Winter feeding and care always have been a critical aspect of cattle production in the northern Plains.
Meeting the most basic needs of the stock - adequate feed for efficient production and well-being - represents the major cost to and activity of producers.
"That makes hay and forage, the basic feed for cattle, more valuable today, whether it is standing in the pasture, rolled into a bale or packed into a bunker," says John Dhuyvetter, area Extension livestock specialist at North Dakota State University's North Central Research Extension Center near Minot.
"As such, it may deserve greater attention in valuing its costs, and maximizing its use and value."
Historically, hay and forage have been abundant and inexpensive, but that's not the case now. The opportunity to harvest low-quality, low-cost hay on Conservation Reserve Program land is disappearing fast, and producers do not want to raise a forage crop on high-rent land capable of producing a high-profit grain crop.
"This scenario is creating some new forage realities," Dhuyvetter says.
"Differing situations are bringing forth unique challenges that are being addressed in a variety of ways, often with some trade-offs."
With hay at $100 per ton, producers need to enhance yields through management, reduce loses and minimize needs, he adds. Here are ways he suggests producers could accomplish that:
* Renovate old hay stands that no longer are productive. Including a legume such as alfalfa in grass-dominated fields can boost nitrogen levels without the cost of applying a commercial fertilizer.
* Plant newer forage species and varieties because they likely are more productive.
* Plan for more timely cuttings to maximize feed nutrients.
* Keep harvesting equipment well-maintained to minimize losses.
* Ensile forage where available acreage is limited and you need a high quantity of feed or high-quality forage is beneficial. The cost per nutrient can be favorable in spite of silage production costs when yield is high.
* Select hybrids that do well in your area, plant early, and provide good weed control and fertility to increase yield potential.
* Harvest at the optimum moisture, pack the forage correctly and cover it to help reduce potentially high storage losses.
* Maximize the use of low-cost roughage by providing supplementation, particularly in corn-growing regions.
* Graze stover left behind when corn is harvested to reduce the need for hay and to extend grazing, further reducing feeding costs. New procedures are being developed to harvest, grind and treat residues to enhance their digestibility as a feed.