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Health and Nutrition Go Hand in Hand

April 8, 2014
Hay Bale Cattle
High quality hay can meet cows' needs, allowing them to produce adequate milk for their calves, while staying in good condition.  

Proper nutrition goes a long way in maintaining a healthy herd of cattle.

By: Gary Bates, Director, University of Tennessee Beef and Forage Center

There are many aspects to keeping a herd of cattle healthy. Vaccinations, worming, etc. are often what we think of. But if you want your calves to be born healthy next year and your cows to remain healthy and productive, nutrition is as important as anything. Winter feeding of your cow herd will influence cow and calf health and productivity. We need to keep in mind that our hay for next year will be produced over the next several months. Because of the importance of hay to cattle production, it is important to know how to produce high quality hay.

The single most important factor influencing hay quality is the stage of maturity at harvest. This is the area where most livestock producers can make the easiest and greatest improvements in hay quality. As legumes and grasses advance in maturity, they drop in crude protein and digestibility. The proper stage to cut grass pastures is boot to early head stage for the first cut, then every 4-6 weeks afterwards. Tall fescue or orchardgrass hay cut early will be high quality and can meet the nutritional needs of a lactating cow and calf. If the hay is cut too late, there will be more tonnage, but quality will be low and a protein and energy supplement will probably be required to meet the needs of the animals.

Many times it is not possible to get all of the hay cut at the proper stage. It is important to get at least a portion of the hay cut when it is high quality. This is the hay to feed to the spring-calving cows. Many of these cows calve in February and March, before the grass pastures are producing much forage. High quality hay can meet their needs, allowing them to produce adequate milk for their calves, while staying in good condition.

There are several additional factors that will affect hay quality. Try to avoid rain when cutting hay. In the spring, it is difficult to predict when three days of good weather will occur for hay cutting. It is important to be prepared to cut hay when we get these periods of good weather. Don't wait to check the hay equipment the night before cutting. Have the machinery checked out well in advance of cutting time. Maintaining soil fertility is important, because nitrogen fertilizer helps maintain the protein level in hay. High soil fertility will also help control weeds in the pasture and hay.

With spring coming on, our pastures will be producing large amount of high quality forage. Let's make sure that we harvest the excess forage when it is high quality. When it is stored, we will have a good source of nutrients for the cows that can be fed when it is needed later in the year.

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