This will be a 3-part blog series on: Testing and Measuring the Quality of your Cattle’s Winter Hay.
Today’s post is Part 1 – Why should we care about hay quality? (Part 2 of our series is ready to read as well! Please check it out!)
Forage costs are arguably the highest expense for any cattle operation, especially for those farmers whom feed-out hundreds of hay bales each winter. When you are budgeting for, and estimating your winter hay needs, it is important (nutritionally and financially) to know the actual quality of your hay. Each hay bale purchased is a small investment into your operation. You are putting forth money (and a lot of it for many of us) into forage/hay purchases and in turn, you hope that your forage/hay will provide the right rations of nutrition for your beef cattle. Ultimately, your “pay-off” will be represented by those same beef cattle thriving throughout the winter hay feeding season and then producing a healthy calf come calving time, and continuing to thrive and produce, year-after-year.
When I talk about a cow thriving and producing, I am thinking in terms of this: “thrive and produce” = a gestating cow that can maintain her body condition (as best as possible) during the winter, by consuming forage/hay that is a high-enough quality to allow for healthy fetus development of her calf, lactation production, and delivery of a healthy, strong calf. Then, post-calving, she needs to come into estrus/start cycling and be bred-back, all the while nursing her calf. AND for first-calf and second-calf heifers, we expect them to do all of this, PLUS continue to grow themselves. A tall order, indeed!
We expect a lot out of our beef cows, and therefore, we need to provide them with the quality of forage/hay/feed they need to thrive and produce.
So, how do we test our winter hay? (Please check-out Part 2 of this blog series, where we discuss this in more depth)
How do we measure the quality of all those winter hay bales out in our fields or barns? (Please check-out Part 2 of this blog series, where we discuss this in more depth)
Does quantity equal quality? No, it does not. You can have all the hay bales that you require according to your calculations (see here for calculating winter hay) but if the hay quality does not meet the nutritional demands of your animals, you very likely will need to feed out more forage/hay/feed supplement per day/per head than you initially calculated for.
And, what do we mean by the term “quality”?
Have you ever looked a bale of hay and wondered, “what really is in this hay?” “How nutritional is this hay? And how does my hay meet the nutritional demands of my animals?
We have only been in the beef cattle business and thus, dealing with hay, for six years. As such, we continue to learn and grow in regards to what we look for when buying hay. We have started to get a very small sense of the quality of our hay by sight and smell. Hay that has more of a “fresh-cut smell”, than a “musky, moldy smell.” We have had some bales with mold all the way through. Moldy hay will likely provide your cattle with little, if any, nutritional value, and more importantly, may not be safe to feed your your pregnant cows (moldy hay has been known to cause fungal abortions in pregnant cows). The more hay bales you look at, the more you can start to develop a visual basis, for which you can compare to bales from different producers/fields/times of year. We can look at two different hay bales, from either two different producers or the same producer but different fields and/or different cut, and visually see a difference in what we perceive is the quality of those bales. Then, we can discuss those differences until we are blue in the face. In the end, we could think we feel confident that we are feeding our mama cows hay with the right nutritional break-down but are we really????
What nutritional break-down are we looking for in a bale of hay?
Throughout this 3-part blog series, I will be referring to several nutritional terms:
Dry Matter (DM): Simply put, the term dry matter is the amount of hay, that when tested, is moisture-free. When a hay sample is tested, you will receive a forage analysis report, and one of the variables quantified, is the amount of moisture in the forage sample. Say that a particular sample of hay is 15% moisture and 85% dry matter. When making beef cow feed ration calculations, you need to use the dry matter composition. We will discuss this in more-depth later on in this series. I will refer to Dry Matter as DM.
Crude Protein (CP): Crude protein is another variable quantified in a forage/hay analysis. The percentage of crude protein tells us how much nitrogen is present in a given sample, representing both true protein and non-protein nitrogen. For example, a 1200-pound beef cow, in the pre-calving stage (60-90 days before calving) will require a diet of approximately 8.6% crude protein. (https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/400/400-012/400-012.html). This value will vary depending on the age of your cow (first-calf heifer versus mature cow, time of year, weather conditions, and where they are in the production cycle (pre-calving, postpartum, lactating (nursing a calf) and pregnant (bred-back after calving), and gestation (pregnancy stage after weaning calf, not lactating). This publication, by the Virginia Cooperative Extension, provides an extremely detailed and very useful guide for nutritional requirements (CP and TDN) for beef cows throughout the entire production cycle for mature cows, 1st-calf heifers, and more.) I will refer to Crude Protein as CP.
Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN): The TDN percentage in a forage analysis tells us all about energy: The total amount of the digestible protein, lipid, carbohydrates and fiber components present. Knowing the TDN percentage allows us to better decide if our forage is meeting the energy requirements of our cattle, and further, is a key component in determining and balancing winter forage rations. I will refer to Total Digestible Nutrients as TDN.
Continuing with our example from above (Crude Protein needs) of a 1200-pound beef cow, in the pre-calving stage (60-90 days before calving), this cow’s diet should be comprised of approximately 54.6% TDN. Our hypothetical, 1200-pound beef cow, in the pre-calving stage (60-90 days before calving) will require around 24.4lbs Dry Matter intake/day, with a nutritional break-down of approximately 8.6%/2.07lbs/day Crude Protein and 54.6%/13.2lbs/day Total Digestible Nutrients. (https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/400/400-012/400-012.html).
How we approach the management of our cattle herd is an ever-evolving work in progress, and there will never be a one-size-fits-all mold. What worked last winter may not work this winter and so forth. Thus, I think part of the draw and challenge for us is that there always is and always will be new things for us to learn. The all-important topic of Winter Hay/Forage/Feed Quality is always on our minds, no matter the time of year. On that note, I thank you for taking the time to read this post. Understanding the importance of – and how to test for – the quality of our cattle’s winter hay is critical in ensuring top performance and production of our beef cattle. I encourage you to please check out the rest of this 3-part series, as we post it. Thank you!
Please see our final post in this series: PART 3: Receiving and Understanding your Forage Analysis Results