November 17, 2006
Months of drought will make winter feeding difficult but not impossible
By Bobby Horecka
Pastures may have perked up in the wake of recent rains over most of Texas during the last few weeks, but this dastardly dry year leaves livestock producers wondering how they'll fare through the coldest months of the year.
While depleted hay stocks statewide no doubt make that a daunting question, Texas A&M livestock nutrition specialist Jason Banta said several options are available to make the most of what little hay is left until spring growth returns.
"There's definitely no magic bullet out there," Banta told producers gathered for the Texas Farm Bureau District 8 Beef Day held at the Temple Blackland Research Center on Oct. 27. "And given the marker factors, it's not going to be cheap either."
Hay and alfalfa topped record prices this year with the lingering drought, and many ranchers have had to look beyond state boundaries to truck in needed feed at a time when fuel and transport costs were some of the highest in history.
Hay was just part of the problem, however. Sun seared already parched pastures across much of the Lone Star State, and lack of rain teamed up with a mild winter last year to limit winter grazing. For many cattlemen, the drought meant heavy culling of cattle herds; for some, outright liquidation.
Now with few feed alternatives left, corn prices have peaked to some of the highest in years, fueled by increased grain usage in the many new ethanol plants nationwide, industry experts say.
But smart management can win the day, the nutrition specialist said.
Although hay is expensive this year, Banta said quality can be questionable. Dry times resulted in lesser nutritional grades.
"If you're not testing your hay, you need to be," Banta said. "You can't supplement properly if you don't know what you have to begin with, especially when hay stocks are limited."
Cattle require between 7 to 11 percent crude protein (CP) and between 48-64 percent TDN (total digestible nutrients, or as Banta described it, the amount of energy the feed provides).
Of course, not all cows are equal. The lower end of the nutritional scale applies to dry, mid-pregnancy and mature cows, Banta says, while the higher nutritional requirements are needed for younger, lactating cattle.
"That may mean a change in breeding and weaning management of your herd," Banta said. "Controlling this aspect alone can mean a sizable difference in what the cows will need to make it through the winter."
But beyond breeding cycles, food intake management is crucial, he says, and knowing the quantitative ratios of your feed is a priority.
"There are several options to choose from when it comes to choosing the proper feed supplements, but ultimately it comes down to which best suits your operation," Banta said.
For increased CP intake, ranchers can choose from a wide array of feedstuffs, including cottonseed meal, soybean meal, corn gluten meal, peanut meal, range cubes and alfalfa hay.
Corn, distillers grains, cottonseed, soybeans, rice bran and wheat midds may be sought to up the TDN intake.
But each combination should be evaluated, Banta said. Literally dozens of combinations may be used to varying degrees of success.
"It's largely a matter of determining what's best for your needs," he said.
Given range conditions statewide this year, most ranchers will find themselves needing to supplement winter pastures with anywhere from 3-6 pounds of additional feed per head per day, Banta estimated.
One handy alternative to using up hay rations comes with corn and sorghum stubble. "Farmers in this area are not using stalks for feed nearly as much as many of other parts of the country," Banta said. "For nutritional value, there's no reason they shouldn't."
In fact, corn and sorghum stalks are rated nutritional peers with a medium quality hay (10 percent CP, 50 percent TDN).
Over the course of the winter, Banta said using corn and soybean hulls in conjunction with a supplement pound of cottonseed meal per animal per day can slice hay consumption in half while still maintaining cattle weights.
Banta shied away from raw soybeans, as they're not easily digested in cattle and can cause longer term health problems. He also cautioned against rice hulls, which alone have almost no nutritional value (3 percent CP, 13 percent TDN).
Of course, cost will be the determining factor in many operations this year, Banta said. But instead of only considering the cost of the feed item itself, he suggested evaluating the feed cost based on its nutritional value.
"You'll find that what may seem a better deal at first could actually cost more down the road," he said.
A $60 bale of hay, for instance, will cost the producer around 11 cents per pound, while a higher priced alfalfa bale may actually ring in significantly cheaper per nutritional unit. (See Cost of Feed Analysis)
But whatever the feeding plan, Banta urged ranchers not to scrimp on the quality of their feedstuffs. In addition to sapping up water and pastures, drought also will affect cattle pregnancy rates, weaning weights and long-term gain performance.
"How you choose to handle this winter's feed management could affect your herd for months and even years to come," Banta said. "We may have greener pastures now, but a little rain won't necessarily turn back all those months of dry we had before."
For more information on winter feed management, visit your local county agent or log on to the Texas A&M Animal Science Department webpage at http://animalscience.-tamu.edu and click on "Publications."