The Southern Great Plains region was fortunate to have a tremendous wheat crop in 2012. From that crop a lot of cool season annual forage was harvested to help replenish the depleted hay supply. However, after one of the hottest, driest early and mid-summers on record, dry conditions have persisted throughout much of the region. As a consequence grass hay yields have been…once again…in the 50 to 75% range of long term averages. Can you say de ja vu? Certainly, pasture conditions are poor throughout much of the region, hay is very expensive and difficult to find, and feed prices are extremely high. Cattle operations are once again forced to liquidate animals or consider feeding options. Like never before, producers should consider methods to improve efficiency of harvested forage use. Fortunately, a few relatively simple concepts are available that could make a dramatic impact. In fact, when combined, these strategies could cut the need for hay by at least one third!
Limiting hay intake
Feed yards and backgrounding operations have taken advantage of improved efficiencies associated with limit feeding growing cattle for many years. This strategy could be used to substantially reduce hay use in cow/calf operations as well. By limiting forage intake, forage digestibility should increase and waste should go down. Minnesota and Illinois researchers limited the amount of time cows had access to hay. When cows were allowed access to hay for six hours, hay intake was reduced by an average of 22% over three experiments. Hay waste was reduced with restricted access in two of the three experiments and cow weight gain declined with restricted access in all three experiments. Cows with restricted access gained weight in all three of the experiments, even though they did not gain as much as cows with free-choice access. This suggests that initial cow body condition and hay quality may be important factors in successful implementation of this strategy. For example, if cows are in poor body condition initially, or if hay quality is extremely low, cow performance, newborn calf health and reproductive efficiency could be compromised.
Estimating free-choice intake and determining the degree of restriction below free-choice intake are critical factors in using the limit feeding strategy. The National Research Council publishes equations to estimate forage intake and these equations are incorporated into many cow/calf nutrition evaluation software programs. For example, OSU Cowculator uses cow size, stage of production, milk yield and forage quality to estimate dry matter intake. Cowculator (and many other nutrition evaluation programs) can also be used to estimate performance of cows with varying degrees of hay restriction. Cowculator is available at beefextension.com. Limit feeding is not recommended for first calf heifers or thin, older cows.