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.
“For me, the protein is nice, but probably the most important change we see is the increase in digestibility and intake,” Waggoner says.
“Because the biggest driver in low-quality forage consumption for a cow is ‘Can we get her to eat as much as we’d like her to to meet her nutrient demands?’ By ammoniating forage, you can improve the nutrient value of it and make those nutrients more readily available in the rumen.”
Additionally, Waggoner notes, the law of diminishing returns applies to the anhydrous application rate. “The comparisons between the 1.5 percent and 3 percent rates showed decreased proportional results,” he says. “It is up to an individual producer, and determinant upon his local resources, what application rate is best for him or her.”
Jared Petersilie, farmer and agriculture and natural resources Extension agent for Rush County in west-central Kansas, assisted with the research trial. One of the six statewide anhydrous ammoniation trials was conducted on wheat straw bales on his family farm south of Ness, Kan.
Petersilie says from his family’s view point, ammoniating wheat straw is a viable option if the farmer has the resources and equipment in place. “We had the straw and the baler, and we estimated we doubled the value of the straw and moved it from 3 percent or 4 percent protein to 7 percent to 8.5 percent protein,” Petersilie says. They valued the straw at a cost of $30 per ton, with an estimated $35 per ton additional cost for the plastic, anhydrous ammonia, labor and fuel involved with stacking the bales. He estimated this put his feed value at $65 to $70 per ton, compared to an approximate $115 per ton for wheat hay in the region.
“I always tell someone, if you have the straw, ammoniate it; if you don’t have the straw you’re better off buying a good wheat or oat hay because it’s not cost effective to go buy the straw,” Petersilie says.
The research team warns a critical factor is utilizing only low-quality forages — anything less than 5 percent crude protein and somewhere around 45 percent to 50 percent total digestible nutrients (energy), according to Waggoner. Higher quality forages with higher sugar content can create toxic compounds and cause “crazy cow syndrome” and hyperactivity in animals that eat it.
Ammoniating straw is sometimes compared to another bale-improvement practice — injecting supplement or other high-energy material into straw. However, Petersilie explained they are completely different, comparing the practices to broccoli and cheese.
“You can take broccoli and cover it with cheese to make it more palatable, but it’s still going to be broccoli underneath,” Petersilie explained. “However, with ammoniating, you actually change the form and composition of the product to increase the palatability.”
Overall, regarding the decision to ammoniate forage, Waggoner says producers have to ask themselves how they are set up to implement the process and utilize the results in terms of resources, labor, temperature, climate and feeding systems.
“There is always a benefit, but there are always the logistics to think about,” he says.
Stockpiling for the future
Chemical restructuring isn’t the only method producers are revisiting in an effort to lower input costs of wintering a cow. Tried and true methods such as stockpiling and windrow grazing are being reconsidered across the country as cattle owners confront industry influences like weather and ethanol that have altered input prices.
Dr. Danny Simms, feedlot consultant and former beef specialist with Kansas State University Extension, says minimizing harvested forages is key as producers who used to feed a cow for $300 per year are now looking at costs of $500 per year.
Simms notes in the High Plains grazing crop aftermath and extending grazing days are alternatives being used more. In the Southern states he says producers are stockpiling fescue by fertilizing it early in the fall, then grazing it through the winter instead of feeding hay. In the Western states, Simms says controlling stocking rates on pastureland is an option for extending the grazing season.
“Even with calves being worth more than ever, if you look at what it costs to produce them the margins are tighter,” Simms says. “Drought has forced people to take a look at options.”
Research on windrow grazing conducted by Aaron Berger and Jerry Volesky of the University of Nebraska showed the practice can significantly reduce harvesting, feeding and labor costs associated with feeding hay. In their case study they assumed a hay field with a 2-tonper-acre yield and 200 cows that consumed 30 pounds of forage per head per day. The costs of harvesting and feeding baled hay included swathing, raking, baling, hauling bales off field and feeding bales with labor, and totaled an approximate $39 per ton of hay. In contrast, windrow grazing costs included only swathing, fencing and labor, at a cost of $13.50 per ton.
The savings of $25.50 per ton of hay fed is significant, but windrow grazing requires an infrastructure of electric fence and labor for moving fence every three days — something not all producers are set up to accommodate.
A Montana State University study shows similar cost savings from windrow grazing but cautions that in colder climates, factors such as crusting snow and ice, wind disturbance, and wildlife trampling and consumption were all potential concerns.
Simms also notes simple technologies such as bale feeders should be considered more as hay prices increase. “In a lot of environments we waste way too much feed,” he says. “When we waste 15 to 20 percent of harvested forages, that is unacceptable. There is a lot of good research showing the benefits of simple things like bale feeders.”
Despite the methodology used to “tighten up,” Simms notes, a key rut producers should avoid getting trapped into is feeding the cows the way they have always done it, simply because “that’s the way I’ve always done it.
“Sometimes people have to face a hardship, like a drought, to make them step back and ask, ‘Is there another way to do this?’” he adds.
Waggoner notes that factors of drought are always going to either be happening, going to happen, or have just happened. “The bottom line is cattlemen should always be proactive,” he says.
“We’re a fairly optimistic group, because if we weren’t we would have found something else to do.”
Ammoniating forage 101
Wondering exactly how to go about ammoniating forage? It is recommended producers work closely with their local Extension agent and farmer’s co-op advisor, as well as other professionals available, due to the precision needed in the ammoniating process. However, following are a few key points highlighting the steps needed to ammoniate low-quality forage.
1. Select your site — Site should be flat and clear of debris and vegetative growth. Choose a site not on a producing field as the process will sterilize the soil for several years.
2. Build a bale stack — A 3:2 or 3:2:1 stack arrangement is most effective. Limiting factors are the size of plastic available to cover the stack. Leave about 2 to3 inches of space between each of the bottom bales to improve circulation.
3. Insert anhydrous lines — A special “splitter” device can be created that divides the main anhydrous line three ways, or a single hose can also be used. Insert the hose(s) into the middle of the side of the stack or equally spaced apart down the side of the stack.
4. Cover and seal the bales — The most critical factor in the process is creating a secure “envelope” around the bales to seal in the anhydrous. A 6 millimeter black plastic — available from industrial suppliers — is ideal. Plan for 3 feet of excess plastic on all sides, and place approximately a foot of damp soil along the bottom perimeter. Once the stack is sealed, check for holes or tears in the plastic and repair.
5. Establish safety protocol — Protection measures should always be followed when working with anhydrous ammonia, including wearing long sleeves, pants, gloves, goggles and foot wear. Water is the only first-aid treatment for anhydrous burns, so applicators should keep a bottle in their pocket and have access to at least a 5-gallon supply of water in the vicinity.
6. Turn on the juice — Apply anhydrous ammonia at a 3 percent dry-weight basis. Calculate the amount of anhydrous needed beforehand, and order a tank with only the required amount for ease of application.
7. Let it percolate — Ammoniating is more effective in warmer temperatures; cooler temperatures require a longer treatment time, with the major obstacle being keeping the plastic secured and tear-free for a longer period of time. The following chart shows the estimated time the stack needs to stay covered in relation to the temperature.
To watch a video produced by Kansas State University Extension on the ammoniating process, go to YouTube and search for “Ammoniating Low Quality Forages” or visit youtube.com/watch?v=-JtjJb-umpk.
Tamara Choat is a contributor to Drovers/CattleNetwork. She and her husband, Travis, farm and operate a backgrounding feedlot, as well as own a custom meat-processing shop near Terry, Mont.