Time to Make Your Winter Feed Plan

— Written By

By Dr. Matt Poore

What a difference a month makes! This time last month things were going along very well, but we were cautiously watching a hurricane developing off the coast of Africa named Florence. As the days went by it became apparent to meteorologists that there was nothing in the weather pattern that would send Florence anywhere but on a collision course with North Carolina. As you all are well aware while we were spared a whole lot of wind damage in most of the state, about 1/4 of North Carolina and a significant piece of South Carolina experienced the highest level of rain in history and the resulting flood has dominated our lives ever since.

There were many impacts of the flood on agriculture, and the loss of pasture and hay will have an impact on the whole region at least through this winter. Given the amount of winter feed that was lost there is likely to be a lot of folks buying hay from within and outside the flood region. The storm also soaked a large swath of the Piedmont, and while the damage was much less than in the Southern Coastal Plain it still increased the spoilage of hay stored outside, and in some cases prevented normal hay production due to excessive moisture both before and after the storm.

So, this year it is especially important for you to get prepared for the winter by making sure your cows are in good shape, and that you have the hay and pasture you need to get to spring.

Body Condition Score Your Cows

Body condition scoring cows (1 to 9 scale with 1 very thin and 9 very fat) is the most cost effective management tool you have. It can help you decide when to strategically improve the nutritional plane to get optimal production and reproduction. When you face a short and/or low quality feed supply like we have this year it is helpful to go through the cows and sort them into production groups, including body condition as one of the criteria. Many good managers will have a good body condition “mature cow” herd, and a herd that has the young, hard keeper, and older cows in it that will need a little better nutritional plane.

Body condition also is a good tool to use as you plan for supplemental nutrition. Knowing if cows need to gain, maintain, or lose body condition is a key factor in planning your winter nutrition program. If you are unfamiliar with body condition scoring there are several good guides on the internet. Also, there are some new “aps” for smart phones that can help you learn body condition scoring in the field, so if you are smart phone equipped you can look that up and give it a try.

Inventory Your Forage Supply and Develop a Feed Budget

By the time you read this in early November most folks will still have some grass left, and will also be able to predict when they will have to start fully feeding hay. Regardless of your system you should have a pretty good idea when you will have more grass coming to graze in the spring, so you can come up with a reasonable estimate of how long your feeding season will be. Producers that have kept the gates closed and allowed grass to stockpile in some pastures will have a real advantage in available grazing compared to those that opened the gates and let the cows roam and work the whole farm during the late summer and early autumn. Further stretching your grazable forage by strip grazing with temporary fencing will add even more grazing days.

However you do it, decide how many days you are likely to be feeding. Unfortunately, 100 days will be a common answer for many producers this year. Once you have that number in mind you can estimate your hay needs. Each lactating cow will need about 3% of body weight per day of hay (which includes waste). That means that small cows will need about 33 lbs of hay and large cows might need as much as 40 lbs of hay daily. Knowing how much your cows weigh is one factor you will need to know to calculate an accurate feed budget. If you have other livestock you also need to plan for their hay needs, and can do so by figuring 4% of body weight for sheep or goats, and 2% of bodyweight for horses.

Once you know the projected hay need you should inventory your hay including counting bales and coming up with a good estimate of bale weight. Once you have experience you can do a pretty good job feeling hay and estimating the weight, but the only accurate way of doing it is to put some bales on a scale. Keep in mind that round bales of hay rarely weigh as much as you think they ought to. Also, if hay has been outside and is wet, that water adds a lot to the weight of the bale but has no feeding value, so take that into account.

Evaluate Nutritional Quality of Your Hay and Develop a Supplementation Strategy

Usually grazed forages will meet the needs of a lactating beef cow with moderate milk production. However, it is very common for hay to be harvested late or under poor drying conditions (such as this year), resulting in forage that is not up to the requirements of our typical beef cow. A mature cow will need about 60% TDN (energy) and 11% protein. Much of the hay you test will be in the mid 50s on TDN and less than 10% protein. Many producers in the region use a supplemental molasses-based “protein tub” product to provide protein, a little energy and minerals. In some rare cases the tub will provide just the right amount of energy and protein, but in general they are made for situations where energy (TDN) is nearly adequate but protein is low.

Our forages tend to be the opposite with forage energy being low and protein being moderate. There are other less expensive feeds that can be used including byproduct blends, corn gluten feed, and whole cottonseed, but all require you to do some feeding management and you still need to check that you are meeting energy, protein and mineral needs of the animal. One thing to clearly understand is that tubs are intended to be the only source of minerals available to cows, so they need to have a good mineral profile.

