Time to Make Your Winter Feed Plan

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Written by Matt Poore, Animal Science Departmental Extension Leader, NC State University

Updated by Becky Spearman, Bladen County Livestock Extension Agent

What a difference six weeks makes! Hurricane Florence brought some of the highest levels of rain in history and the resulting flood has dominated our lives ever since. There were many impacts of the flood on agriculture and the loss of pasture and hay will have an impact on the whole region at least through this winter. Given the amount of winter feed that was lost, there is likely to be a lot of folks buying hay from within and outside the flood region. So this year it is especially important for you to get prepared for the winter by making sure your cows are in good shape and that you have the hay and pasture you need to get to spring.

Body Condition Score Your Cows

Body condition scoring cows (1 to 9 scale with 1 very thin and 9 very fat) is the most cost-effective management tool you have. It can help you decide when to strategically improve the nutritional plane to get optimal production and reproduction. When you face a short and/or low-quality feed supply like we have this year it is helpful to go through the cows and sort them into production groups, including body condition as one of the criteria. Many good managers will have a good body condition “mature cow” herd, and a herd that has the young, hard keeper, and older cows in it that will need a little better nutritional plane. Body condition is a tool to plan for supplemental nutrition. If you are unfamiliar with body condition scoring there are several good guides and apps on the internet.

Inventory Your Forage Supply and Develop a Feed Budget

By the time you read this in early November, most folks will still have some grass left and will have an idea of when to start fully feeding hay. Hopefully, you have a good idea when spring grazing will begin, so you can estimate how long your hay feeding season will be. Strip grazing with temporary fencing will add even more grazing days.

Decide how many days you are likely to be feeding. Unfortunately, 100 days will be common for many producers. Now you can estimate your hay needs. Each lactating cow will need about 3% of its body weight per day of hay (which includes waste). That means that small cows will need about 33 lbs of hay and large cows might need as much as 40 lbs of hay daily. Knowing how much your cows weigh is one factor you will need to know to calculate an accurate feed budget. If you have other livestock you also need to plan for their hay needs and can do so by figuring 4% of body weight for sheep or goats, and 2% of bodyweight for horses.

Once you know the projected hay needs, inventory your hay including counting bales and coming up with a good estimate of bale weight. The only accurate way of doing it is to put some bales on a scale. Keep in mind that round bales of hay rarely weigh as much as you think they ought to. Also, if hay has been outside and is wet, that water adds a lot to the weight of the bale but has no feeding value, so take that into account.

Evaluate Nutritional Quality of Your Hay and Develop a Supplementation Strategy

Usually grazed forages will meet the needs of a lactating beef cow with moderate milk production. However, it is very common for hay to be harvested late or under poor drying conditions (such as this year), resulting in forage that is not up to the requirements of our typical beef cow. A mature cow will need about 60% TDN (energy) and 11% protein. Much of the hay you test will be in the mid-50s on TDN and less than 10% protein. Many producers in the region use a supplemental molasses-based “protein tub” product to provide protein, a little energy, and minerals. In some rare cases, the tub will provide just the right amount of energy and protein, but in general, they are made for situations where energy (TDN) is nearly adequate but protein is low.

Our forages tend to be the opposite with forage energy being low and protein being moderate. There are other less expensive feeds that can be used including byproduct blends, corn gluten feed, and whole cottonseed, but all require you to do some feeding management and you still need to check that you are meeting energy, protein and mineral needs of the animal. One thing to clearly understand is that tubs are intended to be the only source of minerals available to cows, so they need to have a good mineral profile.

If you don’t regularly test your hay, I strongly recommend you start this year. As you might be purchasing hay you don’t know much about, getting a forage test including nitrate levels will be important. Extension Livestock agents are equipped with hay sampling probes and the knowledge of how to take and submit the samples to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Forage Testing Lab, so ask them for their help.

Purchase Hay and/or Sell Cattle to Balance Your Budget

If you come up significantly short of hay you need to do something to balance your budget. One strategy would be to sell off some cows or other cattle. Cow prices are a little bit depressed right now, but in some cases if you have cows that are unproductive it is best that you sell them and use the funds to build you hay supply.

The other option is to buy hay and because the supply is likely to be short, I strongly recommend you do that before cold weather arrives. Test hay before you buy a whole lot and weigh some bales, so you know what you are paying for. If you can buy medium quality hay delivered to you for less than $100/ton, it is a very good deal.

Hay Alert Website Available to Help Producers Buy and Sell Hay

The Hay Alert website is available to help farmers impacted by Hurricane Florence secure winter hay supplies. Producers experiencing hay and pasture losses as a result of the hurricane can use the site as a tool in securing sufficient hay for their winter needs. The website was developed and is managed by the NCDA&CS in collaboration with N.C. Cooperative Extension. The website is not designed to collect and exchange payment, but rather it is a tool that allows farmers to list hay for sale and hay needed, with the goal of helping those with supply to connect with those in need. Other useful parts including a transportation section, “share the load” section, emergency equipment and services ads, and other information, all of which make this tool very useful for producers and their advisors to make sure their winter hay and feed needs are met.

Producers that lost hay or pasture in Florence should assess their hay needs now. Hay that was not flooded, but that was stored outside and exposed to a lot of rain will in most cases not be a total loss. Pasture that was flooded might be a complete loss depending on the species and the time it was underwater. Hopefully, you have already assessed your pastures that were severely impacted and have started developing a plan to reestablish next spring if needed. Also, consider overseeding with winter annuals, so grazing is available by early spring.

Keep in mind there is a lot of hay and other alternative sources of feed for livestock in the state that was not damaged by Florence. But you need to develop your plan to ensure your animals have hay and feed this winter.

Hay Donations

NC State Extension has created a website form for collecting information from those who want to donate hay and supplies to animal owners/managers who were impacted by Hurricane Florence. When a need for resources is matched with your offer, you will be contacted.

Pay Attention to Details Throughout the Feeding Season

The devil is in the details! All this sounds good but the truth is that day to day you will have many challenges and decisions to make. Putting effort into your cattle management program will pay off as we continue through this very challenging year.

Becky Spearman, Livestock Extension Agent in Bladen County, can help you determine how much hay is needed for your farm and can develop a ration (mix of feed ingredients) to make sure your animal needs are met. There will be a meeting on planning your Winter Feeding Program on Tuesday, November 20, 2018, at 7 p.m. at 450 Smith Circle Drive in Elizabethtown. We will discuss what different livestock animals and horses need and how to meet those needs. Please RSVP by November 19, by calling the office at 910-862-4591 or email becky_spearman@ncsu.edu. For more information about anything in this article or any livestock, horse, or forage questions, please contact Becky. For accommodations for persons with disabilities, call the office at 910-862-4591 or email becky_spearman@ncsu.edu seven days before the meeting.