Drought Planning: 4 Ways to Stockpile Forages

The state of Nebraska is in the center of the High Plains Region of the United States.  The states that make up this region are Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.  I checked the current drought monitor and found that southern Nebraska and southern Wyoming are abnormally dry, and Kansas, Colorado and the Dakotas are experiencing various levels of drought.  The current outlook through April is promising for the Dakotas, but dry for the rest of the region.  Precipitation from the Canadian border is predicted to remove the drought from North and South Dakota. The Dakotas are projected to experience a normal spring season.  As for the rest of the region, southern Nebraska, southern Wyoming, Colorado and Kansas, drought is likely to persist through April 1st.  Soil moisture levels on April 1st will have a great impact on the availability of forages throughout the region during the summer months. When planning for drought conditions, which are likely to result in decreased forage production, especially on dry pastures and rangeland, most producers’ strategy is to decrease animal numbers and stockpile forages.  Here are four ways to stockpile forages for livestock during drought conditions:

  1. Buy Hay

Buying hay is the first thing that usually comes to mind when people think of stockpiling forages.  During a drought, it is likely that local hay may be of lower quality, therefore it is important to test the protein and energy values (I reccomend a minimum of an NIR scan or the F-3 test at Ward Laboratories, Inc.) before feeding to ensure the forage will meet the animals’ nutritional needs. Hay nutrient values may change during transportation, so if hay is being shipped from another region be sure to test after receiving the lot and before balancing a ration to feed livestock.  Having extra stockpiles of hay for drought or emergency feeding is never a bad thing, however buying hay during a drought can be expensive due to less availability, higher demand, and transport costs.  Therefore, it would be beneficial to maintain supplies of hay during periods of plentiful forage conditions. In other words, it is most economical to buy hay in excess when it is low in demand and forages are in good supply and save some back as emergency or drought feed.  If you are located in Nebraska and are looking to buy hay check out the Nebraska State Hay Hotline.

  1. Graze Crop Residues

If your operation is located near farmland, consider working with your neighbors to allow your livestock to graze their crop residues.  Cattle can graze preferentially to take advantage of high protein, low fiber portions of the plants left standing in the field.  If you reside in southern Nebraska or Kansas, corn or wheat residues are good alternative forages especially when fed with energy supplements.  When grazing crop residues, be cautious and remember to test for nitrates before letting animals out onto the filed.  This option for stockpiling forages is cost effective, however labor intensive and may require cooperation with neighbors.  If you live in Nebraska check out the crop residue exchange to find farmers willing to let you take advantage of this great forage source.

  1. Graze Cover Crops

Adding cover crops to your own cropping rotation can be another great way to stockpile forages.  Cover crops allow you to extend the grazing season into the fall.  Preferential grazing increases the animals nutritional plane and therefore performance may also increase.  If you are lucky enough to get some moisture after grazing, cover crops may produce regrowth and animals may be able to graze those areas again.  There are also many benefits to adding cover crops into a cropping rotation for the soil. For more information on that read guest author, Emily Shafto’s Cattle and Crops: Completing the Nutrient Cycle. Planting a diverse cover crop mixture can ensure that if one species in the mix fails others will thrive, diversity can prevent disaster. Cover crops are cost effective as a source of forage, especially in a drought.  They are however, more labor intensive and if they are high in nitrates, prussic acid or sulfur, they may detrimentally affect animal health and mortality.

  1. Rent Additional Grazing Lands

If you are not located in an area where cropping agriculture is prevalent, and you rely on rangelands to provide forage for the summer grazing months.  Renting additional grazing lands may not be very cost effective immediately, but in the long run it will take some of the pressure off the lands typically grazed and allow them to rest and rejuvenate to provide forage for the next grazing season.  Renting additional grazing lands may be a hit to the pocketbook during that drought season, but it will prevent over-grazing, which is a necessity when practicing good land stewardship.

