Testing forage supplies can save money

Providing proper nutrition for wintering cows can pay dividends long term.

Providing forage and feed supplies with the proper nutritional value for cows is an important consideration for producers as winter approaches, said Dr. Jason Banta, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service beef cattle specialist.

Testing hay for quality can provide information producers need to meet the nutritional requirements of cows and keep them in good condition through the winter, Banta said.

By determining the hay supply’s crude protein content and total digestible nutrient (TDNs), which is the measurement of available energy in the forage, producers can determine whether supplemental feed will be necessary, Banta said. Knowing what type and how much supplemental feed is needed can save producers money long term.

“Sometimes, we find that hay is better than we thought, and we can save some money on supplementation,” he said. “At other times, we find the hay wasn’t as good as we wanted, so we do need to provide our cows with some more protein and energy supplements to make sure they are in the condition we want before calving so we optimize their pregnancy rates in the future.”

Banta said body condition scores for cows that are four years old or more should be five or better at calving. Scores for two- to three-year olds should be six or better.

Nutritional needs vary for different animals in a herd, Banta said. For instance, lactating cows require more protein and TDNs than dry cows. Tested hay should show a minimum of 11.0-11.5% crude protein and 63% TDNs on a dry matter basis to maintain most lactating cows, he said.

Banta recommended visiting with a nutritionist to determine appropriate tests for specific hay species being evaluated. The nutritionist can also recommend a reputable analytical lab.

“Labs can vary on how accurate their tests are and how quickly they can turn samples around for producers,” he said. “So selecting the right lab is important.”

Banta said producers should test each cutting and pull samples from at least 10% of the bales. Bales should be picked at random, whether in the field or stacked. Producers should also sample 10% of each load when buying hay.

He recommended using a probe that can be inserted into the hay bale to collect a good cross-section of hay for sampling.

The cost of testing hay can range from $25 to $60 per sample, but Banta said it’s an investment that will help producers optimize their cows’ nutrition and future breeding success.

“It may sound like a lot of money, but if we can do a better job feeding cattle, you’re going to make that money back on calves in the long run,” he said.

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