If you don’t regularly test your hay I strongly recommend you start this year. It is an important thing to do every year, but this year especially it will be critical. As you might be purchasing hay you don’t know much about, getting a forage test including nitrate levels will be important. Most of our Extension Livestock and Forage agents are equipped with hay sampling probes and the knowledge of how to take and submit the samples to the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services’ Forage Testing Lab, so ask them for their help.

Purchase Hay and/or Sell Cattle to Balance Your Budget

If you come up significantly short of hay you need to do something to balance your budget. One strategy would be to sell off some cows or other cattle. Cow prices are a little bit depressed right now, but in some cases if you have cows that are unproductive it is best that you sell them and use the funds to build you hay supply.

The other option is to buy hay and because the supply is likely to be short I strongly recommend you do that before cold weather arrives. I would strongly suggest testing hay before you buy a whole lot, and also weigh some bales so you know what you are paying for. If you can buy medium quality hay delivered to you for less than $100/ton it is a very good deal.

Hay Alert Website Available to Help Producers Buy and Sell Hay

Producers experiencing hay and pasture losses as a result of Hurricane Florence, or those that need some hay and are not sure where to look will find the Hay Alert website a useful tool in securing sufficient hay for their winter needs. This site was originally developed in response to the drought of 2007, and it was updated in 2016 during the Hurricane Matthew response. The website was developed and is managed by the NCDA&CS in collaboration with N.C. Cooperative Extension. The site can be accessed through a link on the NCDA&CS homepage, the NC Cattlemen’s Association homepage, or the Amazing Grazing homepage.

The Hay Alert website is not designed to collect and exchange payment, but rather it is a tool that allows farmers to list hay for sale and to list hay wanted, with the goal of helping those with supply to connect with those in need. Other useful parts including a transportation section, “share the load” section, emergency equipment and services ads, and other information, all of which make this tool very useful for producers and their advisors to make sure their winter hay and feed needs are met.

Producers that lost hay or pasture in Florence should assess their hay needs now. Hay that was flooded in more than one foot of water for more than 1 day will likely be a total loss. Hay that was not flooded but that was stored outside and exposed to a lot of rain will in most cases not be a total loss. Bahiagrass and bermudagrass pastures will likely survive being flooded for an extended time, while fescue pastures are likely to be dead. Any pastures that were severely impacted need to be assessed and overseeded with winter annuals so grazing is available by early spring. More detail about hay and pasture management following the flood can be found at the Amazing Grazing home page.

Take the steps above to determine if you have sufficient hay on hand to get through the winter. If you need help doing that contact your Extension Livestock Agent for help. If you are in a hay deficit you can put a “hay wanted” ad on the Hay Alert Website, and can also look through the “hay for sale” section to see what is available in your area. We will be monitoring the Hay Alert ads and will help when necessary, but the site is intended to be a farmer to farmer system.

Likewise, if you have hay you would like to sell or donate you can list an ad in the hay for sale section. If you would like to assist farmers in need with donated hay or assistance by transporting hay to the affected areas, this site would be a good place to identify farmers who could use the help. You can watch this fall as farmers post their needs on the Hay Alert website and then reach out to those farmers directly to see how you might be of assistance. This is also a location you can place an ad if you wish to go help farmers with cleanup, fence repair, and other recovery activities.

When you place an ad on Hay Alert there are options for “baled hay for sale”, “baled hay needed”, “standing hay for sale”, or “standing hay needed”. If you have experienced losses due to the storm, use the text box in the ad to describe your need, as we will advise people with hay to donate to look at the site and find folks in need.

One problem we have experienced in past emergency responses is the difficulty finding transportation for hay shipments. The transportation section gives contact information for transportation companies that are willing and ready to haul hay. If you don’t need a whole truckload of hay you can use the “share a load” ad to try to find other producers to split a load with you.

Keep in mind there is a lot of hay and other alternative sources of feed for livestock in the state that was not damaged by Florence. The Hay Alert website is an important starting point for you as you plan your winter hay needs. Take a look at that and contact your county NC Cooperative Extension Office or another advisor to get help.

Pay Attention to Details Throughout the Feeding Season

The devil is in the details! All this sounds good but the truth is that day to day you will have many challenges and decisions to make. Putting effort into your cattle management program will pay off as we continue through this very challenging year.

*Please contact Stefani Sykes with any livestock, forage or waste management questions. 919-731-1525