Ditch Hay: Harvesting, Quality, and Feeding

By : Alvaro Garcia, SDSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Director & Professor, Courtesy of extension.sdstate.edu

Using ditch hay to feed cattle is a common practice across the U.S. It provides livestock producers with a source of readily available forage, which can be very useful, particularly during feed shortages.Under ideal conditions, it would be advisable to analyze the bales at least for crude protein and TDN and balance diets accordingly. It is highly unlikely however that livestock producers will sample ditch hay particularly during times of feed shortages and/or reduced income. In addition, since there is quite a large variability in nutrient content, using average nutrient composition values can oftentimes result in unbalanced diets and reduced cattle performance.Assessing the feeding value of ditch hay poses challenges since it is highly variable in nutrient content. The reason for this variability however doesn’t seem to be as much the plant species composition, but rather the time of harvest. During 2015, NDSU Extension analyzed 182 samples of harvested ditch hay from across the state.
Bar graph showing decreasing crude protein content in ditch hay from before July 1 to after August 15.
Figure 1. Crude protein in ditch hay by harvest date. Source: Modified from 2016 North Dakota Beef Report. NDSU.

The results showed that most of the ditch hay consisted of cool-season grasses, predominantly smooth bromegrass. There were differences in nutrient composition that were attributed mostly to variability in the stage of maturity at cutting (Table 1). Crude protein percentage in ditch hay was clearly affected by cutting date (Figure 1). From a high of 9.4% CP before July 1, it dropped by almost 0.5 percentage units every 15 days down to 7.3% by August 15. Since there is an inverse relationship between protein and digestibility (and total digestible nutrients), cutting after mid-August will very likely result in more fiber and lignin, as well as less energy than July cuttings. In fact, the best compromise between yield and quality appeared to be during early July. According to the National Research Council, brome grass with approximately 10% CP and 59% TDN corresponds to the late vegetative state. Table 2 Shows a more complete profile for brome grass hay published by Colorado State University. The average values also show more mature brome grass hay to contain 10% CP and 55% TDN.

Table 1. Nutrient content of ditch hay samples (n=182).
Item Average Minimum Maximum
Dry Matter 91.4 83.7 95.6
Crude Protein (CP) 8.5 5.9 17
Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) 65.1 35.2 73.2
Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) 52 34.8 58.5
Source: Modified from 2016 North Dakota Beef Report. NDSU.
Table 2. Typical composition of brome grass fed to cattle (all values on a DM basis).
Feedstuff DM
Brome Grass,
Fresh Immature
32 15 4.1 28 33 54 10 0.4 0.39 2.7 0.2 64 1.28 0.64 0.36
Brome Grass,
89 10 2.5 35 41 69 9 0.5 0.23 2.5 0.16 17 55 1.1 0.54 0.21
Source: Modified from Colorado State University. 2017.

Based on the data above it seems safe to formulate diets using conservative values for ditch hay of 8.5% CP and 52% TDN as reported by NDSU.

— Alvaro Garcia, SDSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Director & Professor

One alternative to overcome the lack of lab reports is to formulate diets using the lowest likely analytical value for a particular nutrient in the hay and balance the diet also for the lower end of the animal requirements for each particular nutrient. By using this approach, under the worst-case scenario the requirements of the animal will be covered, and any underestimation in protein and/or energy in the hay will result in increased animal performance. Producers can then adjust gradually cutting supplementation back until the desired growth, body condition and/or weight are attained. Mineral supplements (including white salt) should always be available, as well as enough safe drinking water.

Other Considerations

When deciding to harvest ditch hay is very important to thoroughly inspect the area to make sure that the ditch is tractor-safe and will not result in a dangerous rollover. Second comes cleaning the area of garbage that may have accumulated such as glass bottles, aluminum cans, plastic, etc. These materials could end up in the bales fed to cattle or even damage the harvesting equipment. This last consideration has special relevance if the hay is going to be sold since the reputation of the seller and/or harvester and the satisfaction of the buyer are on the line.

