The Use of Straw and Grain to Stretch Feed Supplies For Wintering Beef Cows

The use of straw for feed is one alternative available to many producers. Good quality straw is a surprisingly good energy source for ruminants. With percent Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) values in the mid-40's, straw can be much more than just a filler, providing a significant proportion of energy needs. However, straw is low in protein (only 4 percent to 5 percent) so the ration must include an adequate source of protein, along with the appropriate mineral mix and salt. Oat straw is more palatable than barley straw, while barley straw is more palatable than wheat straw. Since oat straw is also the highest in energy content, it is the best choice for cow rations, followed by barley straw.

The best candidates for straw feeding are mature dry cows in good body condition, up to six weeks away from calving. These animals have the lowest nutritional requirements of any in the herd. Save your best forages for bred heifers and young cows pregnant with their second calf, as well as for post-calving rations. Thin cows should be grouped with the bred heifer group to enable them to consume enough nutrients for successful calving and re-breeding.

If you have access to some good quality hay (16 percent protein) this can be fed in a 60/40, straw/hay mix to supply adequate energy and protein. With an average quality hay (12 percent protein), go to a 50/50 mix, and with a low quality hay (9 percent protein), cut straw back to 30 percent of the ration.

The above rations work out fine on a calculator, but actually feeding them to the cows can be challenging. Feeding straw and hay in separate feeders at the same time doesn't work well. Cows will usually prefer the hay and will compete vigorously for the more palatable feed. The dominant cows will get their fill of the good stuff, leaving the sub-dominant animals to make do with the lower quality feed. If a bale processor is available, chopping the higher and lower quality bales together is ideal. Feeding this mixture will prevent most of the sorting by the cows, and even if bunk space is limited, less aggressive animals will be well-fed. An alternative to processing is to feed the different roughage sources on alternate days. With enough feeder space, all of the cows will be able to consume their fill of high quality forage on one day, and max out on low quality feed the next. In order to prevent waste, match the daily amount of feed offered to the consumption level of the group.

If hay is not available, straw can be used as the only roughage source, as long as an adequate grain mix is also fed. An example ration would be free choice barley or oat straw, 5 lbs. of corn grain and 1 lb. of 40 percent protein supplement (offer a 2:1 mineral free choice). Feeding grain or concentrate to beef cows is easier said than done! The grain should be fed whole or coarsely processed so it does not digest too quickly. And it is essential that all cows have access to the grain at the same time. If this doesn't happen, the dominant cows will eat all of it (possibly getting into grain overload), with timid cows left to sniff at the dust left behind. For a small number of cows and a small amount of concentrate, you can pail it out in a rough lumber bunk-as long as you can keep ahead of the cows! For larger numbers, you need some kind of fenceline feeder or long bunk with mechanized feed delivery.

When roughage sources such as hay or straw are in very short supply or very expensive, feeding a ration where grain supplies most of the nutrients, and the forage source is limit-fed, is an option. In this case, feeding management has to be exceptional to avoid unequal consumption and resultant digestive upsets. Each cow needs to consume a minimum of 5 lbs. of palatable hay each day to provide sufficient fibre for proper rumen function. The forage should be fed prior to the concentrate to minimize the potential of grain overload. An example ration would be 6 lbs. of hay, 9 lbs. of corn grain, 2 lbs. of 40 percent protein supplement, and 0.2 lbs. of limestone. Since total dry matter intake will be much less than the maximum for these cows, they will feel like they haven't had enough, and may bawl for feed or eat twigs in an attempt to satisfy their appetite.

Using alternative feed sources such as straw and concentrates can allow beef cow-calf managers to stretch their conventional forage sources. Cost out the alternatives to come up with the best plan for your operation.

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