For any livestock business that is pasture based, the approaching winter season typically represents the time of highest production cost. Especially in a cow-calf or spring lambing operation, the cost of feeding hay is a big determinant to overall profitability. This week Alan Gahler, Extension Educator in Sandusky County, provides some perspective on how to best utilize hay by drawing comparisons to the 4 R’s of nutrient management with the 4 R’s of feeding the cowherd. The same concepts also apply to a sheep flock.
“Most anyone involved in agriculture in Ohio has very likely heard about the concept of 4R management in agronomic crop production in order to preserve the soil and ensure water quality; using the right fertilizer or pesticide product, putting it in the right place, at the right rate, at the right time. The cattle producer who will be the most cost-effective at getting his or her cows through the winter while maintaining proper body condition and herd health will likely be the one making the most money come weaning time on the next calf crop. That producer will be adhering to the 4 R’s of feeding: feeding the right amount of the right feedstuff to the right contemporary group of cattle at the right time of the year.
How does the producer apply those 4 R’s of feeding? There are four main factors a producer needs to consider; the nutrient value of available feedstuffs, the cost of production or purchase price of those feedstuffs, the storage of those feedstuffs, and the nutrient needs of each age group of cattle. To simplify the rest of this discussion, we will focus on the one main feedstuff utilized to winter most beef cows in Ohio: hay.
Nutrient content of feed. 2017 was a challenging year to make quality hay in Ohio. Yield was significant on most farms, and most producers consider a big crop to be a good crop. But is it? How do you know what the nutrient content of that hay is without a forage test? After cutting, was the forage rained on or was it baled without rain? Is any bale of hay you can purchase for a reasonable price that looks or smells good going to have enough protein and energy to maintain your cows? A nutrient test on hay will cost anywhere from $20 to $50. If you have three cuttings from the same field, $150 will tell you what is inside the bale. Compare that to the cost of one lost pregnancy, or one 2-year-old that does not breed back.
Cost of production. Many producers raise their own hay and, therefore, have no real cost in it other than the fuel in the tractor and a little bit of fertilizer, right? What about opportunity cost of making that hay and using the ground for extended grazing or crops, and then purchasing your hay? There is realistic market value for that hay that must be applied to accurately make best management decisions. Where is that hay stored? In a barn, on a field edge under a tree line, in a stack of round bales alongside the barn? Was that hay brought in from the field right after baling, or did it sit for two weeks and collect rain or floodwater first? When you take that forage sample, do you sample it at the time of baling, or at the beginning of the feeding period so you can account for storage loss?
Age groups. Do weaned heifer calves, bred heifers, coming 2-year-olds, and mature cows all have the same nutrient requirements? What about fall calving? Does that cow hitting peak lactation on Nov. 1 have any different nutrient needs than a mid-gestation spring calver?
Most producers know the answers to these questions on each of the four factors presented or know how to get the answers. For those that do, their key to success is choosing to use that information. For those that do not know the answers, or how to find them, seek out advice from your county Extension educator, nutritionist, feed salesperson, veterinarian, or all of the above, and learn how to become a “4R” cow-calf producer. Your cows and your pocketbook will thank you.”
Getting a reliable forage test result is dependent upon gathering and submitting a sample that accurately represents the forage you will be feeding. A forage sampling guide describing how to properly and accurately sample forages is available on the Wayne County Extension web site at http://go.osu.edu/foragesampling, or contact the office at 330-264-8722 for a hard copy.