Another important consideration is to know whether the roadsides have been sprayed for weeds. There’s a two-fold concern with herbicides. First, several are not cleared to be used as forage to be fed to livestock. Second, some broadleaf herbicides sprayed on ditch hay fed to cattle are eliminated intact in the manure. Picloram (commercial names: Tordon, Grazon, and Pathway) and clopyralid (commercial names: Stinger, Curtail, and Transline) are popular herbicides used to control broadleaf weeds along roadways. If manure from animals fed ditch hay sprayed with these herbicides is applied to the fields, there is a good chance the herbicide will hurt yields or even the whole subsequent broadleaf crop. The same goes for animals supplemented with ditch hay while grazing on corn stalks. Both herbicides show unaltered in the manure, and once in the soil they are persistent and mobile and are later translocated into the plants. Current suggestions are to skip at least two growing seasons before planting broadleaf crops to acreage that was fertilized with manure from these animals. There have not been health issues reported in cattle fed hay treated with either herbicide.

Feeding Ditch Hay With Distillers’ Grains to Growing Heifers

When facing feed shortages, there is oftentimes little time to consult with a nutritionist or even test the feeds before they are fed to cattle. This article is not meant to substitute precise ration formulation but is just a nimble approach to feed shortages. When forage supplies are short producers ponder between bringing purchased feed to the animals or sell part of the herd. Selling animals entails a genetic drawback which may take years to recover. If possible, it may be advisable to eliminate animals that consume lots of feed (mature cows) and retain future young breeding stock and/or bred heifers. Prioritizing the retention of young heifers of good genetic merit will be an investment that will help recover the herd once the situation improves.

During the past decade the author was part of several studies feeding distillers grains to ruminants in combination with different roughage sources. These trials were spurred by the 2002 drought, and the need for creative thinking to be able to retain ownership of cattle when faced with feed shortages. Not only were dry blends tested with success but also ensiled, providing a highly versatile feed which resulted in great animal performance. Some areas of the state are again facing dry conditions and it might be important to take a look at SDSU’s previous research experience. Ditch hay has the perfect opposing nutrient profile (low protein, low energy) in order to be combined with corn co-products.

Balancing the Blend

To perform the calculations, we need the CP and TDN content of ditch hay, corn, and DDGS, as well as the requirements of young heifers for both nutrients.

Let’s use conservative values of 7% CP and 50% TDN for ditch hay, 9% CP and 88% TDN for corn grain, and 29% CP and 80% TDN for low fat DDGS. Requirements for a 500 lbs heifer gaining 2 lbs/d are 12.8% CP and 69% TDN. These requirements will be met by blending on a dry basis 45% ditch hay, 23% DDGS, and 32% corn as shown in Table 3.

Table 3.
Item (% CP: TDN) Kg CP TDN
Ditch Hay (7:50) 45 3.2 22.5
DDGS (29:80) 23 6.7 18.4
Corn Grain (9:88) 32 2.9 28.2
100 12.8 69.1

Additional Considerations

If close to an ethanol plant (roughly within 70 miles), modified distillers’ can be used instead of DDGS; this will allow for even better conditioning of the blend and less feed losses. Since this feedstuff has roughly 50% moisture the amounts suggested in the table need to be doubled (from 23 to 46 lbs/100). Heifers should always have access to mineral blocks and water. Feed intakes can be adjusted by monitoring weight gains and/or body condition. If manure from these animals is going to be used to fertilize broadleaf crop fields, make sure the ditch hay was not treated with herbicides based on either picloram or clopyralid since they retain their effect in the manure and hurt the future crop.

Feedstuffs including ditch hay should be purchased based on the price per pound of energy (TDN) and/or protein (CP). SDSU Extension has experts that can help in any scenario. The article,“Feeding at the Right Price,” for example, addresses how to adequately price feeds. For specific inquiries, SDSU Extension experts can also be contacted.

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