Cattle Feeding: Winter Memories & Forage Plans

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What a great spring for grass and cattle. The quick and sudden warm-up that followed the snowy winter resulted in some flooding and plenty of mud; but it also accelerated early grass growth. The quick changeover from snow cover to grass was surprising and appreciated by all. Outlooks and plans for the future seem to be most influenced by our most recent experiences. As we look ahead to the summer forage season, we need to objectively evaluate the successes and failures of the past winter and recall that it was the snowiest of the past 10-15 years. With that in mind, I offer a few topics for consideration.

1. Stockpile tall fescue- Although the season to begin this management practice is months away, a successful strategy of incorporating it into a farm forage plan needs to begin early. Our recent memory in regard to stockpiled forage this past winter was the difficulty of utilizing it when covered by 12+ inches of snow. Many producers, who regularly stockpile, fed more hay during the winter months of unusual snow cover. They also reported when the snow left in March the stockpiled grass was still there and reduced late winter/early spring hay needs. Budgets that we work through on cow-calf enterprises always favor the investment in stockpiling fescue to furnish forage in lieu of harvested hay.

Take home message.
Stockpiling tall fescue should be incorporated into summer hay and grazing plans. The recent winter demonstrated that you can graze it early or graze it late but it still makes a positive contribution to cow nutrition and economics.

1. Quality hay production
- Many producers will begin harvesting their first cutting of hay in the next 30 days. Reviewing the body condition of many cows across the commonwealth it would appear that a lot of hay was fed that fit the quality classification of “better than a snowball”. Tough winters make us grateful too many times to simply get the cows full. Later evaluation of condition scores, pregnancy rates and weaning weights could tell a different story.

Take home message.
Always aim high in targeting hay quality. There is a tradeoff with quantity but the payback is always evident in cattle performance and the value is truly realized when you reduce or eliminate the need for supplemental feed. A forage test will allow identification of your nutritionally superior and less than desirable hays soon after harvest and allow plans for when the hay best matches your cow needs.

1. Hay storage- The final point is hay storage. This past winter, the snow depth and cold temperatures provided additional challenges to feeding hay stored outside. We had good success at the Virginia Tech Kentland farm with the use of hay tarps to expand the amount of hay we kept dry. Although they require some additional labor and patience they were effective in reducing hay loss. Storing hay under cover can reduce hay needs by 20%. In view of the current hay production costs, the economic return of hay storage is greater.

Take home message. Another way to reduce hay production needs for the cow herd is to expand your hay storage capability. Beyond seasonal weather loss, hay stored under cover is not the same perishable commodity that it is when stored outside.

Enjoy our green pastures and hay meadows, but be strategic about their use. The three age old tips above were valuable last winter and will be again next winter regardless of what Mother Nature brings our way.

Source: Dr. Mark A. McCann, Extension Animal Scientist, VA Tech



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