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Using Low-Quality Roughage in Late Gestation Cow Rations

20 February 2013

The 2012 drought has forced researches to look into using alternatives to hay to make sure fodder rations go round.

Most spring calving cowherds are now in the late-gestation stage of production, or will be there very soon. This is one of the more critical times on the calendar in terms of optimizing cowherd productivity. Not only is the bulk of fetal development occurring, but it also our last realistic chance if we need to put body condition on cows.

Warren Rusche

Most years feeding a beef cow herd in the winter is relatively straightforward. We put up hay all summer and feed it all winter. Most years there’s enough good-quality hay to go around. The economics of relying on harvested feed may be an issue, but at least from a standpoint of feed availability and nutritional adequacy, that system has generally worked well.

The drought of 2012 has turned that system on its head. Good-quality grass hay and alfalfa hay is scarce and extremely expensive. Beef producers will be forced to be more creative in their feeding programs, and in many areas that means feed such as salvaged cash-grain crops, low-quality roughages and by-products.

While it may not be as simple as just feeding high-quality grass and/or alfalfa hay, late gestation diets containing the above types of feedstuffs can certainly be created and made to work very well. The first step, however, is to get a representative sample of the forages taken and analyzed. Some of the early test results have shown CRP hay in South Dakota to be as high as 9% and as low as 2% crude protein, depending on harvest date and prior field history. Corn silage results have ranged from 6 to 11%. Relying on book values when compositions are that variable could prove to be disastrous, either in terms of animal performance or a producer’s pocketbook.

After the nutrient values are known, then a diet can be developed. A couple example rations for a 1,400-pound cow in late-gestation are shown in Table 1. In some cases, some additional protein supplements may need to be used, or a smaller amount of higher-quality roughage is needed to balance out the various silages, crop residues, and other roughages. The exact answer will depend on the resources that each operation has available to them or that can be purchased economically. These rations should be viewed as ideas or suggestions; an exact feeding program will depend on the conditions at each feeding scenario.

Table 1. Sample Rations for a 1,400-Pound Cow, Late Gestation
 Diet #1Diet #2
Corn Silage 24 15
CRP Hay 15 12
Baled Corn Stalks   12
DDGS 4 3

For some of these rations, particularly those relying on corn silage, the amount of dry matter offered may not be enough to completely satisfy the cows’ appetite, even if the amounts of energy and protein are sufficient. In those cases, making sure that every cow has an equal opportunity to consume her daily ration will be very important to make sure that the less dominant cows don’t lose condition. Another strategy that has been successful when limit-feeding cows has been to allow the cattle access to relatively cheap roughages, such as corn stalks, whether that is through grazing or in a bale form. For more information about limit feeding strategies check out the iGrow article Strategies to Control Hay Intake and Waste.

Further Reading

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February 2013

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