It is said necessity is the mother of all invention. For many cattle producers, drought and high feed prices are driving new feeding strategies, causing cow owners to look at different methods and, in some cases, revisit old ways of providing sustaining nutrients in a less expensive package.
Anhydrous ammonia — it’s more than fertilizer
The idea of applying anhydrous ammonia to low-quality forages is not new in idea or practice. As far back as the 1880s research was conducted on the de-lignification of wood materials to improve digestibility, and in 1905, a German patent was issued on the process. In the early 1980s, various land-grant university researchers conducted ammoniation studies on crop residues; however, the practice wasn’t found to be cost effective. Various other chemicals have been experimented with over time, but the relative ease of access to and cost of anhydrous ammonia have caused it to become of top interest.
In 2012, Dr. Justin Waggoner, Kansas State University Extension southwest area beef specialist, launched a statewide study to revisit ammoniating low-quality forage due to the low supply of hay created by a national drought. One of the main factors he was concerned with was application rate. “We wanted to evaluate if the amount of anhydrous applied could be reduced from the traditional rate of 3 percent to 1.5 percent, primarily in response to the increased cost of anhydrous,” he says.
Based on application trials at six sites statewide, the KSU research team showed the three key benefits of ammoniating straw include:
1) Increased nitrogen content — Crude protein went from 3.3 percent in a pre-treatment sample to 8.6 percent in a 1.5 percent anhydrous treatment, and 10.8 percent in a 3 percent anhydrous treatment.
2) Improvement in dry-matter digestibility — Ammoniation breaks down the chemical connection between lignin and hemi-cellulose in the plant cell walls, making it more digestible in the rumen by an average of 22 percent.
3) Increased intake — Increased digestibility results in about a 15 percent increase in drymatter intake. As the cow is able to break down more dry matter, she is then able to consume more.
Treating low-quality forage with anhydrous ammonia is an old practice that is being revisited, due to drought conditions and the availability of hay. “For me, the protein is nice, but probably the most important change we see is the increase in digestibility and intake,” Waggoner says.