are feeding. These requirements are available in many publications, including archived issues of Ag News & Views.

5. Correct any nutrient deficiencies with a supplemental feeding program that complements your forage reserves.
Unless they are in poor condition and/or in peak lactation, mature cows will be predominantly deficient in protein during winter months. Base feed purchases on nutrient supplied per pound rather than on actual product weight (similar to how you would price fertilizer). For instance, a ton of 20 percent cubes will supply 400 pounds of crude protein compared to 760 pounds for 38 percent cubes. Therefore, if protein is most limiting, a 20 percent cube would need to be almost half the cost of the 38 percent cube to be economically justified.

6. Monitor and adjust your game plan if necessary.
Watch fecal output and body condition. If "patties" start to stack or become too loose, or if body condition declines or becomes too excessive, an adjustment is necessary. Also monitor forage disappearance; if thresholds are met before projected date, intervention is necessary.

Every year it becomes harder to be profitable in the cattle business. We all have heard the saying, "You can't starve a profit out of a cow," and this is true. However, a saying that is equally true is "You can overfeed a profit out of a cow." Profitable operations understand and implement ways to complement feed resources.