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Low forage protein portends higher supplemental feed costs

Abundant summer forage growth may have led to extra body fat, but breeding cows will likely need nutrition boost through winter.

The intermittent rains that saturated parts of the lower Midwest for most of the past year may have taken a toll on forage quality, which producers and forage quality researchers alike suspected, according to the University of Arkansas.

Shane Gadberry, professor of ruminant nutrition for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said the rains affected every aspect of raising forage, from planting and fertilization to pest management.

“Putting up good-quality hay was challenging for Arkansas ranchers in 2019,” Gadberry said. “Rain and water-logged soils kept ranchers from getting fertilizer out, weeds sprayed and hay harvested in a timely manner. We’re starting to see the consequences in the lab.”

Between May 1 and Aug. 27, 92 cool-season grass hay samples and 368 warm-season grass hay samples were analyzed through the Division of Agriculture’s Diagnostics Laboratory in Fayetteville, Ark., the university said. Testing results show protein averaging 9.0% in cool-season grasses and 9.8% in warm-season grasses, with total digestible nutrients (TDN) averaging 51% in cool-season grasses and 56% in warm-season grasses.

“We typically see protein above 10% and TDN around 54% in fescue, our most commonly harvested cool-season grass,” Gadberry said. “Bermudagrass is the predominate warm-season grass harvested for hay, and historically, we’ve seen the protein around 12% and TDN close to 58%.”

A drop of two to four percentage points in overall quality means beef cattle will need more supplementation through the winter, he added. About 50% of available hay is testing too low in protein and energy for non-lactating cows in late gestation, Gadberry said, and about 80% of the hay is too low in protein and energy for early-lactation cows.

“It’s uncommon to see this many hay samples not meeting the nutrient requirements of non-lactating cows,” Gadberry said.

In the short term, the extra body fat many cows are carrying from this summer’s abundant pasture growth will help them endure the winter, but if they lose too much body conditioning before calving or are in a negative energy balance during breeding, next year’s calf crop will suffer, Gadberry said.

“The current excess supply of pasture forage is going to start dropping in quality as we move into fall,” he said. “Ranchers should visit with their county extension agents about testing pasture forages for protein and TDN, like they would hay. If pastures test below 8% protein, supplemental protein may help the cows better digest those carryover grasses.”

Supplemental feed costs are likely going to be higher this winter, Gadberry said.

“The best approach to choosing the right type and amount of supplement is testing on-farm hay stocks,” he said. “Hay quality is too variable from farm to farm and cutting to cutting to make assumptions about supplemental feeding. A routine hay analysis will cost $18 a sample.”

Source: University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.
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