Save money feeding cattle this winter

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By Toni Stauffer

It costs a lot to keep cattle fed in winter, a fact that can really cut into yearly profits for farmers who spend most of the year planning for the three to six months of daily feeding. According to Alabama Science and Forages Regional Extension agent Alex Tigue, good winter feeding management can save farmers time and money. Planting winter annual forages and stockpiling perennial grasses are just two of the preparatory management practices that can be an economic boost.

At the moment, there is a surplus of hay because of the wet spring and summer, but don’t let that fact allow for postponement of hay acquisition. Tigue recommends that farmers take stock of how much hay they have and calculate how much hay they will need over winter. Since cattle eat approximately 2.5 percent of their body weight daily in dry matter. A 1200-pound cow can consume about 30 pounds of hay (1200 lbs. x .025) every day. You must also include hay consumption by young calves, herd bulls and replacement heifers.

Farmers should estimate how many hay feeding days they intend. The types of grasses you plant can help in getting cows grazing sooner, which means less costs in hay. Fescue-based spring green is expected early to mid-April, Bahia and Bermuda grasses in mid-May or June. If farmers want to increase chances of cows grazing sooner, they should also plant ryegrass or some other winter annual forage.

Farmers can estimate the amount of hay needed by using the number of pounds needed per day and the number of days of feeding planned. Tigue recommends weighing a few hay bales to get a rough estimate on bale weight when figuring hay inventory. He also recommends that you send off hay to a lab for nutritional and content analysis.

Another way to save is to examine hay storage and feeding. Hay exposed to the elements can result in 20 percent waste. Waste can also come from feeding without a hay ring or other method. Because of moisture and waste, farmers may need twice the amount of hay. A hay-ring with a sheeting bottom is a sure way to keep financial losses down when it comes to feeding in the winter.

The quality of hay is just as important as how much hay farmers feed their cattle. An excess of rain like we have seen in 2018 causes hay to be overly mature and its nutritional value plummets. Tigue recommends farmers send samples of their hay to a lab for nutritional and content analysis to determine quality. This can be done through a local farmer’s co-op, feed store, extension office or other method and the cost is usually less than $20 per sample. Make sure to supplement feed for heifers because while Alabama hay meets the needs of “dry” cows, it falls short when it comes to meeting the nutritional needs of nursing mothers and can result in weight loss, which can cause a failure to reproduce the next year.

Because of the extreme variation found in price and quality of supplemental feeds, Farmers should tailor their supplementation to local feed resources to get the best return on their investment, because the more expensive hay has better nutritional value and requires less feeding. Overfeeding can also cause financial loss. Tigue recommends farmers separate cows into feeding groups based on stage of production and use their hay analysis for determining what to feed each group.

Some key factors to having a successful winter feeding period are: having enough hay, knowing the quality of your hay through analysis, understanding the nutritional requirements of cattle and being effective at supplementing.

Contact your local Alabama Cooperative Extension Office or Animal Science and Forages Regional Extension Agent, if you need assistance or have questions.

Things to know

Cattle eat 2.5 percent of their body weight daily in dry matter

A 1200-pound cow can consume about 30 pounds of hay every day

Make sure to have enough hay

Get a nutritional and content analysis of hay from a lab (costs less than $20)

Understand nutritional requirements of cattle

Become effective at supplementing

Plant ryegrass and other annual winter forages to allow earlier grazing

Use local feed resources for best return

Separate cattle into groups by production stage to avoid overfeeding

Use a hay ring or other controlled method of feeding to avoid waste