Manage Your Forage Dollars Wisely

January 8, 2010 10:18 AM


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Follow this link to read more about understanding a forage analysis.

Marc deManigold knows it's time to change the ration. At Grace Farms in northern Missouri, cows are about 60 days from calving, a time when unborn calves are rapidly developing and cows are beginning to produce colostrum. He knows his alfalfa hay has more of the nutrients cows need at this time—and he has the numbers to prove it.

As manager of the Albany, Mo., farm, deManigold tests each cutting of alfalfa, as well as cuttings of gamagrass, bromegrass, orchard-grass and fescue hay. "I test anything that is different," he says. "Plus, if I think there is more of a brome mix in one area of the field, I'll test to see the actual nutrient mix."

Knowing the actual nutrient content allows him to provide cows with the optimal nutrition at the right time, he says. He pays close attention to the total digestible nutrients, protein and fiber digestibility of each sample to prioritize hay supplies for the cow–calf herd or the farm's stocker feedlot.

University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Shawn Deering uses a cordless drill and hay probe to sample round hay bales.
Don't guess. Shawn Deering, University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist in Gentry County, says all you need is about 1 cup of hay for a good sample to test. Using a cordless drill and a hay probe is an easy way to collect a proper sample.

"What I like to do is take a nice representative sample of the hay you are testing. It's not hard to do and you aren't going to damage the bale if you sample it that way. That's the first step toward better beef cow nutrition," Deering says.

He adds that there are many labs cattlemen can use to test forages, including those of universities and private feed companies. But the information you receive back will look considerably different.

"There are some things on these samples that I look at closer than others. When you get your hay test results back, there will likely be two columns. One column will be labeled ‘as sampled,' ‘as feed' or something similar. The other will be labeled ‘dry matter' or ‘dry matter basis' value," Deering says.

"Basically, ‘as sampled' is just as it sounds," he adds. "It is hay just as it is from the field, including the water in it. Dry matter analysis has the water removed. This is how we can compare feeds with different moisture contents on an equal basis—such as silage and hay."

From a ration balancing standpoint, we are really looking at the dry matter basis value, Deering explains. "I think all beef producers know that crude protein is very important in the rations that we develop and balance. But I see samples come through my office that are in the 5% to 6% range for crude protein, which is relatively low. I think there are a lot of people who put up very average hay and we don't realize it because we don't do enough testing."

Nutritional guarantee. Chris Derks runs about 600 Angus cows on his King City, Mo., cattle operation, and has not a single acre of alfalfa. Harvested forage comes from a 250-acre crop rotation of triticale haylage and forage soybean haylage and 150 acres of sorghum sudan hay. Derks relies on forage testing to make sure he is optimizing the feed ration for his cow–calf herd.

"We've had some surprises—hay we thought was good quality that for whatever reason didn't turn out as good as previous years. But we wouldn't know that without the tests in the first place. When we get the forage test back, then we know what we've got. There is no guesswork. It's very important that we get the right nutrients to our cows at the right time," he says.

Derks says he puts up 3,500 tons of haylage per year in 5'x5' round high-moisture bales for winter feeding.

"Everything we hay we plant every year," he says. "We average 6 to 7 tons per acre of triticale off the ground each year. Forage soybeans average 6 to 8 tons per acre. Pastureland is hard to come by here. What pastureland we have, we save for grazing."

When he receives his forage tests back, the first thing Derks looks for is the level of protein in the sample. "I don't sit down and read each sample, but I utilize my feed and mineral company nutritionist to help me adjust my forage ration. We don't always go by the book recommendations, and doing a forage analysis can save us a lot of money."

"If we know we have dry, pregnant beef cows in the third stage and our hay supply has 8% protein, with 55% to 54% total digestible nutrients, do we need to feed 5 lb. of corn per head per day? No. We would be wasting our money," Deering says.

"Do we need to supplement with a tub? Probably not. Knowing what you have is going to help you do a better job of managing feed and supplement dollars," he says.

Forage testing allows you to match the forage you have with the animal group that needs it the most, Deering says. If you do supplement, you can pinpoint the right ingredients and precise amounts.

Circumstances can be deceiving, he adds. Hay that was rained on doesn't always equal low crude protein values. "Test forage to truly know what you are feeding."

Test DDGs. For calves, Derks feeds soybean hull pellets and dried distillers' grains, which he tests two or three times a year to ensure quality.

Ki Fanning, nutritionist with Great Plains Livestock Consulting in Eagle, Neb., says to watch plant cycles and coproduct color.

DDGs nutrition content can vary from season to season, as the plant switches from freshly harvested to stored corn, or if the plant is not running at capacity.

If DDGs and gluten pellets are not the yellow color of corn, get an ADIN (acid detergent insoluble nitrogen) test to measure protein damage by the plant's heating process, Fanning says. "Test one load of distillers' grains per week in the first month and one load per month after to build an average basis." BT

To contact Sara Brown, e-mail

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