The "abundant spring and early-summer moisture" received in Nebraska and other parts of the Midwest has resulted in hay meadows and fields being inundated with water, Nebraska Extension educators Aaron Berger and Troy Walz said in a recent contribution to the Nebraska "BeefWatch" newsletter.
Even if the rain stops, for many producers, these flooded hay meadows and fields will produce significantly less this year due to the damage caused to forage stands by the standing water, they said, which sets up a scenario where many producers may find themselves short on hay for the upcoming 2019-20 winter.
In addition, Berger and Walz said the quality of the feed harvested may be less than “normal” because delayed cutting from waiting for fields to dry may mean that forage is more mature, reducing the energy and protein content of the hay.
They encouraged cattle producers to plan now for management options with reduced forage production from perennial hay fields. They listed several suggestions, including:
1. Reduce forage demand for the upcoming fall and winter. It is hard to believe that hay may be short with an abundant precipitation year, but for many cow/calf producers, this may be the case, Berger and Walz said.
Consider weaning calves as well as pregnancy testing yearling heifers and cows early as a method to reduce forage demand. Shipping calves off the ranch and culling non-pregnant heifers and cows early can help significantly reduce forage demands, they added.
2. Plant annual forages to provide additional feed. Summer annuals can be planted until late July and still be very productive, assuming that there is adequate soil moisture and fertility, Berger and Walz noted. After late July, spring annual forages such as oats, spring triticale and barley as well as brassicas can be a better option for forage production because they will continue to grow into the fall as long as temperatures are above the mid-20s°F, they suggested.
Planting annual forages into wheat stubble may be a good option this year to produce additional forage.
3. Find and secure other forage resources. Evaluate whether it may be best to bring the feed to the cattle or the cattle to the feed, Berger and Walz said, noting that, in many places, roads will require significant rebuilding before trucks can haul in feed.
Cornstalks for grazing, cover crops and annual forages can be used to replace hay, they suggested, and ammoniating wheat straw or cornstalks can significantly improve the quality of both of these residues. They added that bringing hay onto a ranch from outside sources could also bring weed seed, so producers considering this option should use caution.
4. Compare feed options and contract protein and energy supplements early to lock in supplies. It is likely that protein and energy-dense feeds such as distillers grains will be in demand to be used with low-quality forage, so Berger and Walz suggested purchasing these feeds early to guarantee supplies. Utilize cost comparison tools to effectively compare feed options to one another, they added, and include all costs, such as hauling, storage, waste and feeding expense to fairly compare feeds.
5. Utilize perennial hay fields and meadows that were too wet to hay for grazing during the fall and winter. Once the ground is firm or frozen enough for cattle to get out on it, consider grazing these areas through the fall and winter, Berger and Walz said. The use of an electric fence for strip grazing and/or windrow grazing can help increase harvest efficiency and minimize waste. Areas that are too wet to harvest this summer may be able to be grazed later this year, they said.
6. Minimize waste during storing and feeding. With uncovered storage, utilize hay storage methods that will minimize nutrient and dry matter losses from weathering, Berger and Walz said.
These may include: (1) making a dense bale, since a dense bale will sag less and have less surface area in contact with the ground; (2) storing hay on an elevated, well-drained site so it will not soak up moisture from wet soils or standing water; (3) storing bales end to end, with the line oriented north to south to allow prevailing winds to blow snow past the bales, and (4) if more than one line of bales is needed, space adjacent lines at least 3 ft. apart to increase airflow and allow sunlight to penetrate the bales.
When feeding, research has shown that certain types of bale feeders, along with limiting the time cattle have access to hay feeders, can reduce waste, Berger and Walz said. For cattle fed in a drylot, these tools can be helpful to efficiently utilize hay.
7. Consider the use of an ionophore to stretch feed resources. Where cattle are being fed a supplement daily, consider the use of the ionophore monensin for cows to stretch feed resources. According to Berger and Walz, research has shown that when cows are fed an ionophore, the amount of hay needed can be reduced by 7-10%.
8. Consider limit feeding cows. Berger and Walz said limit feeding is when cows are fed a diet containing ingredients that are energy and protein dense that meet the cow’s nutrient requirements but are restricted in how much they eat. Energy- and protein-dense feeds can be fed with low-quality forage to stretch limited forage supplies, they added.
9. Test your hay/forage. Knowing the nutrient content of a hay/forage will help with ration formulation to ensure that the cattle’s nutrient requirements are being met, Berger and Walz said. Having an accurate analysis is important in developing a cost-effective feeding strategy.
10. Partner with farmers who have planted cover crops on prevent plant acres. In some areas that were too wet to plant this spring, farmers have planted or will be planting cover crops on acres that they were not able plant to corn or soybeans, the extension educators said. These crops can be grazed after Sept. 1.
By beginning to plan now for a potentially short hay supply, cow/calf producers will be in a better position to fully utilize the options available to them, Berger and Walz concluded, adding that resources on options they discussed can be found at the beef.unl.edu website.