Normally hay is the most cost-effective way to get nutrients into cattle, particularly beef cattle overwintering as pregnant, dry cows. This year, it's not, contends John Johns, Extension animal scientist for the University of Kentucky, based near Lexington, Ky. Johns visited Indiana last week to meet with cattlemen at both the Springville Auction Barn and the Little York Stockyards. His mission in both cases was to provide information based on fact so that cattlemen could put together a plan for surviving winter that made sense for their farm.
One of Johns most important messages boiled down to this: your best bet may not be feeding very low quality roughages to cattle in an attempt to make it through the season. He wasn't bashful about pointing out that wrapped bales of soybean stubble fit into that category. One reason that they're very low quality is that the crop has already removed the lion's share of nutrients available to use.
Soybean stubble bales tested by Dave Redman, Lawrence County ag Extension educator, confirmed that soybean stubble bales typically contain less nutrients than other possibilities. If you're going to feed them, they definitely need to be supplemented both for protein and energy, Redman says.
Jokingly, Johns retorted there were better options if you had already baled up soybean stubble- find a gully that needed stopping up, or an unsuspecting neighbor who hadn't heard his talk yet! Seriously, he advised caution in using them, and suggested that soybean stubble bales, or any other alternative forage source, including corn stalk bales, be fed now through the first part of the season. Save what traditional hay you have, even if it's grass hay, for later in the winter, when colder weather and demands of pregnancy typically cause a cow's nutrient requirements to increase/
Redman also discovered another possible trap when he weighed the bales. A big round bale of the dimensions he was testing in good grass hay should weigh about 1,100 pounds. A big round bale of hay made from older CRP grass, with lots of dead stuff included in the bale, only tipped the scales at 840 pounds, the Extension educator notes. The bale of wrapped soybean stubble weighed the same- 840 pounds. The corn stalk bale was surprisingly light, weighing in at only 540 pounds per bale.
"Cattlemen may not put enough up for winter, because they're not getting as much dry matter in each bale as they think they are," Redman notes. And then cattle will likely waste about a third of each corn stalk bale, especially if you cut stalks so that larger portions of the lower stem are included. Those are not very palatable, nor very digestible.
"If you're feeding stalks, you actually should want your cattle to leave about a third of the bale behind," Johns says. "Some of that stalk bale just isn't very digestible."
Johns believes one alternative for some cattlemen this winter may actually be going to whole shelled corn on a limit-feed program. Include only enough hay to scratch their rumen, typically a flake or so per cow per day.
"It takes more management, because you have to handle it so that cows don't founder on it, but it could be the cheapest option this winter," he says. "That's seldom the case, but it is true this year."
One note of clarification: soybean stubble bales and bales made from doublecrop soybeans cut while green are two different things. "We've seen some pretty good nutrient content coming back on forage tests from doublecrop soybean bales," says Keith Johnson, Purdue University forage specialist. "You could make a good ration with those bales and other key ingredients."