Managing Forage Supplies

Table of Contents

  1. Determining Feed Required
  2. Limit Feeding
  3. Alternate Feeding Strategies

Feed is the largest single cost of a beef operation, accounting for 60% of expenditures. Managing your forages will provide the biggest return of any investment on your farm. Research has shown that up to 1/3 of stored feeds can be wasted from exposure to environment (rain, snow, scavengers.) One of the best investments on a beef farm can be a hay shed.

However, once winter sets in, you must use the feed stuffs you have to your best advantage. Make a complete inventory of your forages, dividing into the good, the bad, and the filler. Test your forage to determine the protein, energy and other nutrients available to your livestock. This will provide an indication of the quality of the feed, and how much the animals may consume.

Determining Feed Required

Know the weight of your livestock. Weigh your cows or, at the very least, review the cull weights of the last number of cows you sold. Once you have a good indication of the average weight of the groups of animals you have, you will be able to calculate the amount of feed you require for the rest of the feeding period. For example, with average quality forage, a cow will consume about 2% of her bodyweight in dry matter per day. A 1500 lb. cow (680 kg) will therefore eat 30 lb. (13.5 kg) of forage dry matter or about 35 lbs (16 kg) of forage as fed. If you have 100 cows, you will need 3500 lbs. (1590 kg) of forage per day until pasture season, which may be 150 days away. To get to pasture then, you need 240 tonnes of forage. If you have 4 X 5 round bales weighing 800 lbs. (365 kg), then you would need 650 bales of hay.

Group your breeding females according to age and body condition. This simple management strategy allows you to feed according to animal needs rather than supplying a smorgasbord buffet to the herd. Separate thin cows, bred two year olds, and first calf heifers from the main herd. Feed these animals which are under-conditioned, or still growing, better quality feed. Use your lower quality feed to maintain the core group of cows.

Limit Feeding

An option in managing tight forage supplies is to limit feed your animals. The objective is to feed cattle less than what they would normally consume. For example, limit cows to 1% dry matter intake of forage instead of the usual 2%. While restricted feeding takes bunk management it can reduce waste and cut cost. Cows can lose some condition during the dry pregnant period, or you can feed a small amount of a supplement designed to balance nutrient requirements. At times when forages are in short supply or expensive, this option could save dollars. Ensure that forages are fed whole, or if processed, not shredded to less than three inches in length. Also make sure that all animals have access to feed at the same time.

A 1500 lb. (680 kg) cow would normally consume 35 lbs. (16 kg) as fed (2% of body weight by dry matter) of forage. This provides her requirement of 15 lbs (6.80 kg) of TDN (energy) per day. Restricting that cow to 1% dry matter or 17.5 lbs. (8 kg) per day of forage results in using 50% less hay. But this only provides 7.5 lbs (3.4 kg) of TDN, half of her energy requirement. She now needs to make up that missing energy from an energy source such as grain. Feeding corn at about 8 lbs. (3.6 kg) per day would meet her need. Total feed intake by the cow would now be about 23.5 lbs. (10.7 kg) per day instead of 35 lbs. (16 kg) Depending on the price of hay and corn this may be an economical choice.

Alternate Feeding Strategies

If you have two different types of forages, i.e., a high quality and low quality forage, feeding all one type one day, and all the other type the next can improve the overall use of the forage. This reduces the impact of a boss cow at the feed bunk, allowing all cows access to better quality feed at the same time.

Cereal straw can replace other forage choices in cattle rations. Generally you do not wish to supply more than one third of the total intake as straw. All straws are not equal. Barley straw is more nutritious than wheat straw, and two row barley straw is better than six row.

Processing the forage through a tub grinder or similar apparatus, can increase digestion, reduce impact of dust and molds and reduce feed wastage. It allows for better use of poor quality feed and reduces sorting.

Finally, if feeding grain to the cow calf operation is required because of nutrient deficits or lack of forage, there is a better bang for the buck from feeding the grain to the calves rather than the cows. Young animals use grain more effectively, and it reduces the calf's dependence on its mother. Feeding grain to the offspring often leads into a preconditioning program as well. Or sometimes it is simply allowing the calves access to the really high quality forage, while restricting the cows.

Using some or all of these management suggestions can make better use of the forages put up to feed the livestock on the farm.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
Author: Barry Potter - Regional Livestock Specialist/OMAFRA
Creation Date: 18 February 2004
Last Reviewed: 28 September 2015