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Great ideas for feeding cattle after wildfire

TylerOlson-Hemera-Thinkstock cows at bunk
Limit-feeding cows in confinement may be one of the most effective ways to build time into the grazing system for beef producers who have lost grass to wildfires.
Balanced nutrition is critical, as is rangeland recovery. Here are some ideas how to do it.

The next two to four months offer major pitfalls and also some opportunities for beef producers who have lost forage to wildfires.

First, it is almost universally accepted that the forage needs time to recover fully and be running on photosynthesis, with root reserves replenished, before being grazed. Second, the cattle need this more mature forage to keep from having problems with early, "washy" forage, which is actually very high in protein and moisture and very low in energy and fiber.

That pretty much suggests anyone who lost forage in the fires will come up short and need to buy time. Hay alone likely won't do it, while hay with cubes or other supplements might, or another option may be setting up confined feeding to provide the exact nutritional requirements, possibly at the lowest cost. The decision will naturally need to be figured out with pencil and calculator.

Since most people calve in February, March and April, nutritional requirements generally are at a peak. David Lalman, beef cattle specialist for Oklahoma State University, addresses this fact: "It's critical timing for spring calving cows; you don't want to let them lose a lot of body condition around calving time and before green grass is abundant.

"There will be the temptation and perhaps need to utilize marginal- to low-quality hay, and that needs to be offset with protein and/or energy supplement," Lalman says.

He and others remind producers they can't know what level of nutrition they are feeding without forage tests, which are available through nearly every university soil/forage testing laboratory.

Lalman adds that better-quality hay can be stretched by:

  1. Limiting access to round bale feeders
  2. Using hay feeders designed to minimize waste
  3. Rolling out a predetermined amount every day
  4. Feeding limited hay as well as limited concentrate

"Finally, a total mixed ration can be designed to work in a dry lot situation given appropriate equipment, management skill and feeding facilities/storage," Lalman says.

Confinement feeding

Limit feeding cows in confinement can provide exactly the nutrition needed, often at a cost comparable to grass, and without shipping cattle anywhere. Also, many confinement cow operations say they can feed up to 40% less total feed than cattle would eat free choice because the cattle don't need to travel and because the ration can be so much more nutrient dense.

Resources, fortunately, are abundant. Here is a web link to OSU's limit-feeding fact sheet. Kansas State University has this online publication called Managing Cows

in Confinement.

Even more excellent material on confinement and limit feeding of cows can be had from the proceedings of four symposiums on that topic sponsored by the Dr. Kenneth & Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation. The proceedings offer data on nutrition, facilities, bunk space, economics and contacts with ranchers and nutritionists who have experience limit feeding.

Ken Eng says proceedings are still available from three of the four conferences. He will donate those to anyone who needs them. To get copies, contact Annie at (575) 740-6010.

"Also, they can call me if they want to talk some more about it," Eng says. His telephone is (601) 731-2565. Eng is a nutritionist, rancher, cattle feeder and long-time confinement cow feeder.

"Confinement would work for these guys, if they want to do it," he adds. "I still have a herd in Nebraska that spends part of every year in confinement, part of the year on stalks, and part of the year on grass. In reality, our costs in confinement are about the same as they are on grass."

Calf weaning?

Some beef producers might want to pull calves and feed them to reduce forage consumption or to sell their dams and retain growth potential.

Any calves over 5 weeks old should be able to transition to dry feed, suggests Ted McCollum, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service beef cattle specialist in Amarillo.

“It can’t be any old hay – it probably needs to be good quality alfalfa hay and a mixed feed or sweet feed that has grain and protein in it,” he says. “They need the calories and protein that grass hay may not provide them.”

Younger calves need to be started on a bottle with milk replacer, he adds. Also, put some dry feed in front of them such as the sweet feed and alfalfa hay to encourage them to start eating. They need to be eating 1-1.5% of their body weight in dry feed before they are transitioned off the bottle.

Another option, he said, is to send them to a dairy calf ranch where the bottle feeding is done for them, either retaining ownership or selling them outright to the calf ranch.

McCollum said to develop a well-managed nutrition program, it is recommended that producers test the hay for protein and energy value, especially when they are unsure of its origins.

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