Winter feed and forage planning for 2018-2019

By Patrick Wall, ISU Extension beef specialist

The weather patterns across the state of Iowa throughout the 2018 growing season will certainly be one for the record books. Unfortunately, some locations will be recording record rainfall while others just 100 miles away may be recording record drought! Thankfully, recent rains across southern Iowa will certainly spur some fall growth of cool season grass pastures and hay. Wet conditions across much of the northern half of the state have created their own unique set of challenges in regards to making quality hay. All said, now is the most critical time for cattle producers to make a feed and forage plan that will carry their operation through the winter to grass time in 2019.

Hay price and availability
The Agricultural Marketing Service of USDA releases an “Iowa Hay Summary” on a regular basis that details the range in prices paid for alfalfa, grass, oat hay, straw, and other forages sold across the state. Prices are broken down by perceived quality, plus the size and shape of the bale marketed. Local sale barns and hay auction markets often release similar reports. Regardless of the report you view, make absolutely sure the price you are gauging is based on a per bale basis or per ton. Some additional guidelines for assessing alfalfa and grass hay quality are available on the AMS hay report. Also, keep in mind that hay prices at auction can vary dramatically week to week based merely on the quality of hay available for purchase and who shows up to buy it!

That brings us to availability. An unseasonably cold April, following a fairly widespread drought in 2017, depleted much of the already short hay supplies in the upper Midwest. The old rows of hay parked underneath the fence row for several years are simply no longer there. A late start to grass and legume growth delayed 1st cutting and likely reduced overall tonnage in many areas. Now, in a more “normal” drought scenario, a producer can travel north, south, east, or west and find hay at a reasonable price.

However, in 2018 drought conditions were widespread across Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas. As mentioned earlier, northern Iowa and Minnesota struggled to make hay between the rain storms. Hay reports are already including footnotes about wet and moldy bales fetching a reduced price. Buyer beware.

Now that the deadline to harvest CRP hay has passed, its discussion will be brief. Recent forage testing of CRP hay samples has shown that previous estimates of “typical’ protein and energy may be a bit optimistic. If you have been able to acquire this forage source, it may be wise to obtain a nutritional analysis. Some samples collected through related ISU research in 2017 showed CRP hay that would not meet the protein and energy requirements of a mid-term gestating cow. One could only guess that an additional year of drought conditions on CRP acres would produce a similar result. When in doubt, test it!

Corn silage and stover
The one bright spot for forage availability is obviously corn stover. Certainly, a lot of drought-stricken corn was harvested as silage, a forage source that should also be tested for nutritional value based on the significant reduction in grain yield. While you’re at it, test the silage for potential nitrate toxicity, especially if you plan to feed the green chopped corn before the full 21-day ensiling period. Nitrate levels are typically reduced 50%-60% by ensiling corn for at least three weeks. When baling corn stover, remember that the leaf and husks are far more palatable to cows. The lower part of the stalk and the root ball contain the highest amount of nitrate.  Those parts can easily end up in a cornstalk bale when stalks are mowed down low and raked. Thought the risk is a bit lower, nitrate poisoning of cattle can still occur in extreme cases. To be safe, adhere to the “take half-leave half” approach when baling up cornstalks.

Prices for alternative cow feeds like soy hull pellets and corn co-products have already responded to the current drought and forecast hay shortage. Opportunities to purchase these feeds economically on the spot market will be rare.

Cover crops
The weather of 2018, though dismal at times, has created a prime opportunity for producers to harness an alternative forage source this fall. In the areas where drought persisted, there is likely unutilized nitrogen fertilizer within the soil profile. A little rainfall and a cover crop could turn that N into a forage resource that not only stretches harvested forage supplies, but also allows pastures more time to recover and even stockpile before winter sets in. Next spring those grasses will accelerate growth, especially if the cover crop overwinters well and offers a short window for grazing prior to planting the cash crop…weather permitting of course.

Always remember the flip side of your feed and forage plan relates to the number of noses in the bunk or the bale ring. Strategic culling and even herd reduction may be the most profitable path forward for your operation.

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