By Aaron Berger and Troy Walz
The abundant spring and early summer moisture in Nebraska has been record-setting in many areas and has resulted in hay meadows and fields being inundated with water. Even if the rain stops, for many producers, these flooded hay meadows and fields will produce significantly less this year because of the damage caused to forage stands by standing water.
This creates a scenario where many producers may find themselves short on hay for the upcoming winter. In addition, the quality of feed that is harvested may be less than normal as delayed cutting in waiting for fields to dry may mean forage is more mature, reducing energy and protein content of the hay.
Now is the time to plan for management options with reduced forage production from perennial hayfields.
1. Reduce forage demand for the upcoming fall and winter. It is hard to believe that hay may be short with an abundant precipitation year in Nebraska, but for many cow-calf producers, this may be the case. Consider weaning calves as well as pregnancy-testing yearling heifers and cows early as a method to reduce forage demand. Early shipping of calves off the ranch as well as culling nonpregnant heifers and cows can help reduce forage demands. Visit with your tax accountant about deferral of income from livestock sales if you normally would market these cattle after the first of the year, but because of weather conditions are being forced to sell.
2. Plant annual forages to provide additional feed. Summer annuals can be planted until late July and still be productive, assuming adequate soil moisture and fertility is present. After late July, spring annual forages such as oats, spring triticale and barley, as well as brassicas, can be a better option for forage production as they will continue to grow into the fall if temperatures are above the mid-20s F. Planting annual forages into wheat stubble may be a good option this year to produce additional forage.
3. Find and secure other forage resources. Evaluate whether it may be best to bring the feed to the cattle or the cattle to the feed. In many places in Nebraska, county roads will require significant work before trucks can haul feed in. Cornstalks for grazing, cover crops and annual forages can be used to replace hay. Ammoniating wheat straw or cornstalks can significantly improve the quality of both residues. Use caution when bringing hay onto the ranch from outside sources that may contain weed seed.
4. Compare feed options and contract protein and energy supplements early to lock in supplies. It is likely that protein and energy dense feeds such as distillers grains will be in demand to be used with low-quality forage. Consider buying these feeds early to guarantee supplies. Use tools such as the Feed Cost Cow-Q-Lator to effectively compare feed options to one another. Include all costs, such as hauling, storage, waste and feeding expense to fairly compare feeds to one another.
5. Use perennial hayfields and meadows that were too wet to hay with grazing during the fall and winter. Once the ground is firm or frozen enough for cattle to get out on it, consider grazing these areas through the fall and winter. The use of an electric fence for strip-grazing or windrow-grazing can help increase harvest efficiency and minimize waste. Areas that are too wet to harvest this summer may be able to be grazed later this year.
6. Minimize waste during storing and feeding. With uncovered storage, store your hay using methods that will minimize nutrient and dry matter losses from weathering. Make a dense bale, as a dense bale will sag less and have less surface area in contact with the ground. Store hay on an elevated, well-drained site, so it will not soak up moisture from wet soils or standing water. Store bales end-to-end with the line oriented north to south to allow prevailing winds to blow snow past the bales. If more than one line of bales is needed, space adjacent lines at least 3 feet apart to increase airflow and allow sunlight to penetrate the bales. When feeding, research has shown that certain types of bale feeders along with time-limiting access of cattle to hay feeders can reduce waste. For cattle being fed in a drylot, the use of these tools can be helpful to efficiently use hay.
7. Consider the use of an ionophore to stretch feed resources. Where cattle are being fed a supplement daily, consider the use of the ionophore monensin for cows to stretch feed resources. Research has shown that when cows are fed an ionophore, the amount of hay needed can be reduced by 7% to 10%.
8. Consider limit-feeding cows. Limit-feeding is when cows are fed a diet containing ingredients that are energy and protein dense that meet the cow's nutrient requirements, but the cow is restricted in how much she eats. Energy and protein dense feeds can be fed with low-quality forage to stretch limited forage supplies.
9. Test your hay or forage. Knowing the nutrient content of your hay or forage will help with ration formulation to ensure that you are meeting your cattle's nutrient requirements. Having an accurate analysis is important in developing a cost-effective feeding strategy.
10. Partner with farmers who have planted cover crops on prevented plant acres. In some areas that were too wet to plant this spring, farmers have planted or will be planting cover crops on acres that they were not able plant to corn or soybeans. These crops can be grazed after Sept. 1.
By beginning to plan now for a potentially short hay supply, producers will be in a better position to use the options available to them. Resources on options discussed in this article can be found at the beef.unl.edu website.
Nebraska Extension beef specialists and educators also are available to provide additional assistance and information on these topics.
Berger is a Nebraska Extension beef educator, and Walz is a Nebraska Extension educator.