Rain During Spring And Summer Has Reduced Hay Quality

   The frequency and amount of rain experienced this past spring and summer has resulted in a large amount of forage growth. That is the good news. The bad news is that the precipitation has likely interfered with hay harvest. There were very few three-to-four-day windows during which hay could have been harvested without being damaged by rain. As a result, several hundred acres across the state were not harvested at the appropriate stage of maturity. The grasses continued to grow to the stage of maturity that resulted in increased fiber content, reduced digestibility and nutrition availability. Cow-calf producers need to be aware of the effects of feeding reduced-quality hay to their cattle.
   Feeding low-quality hay during the winter can have negative effects on both the brood cows and their calf crop. The cows’ nutritional needs must be met to produce strong, vigorous calves at birth as well as adequate colostrum. Calves need adequate colostrum within two hours following birth, preferably within 15 minutes. In addition, adequate nutrients are required for the brood cow to return to heat and breed back on time. Cows can be undernourished if fed low-quality hay, even when they consume all the hay they possibly can.
   Winters are generally cold, wet and muddy, which creates a chill factor that both the dam and her calf must endure. Cold and mud have a greater effect on energy expended or energy lost by the cows and calves than if the ground is frozen. Mud also can serve as a reservoir for disease-causing organisms. The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts that temperatures during the winter of 2014 will be below normal and precipitation will be above normal. Regardless, winters are hard on cattle that are underfed.
   On the other hand, cattle exposed to dry, cold weather will increase their intake of hay by up to 30 percent. But with low-quality hay, the consumption goes down due to the reduced digestibility. In addition, precipitation and muddy conditions at any temperature may depress hay intake by up to 30 percent. The reduced consumption can be overcome only by feeding grain or other appropriate concentrates. Providing shelter or windbreak can reduce the effect of wind and rain. Hays with inadequate protein content will be even less digestible and a poor source of energy.
   When temperatures are between 20-25 F, a baby calf’s maintenance requirements increase about 50 percent compared to those in less cold weather. Baby calves need more than a gallon of milk just for maintenance. A cow in poor condition that is fed low-quality hay will produce very little milk. Thus, the fate of a young calf that receives only a quart to half-gallon of milk per day is easy to predict.
   Following are some suggestions for feeding low-quality hay in the winter and managing beef cows and their calves:
   1. Forage test the hays prior to feeding. Testing is essential to developing an effective winter-feeding program regardless of the quality of the hay.
   2. Following the results of the forage test, feed the lower-quality hay to the dry, pregnant, mature cows. Supplement if recommended.
   3. When feeding low-quality hay, be sure that adequate protein is available. This determination can be made based on the forage test results. Inadequate protein will cause the cattle to consume less feed than desired.
   4. Feed cows on sod or otherwise out of the mud. Feed hay over as large an area as possible.
   5. Cubes are a popular method of providing supplemental protein. Cubes can be scattered across the sod of the pasture, permitting all of the cows to have access to it.
   6. Ensure that adequate space is available for the cattle to eat from the feeding rings. Generally, the younger, stronger cows will choose the better feed, and the older cows and those that have physical problems will receive what is left over. The leftovers are usually the poorer-quality feed, which causes weight and condition loss.
   Performance of the brood cows will be reduced and the performance and survival of their calves will be reduced if the effects of the low-quality feed are not compensated. Low-quality hay can be utilized in the winter-feeding program for Tennessee cow-calf producers, but be sure you know the nutritional content of the hay and feed accordingly.
   For additional information about winter-feeding of cow-calf herds, contact your local UT Extension office.∆
DR. JAMES B. NEEL: Professor, Department of Animal Science, UT Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, University of Tennessee

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