The key is information; what the nutrient requirements are and what is available from hay owned by producers to economically satisfy those requirements. When buying hay, especially expensive hay, ask for test figures. Extension Fact Sheet 644 discusses evaluating hay and is available from the county extension office.
Feeding the proper amount may be stating the obvious, yet most livestock are over or under fed hay. Utilizing large round bales can be a real labor saver, but left to their own devices animals will eat more than required.
Numerous research projects have shown by limiting access to large round bales, producers can realize about a 45 percent savings in hay while not negatively affecting the animals. The bottom line is that livestock will eat more than they require, if allowed free access to hay. Generally, it only takes several hours per day for an animal to consume an adequate amount of hay (actual time will vary based on the size of the animal). This time period for consumption of hay is affected by forage quality.
Pushing the pencil, you may find in certain situations it may be more economical to replace some of the hay diet with grain. Generally, it is recommended to replace 75 percent of the hay ration with three parts hay and one part grain. However, management needs to be increased when feeding grain to prevent acidosis, overeating, etc. Remember, even though grain prices are higher, hay prices have also risen, so do your homework.
Utilizing crop residues is another strategy. Much or all of the daily nutrient requirements for dry cows, ewes, as well as dairy heifers can be met by utilizing crop or pasture residues (especially in early and mid-gestation). Frosted alfalfa fields, stockpiled fescue or other cool-season grasses, corn and soybean residues, etc., are often underutilized in our area. When grazing corn residue, animals may need to be acclimated to grain intake. One source estimated that four to five percent of the corn in a field is left after harvest. Controlled grazing in corn residue by using temporary electric fence is a proven practice. Certainly, common sense needs to be used when grazing grain fields to avoid compaction during muddy periods. Contrary to many producers' belief, livestock will paw through four to six inches of snow to consume forage. Residue grazing may not satisfy 100 percent of nutrient requirements, but it can certainly stretch hay supplies.
For beef, sheep and goat producers, separate the flock or herd into at least two groups; those needing increased nutrition and those that do not. The former would include animals that are lactating, young animals that are thin, older animals that need special attention, etc. By dividing the groups, one is not overfeeding a majority of the animals to satisfy nutrient requirements of a few.
Cull your flocks and herds, do not overwinter low-producing stock, animals that are management problems, etc. You are better off to over winter a few extra young animals for a delayed payoff than to keep the low producers, fence jumpers and mean ones.
Pregnancy check, with manual or ultrasonic pregnancy detection, accuracies of 95 percent or better can be achieved at 35 to 60 days after conception. It costs money to overwinter an open female and she is still not worth any more as a cull when spring arrives.
Coping with low or expensive hay supplies is not an easy situation. However, by hay testing, utilizing crop residues, feeding balanced rations and feeding only productive animals, costs can be controlled and hay supplies stretched. If a producer has excess hay to sell or needs to buy hay, they should consider utilizing the Maryland Hay and Straw Directory at www.mda.state.md.us/md_products/hay_straw_dir/index.php.
Details on the Maryland Hay and Straw Directory can be obtained from the County Extension Office. Until next time, good luck stretching your feed supplies and your budget.
Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org