Echoing other recent announcements from universities across the Central U.S., the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture reported that laboratory-tested forage samples collected this fall are showing lower protein levels.
Livestock producers will need to adjust their herd’s winter rations to compensate, said Shane Gadberry, professor-ruminant nutrition for the Division of Agriculture.
According to the announcement, the Agricultural Diagnostic Lab operated by the Division of Agriculture at Fayetteville, Ark., offers a variety of services, including forage testing. The lab looks at protein levels as well as fiber, fat, moisture and a variety of other nutrients.
“It wasn't long after hay harvest that county agents started noticing forage test samples were returning lower in protein for producers that routinely test hay,” Gadberry said. “We followed up these reports and worked with the Agricultural Diagnostics Lab to summarize test result trends.”
Gadberry noted that “examining test results from 2014 through most of August 2019 confirmed what they were reporting. The median protein was approximately two percentage units lower and fiber two percentage units higher."
He added, “When we are short on protein, the rumen microbes aren't as efficient at digesting forages. This causes cows to eat less hay, which adds to the challenge of meeting cows’ nutrient needs.”
For cows with calves, protein and energy are critical, especially in winter. Not only do the cows have to feed themselves, but they also spend calories keeping warm and producing milk.
“We typically see about 40% of samples below the protein requirement for lactating cows, but the 2019 samples analyzed closer to 60% being below the lactating cow requirement for protein,” Gadberry said. “We always run an energy deficit for lactating cows, with close to 80% being inadequate in digestible energy.”
Some of the quality problem may stem from the very wet start to the 2019 crop year, he said.
Gadberry said he thinks “the very wet conditions early influenced the early hay crop. Producers had a difficult time getting into fields to fertilize and control weeds."
He added, “We could also be looking at not just this year but also cumulative effects that include 2018, which was also a challenging year for managing hay fields. Our hay producers should return to those fields and take soil samples to see if they need to adjust their fertilization practices this coming year.”
Gadberry said producers shouldn’t make supplemental feeding decisions based on the book values for forages, nor should they make those decisions based on the previous year’s forage test results.
“Forage testing is cheap compared to the consequence of cows losing too much body condition over winter because they weren't supplemented with the right type and amount of nutrients,” he said. “Our county extension agents are trained to use ration balancing tools, so producers that submit samples through their county extension office can also get assistance with evaluating supplemental feed options.”