Ag Notes: Match forages to cattle's nutritional needs

September 16, 2003|JERRY LITTLE

Livestock producers have a number of economical reasons to have forage tested before the winter feeding season begins.

Knowing forage quality will help maximize animal performance, provide sufficient feed and lower input costs. Most livestock producers have forages with different qualities on their farms because there's a tremendous variation in the quality of forages harvested at diverse stages of maturity. Plus, weather damage and the species itself can affect forage feeding quality.

By having forages tested, you will know the quality of the different forages. Then, you can match forage quality to livestock that have diverse nutritional needs and different management requirements that are influenced by age and stage of production. This will help you get the best performance from animals whether it's reproduction, rate of gain or milk production.

Another reason it's important to know forage quality is to be sure you will have enough feed to get through the winter. After you have forages tested, take an inventory of them and livestock to be sure you'll have sufficient feed. Winter feed comprises about one-half of the total feed costs for a beef herd.


Thus, it's desirable to develop a feeding and management plan to carry the cow herd through the winter at the least cost. You also might want to separate the herd into groups with similar nutrient and management requirements. This will keep you from over- or under-feeding cattle and wasting feed dollars.

Testing forages also lets you discover what the most limiting nutrient is so you can develop the most economical supplementation program. If energy is the most limiting nutrient and you add protein, you won't get any response for the money spent.

Another benefit of forage testing is that it helps you develop a feeding pattern to meet animals' nutritional needs based on their age and state in the production cycle.

In the fall, for example, there's still some pasture left and beef cattle nutritional needs are low so you can feed lower-quality forage. However, their needs dramatically escalate as calving time approaches; so four to six weeks before calving, go to the highest quality forage and continue until pasture quality and quantity can meet cows' nutrient needs and you can shift them over to pasture.

This is assuming that the cows were in good flesh in the fall.

One common misconception can have an adverse effect on your beef cattle operation bottom line, too. It is that cattle will eat more low-quality forage if they need it. This simply isn't true. Here's why.

Cattle eat less low-quality (high fiber, mature) forage because it is slow to digest and slow to pass through the animal. As a result, the digestive system is always full and the animal won't eat more. Conversely, beef cattle will eat more high-quality forage because they digest it faster and it moves through them more quickly. You'll have a higher level of performance when cattle eat more.

Having forages tested will let you know how much cattle will eat, based on the fiber content.


"I've never seen Grandpa so mad. The state's decided to put a four-lane highway right through the middle of his pasture."

"Why is he so mad about that?"

"He thinks he'll have to run down and open the gate every time a car comes along."

Jerry Little is Boyle County extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.

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