 

Stockpiling forages, using one or more of the strategies above, can help prevent a disastrous drought situation.  Always monitor the precipitation and temperature conditions so that you can do your best planning for the future.  Always look for creative ways to fill gaps in feed availability.  A feed or NIR test from WARD Laboratories, INC can aid in decision making when it comes to feeding alternate forages. When buying hay, test nutritional values after shipment and before feeding for accurate results.  When grazing corn stalks, oat stubble or wheat stubble check for nitrates before letting animals out in the field.  And revisit my blog 6 Cautions When Grazing Cover Crops to ensure you are feeding a safe forage when grazing cover crops.  For more information on drought planning visit the National Drought Mitigation Center.

season_drought

Integrated Systems Agriculture: 4 Benefits of Grazing Cover Crops to Beef Producers

Intensive, specialized crop production has several widely agreed upon downfalls.  These specialized systems tend to have stationary yields with expensive pesticide and herbicide inputs all while profitability is widely dependent on a global market over which we have little control.  Dependence on these practices  leads to higher resistance among  insects  and weeds, reliance on fertilizers due to nutrient depletion  in the soil,  soil erosion and contamination of waterways due to run off, and improper soil management practices. Soil scientists and agronomists agree that the addition of cover crops to a cropping rotation can improve soil quality and health through decreased erosion, increased microbial activity, increased carbon sequestration, more soil aggregates, and increased conservation of moisture in the soil, all due to a more extensive rooting system and ground residue protecting the soil for more months out of the year.  The addition of livestock, most commonly beef cattle, to this rotational cropping system decreases the need for herbicides and fertilizers, as they help deplete the weed seed bank and their manure contains many nutrients vital to plant nutrition and soil health. Guest author, Emily Shafto, covered the benefits to the soil extensively in her blog Cattle and Crops: Completing the Nutrient Cycle.  Here are four benefits of grazing cover crops to cattle producers:

 

  1. Grazing cover crops extends the grazing season, leading to decreased costs of stored feeds.  Supplementation needs are also lessened due to the animal’s ability to preferentially graze to meet their nutritional needs. According to a study by Practical Farmers of Iowa, grazing cover crops can offset winter feed storage costs by up to $40,000. Of course, it is important to mention that labor costs increase, and grazing cover crops requires more intensive management of the land and cattle.  The cost may be offset by the reduced need to cut and bale excessive amounts of hay or corn silage. Feed should still be stored for emergency use, such as a failed cover crop or a stressed crop that has accumulated too much nitrate to graze.

 

  1. Grazing cover crops can improve cattle’s nutritional plane through preferential grazing.  Animals consuming a cover crop mix can choose plant parts such as leaves over stems which are higher in protein and non-fiber carbohydrates and lower in fiber.  Cattle can also choose less mature plants for the same nutritional reasons.  Therefore, by grazing a mix of annual crops, cattle can consume more protein and carbohydrates for performance than a balanced ration of roughages and grain supplements. Therefore, grazing cover crops can improve nutrition and eliminate the cost of ration balancing and mixing.

 

  1. By improving their nutritional plane, animal performance can increase when grazing cover crops.  Growing steers typically have increased feed intake when consuming cover crops as opposed to a mixed ration, which results in increased weight gains.  Heifers and cows on the higher plane of nutrition provided by cover crops can have increased reproductive performance.

 

  1. Grazing cover crops rotationally can have an added benefit of forage regrowth.  When animals graze a paddock for the first time, they open the top canopy and allow sunlight to reach shorter plants.  When the cattle are removed from that section, plant growth is stimulated and if allowed enough time, may recover sufficiently enough to allow the area to be grazed again.   Grazing regrowth is like bonus forage and can also contribute to decreased feed production and storage costs.

