Strategies for cow herds with short hay supplies

Dr. Dave Lalman, Oklahoma State University Beef Extension Specialist
This year’s historical drought has forced cattle producers in the Southern Great Plains to liquidate a portion or all of their cattle, begin feeding months ahead of their normal winter feeding schedule, ship cows to grass somewhere North or East, purchase marginal or low quality hay from hundreds of miles away, and deal with a higher percentage of open cows due to the extreme summer heat. Like never before, this is the winter feeding season to consider ways to improve efficiency of harvested forage use. And fortunately, there are a few relatively simple concepts or strategies that when combined could result the need for only about 2/3 of the hay most of us think we need.
Possible strategies include:
1) Limit feeding hay.
By limiting forage intake, forage digestibility should increase and waste should go down. This can be accomplished by feeding a predetermined amount of around 75% of what the cattle would normally consume. This can be accomplished by rolling out the appropriate amount of round baled hay every day or flaking off big square bales.  Another option is to place hay in feeders in a dry lot where cattle can be allowed access to the hay for about 6 hours. Research shows that 6 hours of access to hay reduces forage intake to about 75% of normal. This program should only be used with good quality grass hay and is not recommended for first calf heifers or thin, older cows. The better quality the hay, the better this program will likely work. Limiting access to extremely low quality forage may exacerbate weight loss.
2) Using hay feeders designed to limit hay waste.
If producers are using round bale hay feeders, be sure to select/purchase a model with a sheeted (solid) bottom. Open bottom hay feeders have been shown to waste as much as 21% of the original bale weight! The sheeted bottom should reduce waste to around 12-13%. Using a cone style feeder or modified cone feeder with a sheeted bottom should reduce waste to around 5-6% of the original bale weight.
3) Using an Ionophore (feed additive).
Finally, consider using an ionophore for grazing cattle and cattle consuming hay. Older research has shown that Rumensin and Bovatec improves weight gain of growing cattle. Rumensin is approved for the use in mature beef cows. Older research showed that Rumensin reduced hay intake by around 10% while still producing about the same amount of weight gain. In a recent study in our shop at Oklahoma State University, cows fed 200 mg of Rumensin gained an additional 0.5 pound per head per day and nearly one half a body condition score unit more during a 58 day study. Importantly in this project, the forage digestibility was improved dramatically, resulting in the improved cow performance. One could look at the addition of Rumensin in the supplement as having increased the net energy value of this low quality hay diet by about 15%. In other words, less of the same diet (hay) would need to be fed to get the same performance. In our region, the cost of Rumensin is ONLY ABOUT $0.02 per cow per day! I don’t know any other way to get that much improvement in forage utilization at such a low cost. There is a reason why the cattle feeding industry has been using this feed technology so well for so long, and a substantial improvement in feed efficiency is it. That improvement is available to the cow/calf industry as well.


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