 

Integrating cropping systems with forage production and grazing benefits soil health, grazing livestock, and your pocketbook.  Grazing cover crops specifically benefits beef production by extending the grazing season, thereby saving on winter stored feed costs, improving the animals nutritional plane resulting in improved animal performance through increased intake and gains, and bonus regrowth can also be grazed, again saving on winter feed costs.  Don’t forget to take proper precautions before allowing cattle to graze cover crops. See my blog post: 6 Cautions When Grazing Cover Crops. 

Cattle and Crops: Completing the Nutrient Cycle

How many of us producers have a shovel in our pickup? When was the last time we used that shovel to thoroughly examine our soil?  Are we able to determine what a truly healthy soil looks like? Grab a shovel and take a look at your soil. Check out your soil profile. Does the shovel easily enter the ground? Is there a cottage cheese like structure? Is there a nice, deep rich brown color to your soil? Is the soil easily crumbled in your hand? All of these characteristics indicate a healthy soil. If you answered no to any of these questions, a look into your soil’s health may be just what you need.

Soil health has become a buzzword in agriculture. It is used as a way of understanding the impacts we have on the living soil ecosystem. The five principles of soil health are: cover the soil, minimize soil disturbance, create a diverse plant population, maintain continuous living roots and integrate livestock to complete the nutrient cycle and promote a healthy soil ecosystem. Highly disturbed soils with low organic matter, high weed pressure, poor soil structure and poor soil drainage are only a few symptoms of a “sick” soil. Continued interest in influences that impact soil biology, an important link to the physical and chemical characteristics of soils, have led to the reduction of tillage, fertilizer and pesticide use, thus reducing producers’ input costs.

Soil health also relates to the crops we choose to grow. When a plant is growing, it harvests energy from the sun and converts it into simple sugars for plant growth. As the nutrients begin to deplete around the root zone, the plant roots begin growing towards nutrients in the soil. The roots cannot grow quickly enough to harvest adequate nutrients for continued growth. They release simple sugar based compounds called root exudates that gather a microbial community that will help harvest nutrients from the soil. As microbial communities grow and expand, they release “super glues” in the soil that promote soil aggregation. Aggregation not only acts as a home for microbes but also creates channels that promote water infiltration and increases the soils’ ability to retain water.

Furthermore, root growth density, structure and depth are plant dependent, so care should be taken when deciding what to plant. Cover crops can be excellent nitrogen scavengers, soil builders, erosion preventers, weed suppressors and forage sources. As interest in cover crops continues, it is important to realize that although there are numerous benefits to keeping a living plant on your ground, each plant species can have harmful characteristics. Certain species may be better at suppressing undesirable weeds than others. Some species may become hosts to harmful pests. For example, cereal rye is a popular, fast growing cover that has the ability to reduce soil-borne diseases, nematodes and weeds, but it does not control weedy grasses and can increase cut worms and wire worms. Thus, rye would not be the most suitable cover to plant prior to grass crops such as corn, sweet corn, sorghum or wheat. Multispecies cover crops not only provide a variety of benefits, but helps fill gaps or mitigate the weaknesses of monoculture cover crops. Multispecies cover crops mimic nature, which uses a wide variety of plant species to maintain an effective system. Selecting the correct mix of cover crops for your production will take time, research and trial and error. A cover crop that is ideal for one producer may not be the best for another, so it is important to select cover crops that grow well in your area and meet you own soil health goals.

Producer oriented conferences, such as the Western Canada Soil Health and Grazing Conference we recently attended, can aid producers in forming a plan of action for their soils as well as start a conversation with local producers as to what management practices have worked well for them. While at the conference, producers and researchers alike shared principle ideas about incorporating cattle and cover crops into a cropping system. This approach has created healthier soils and a more cost-effective feed source for livestock. So, what happens to the soil when cattle graze?

Cover crops can provide a mixed culture forage for cattle to gain key macronutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates and fats. In exchange for the plant’s nutrients, manure and urine left behind provide a source of new microbes and new organic matter for plants and existing microbes. Addition of new microbes often signals to prevailing microbes that a new source of nutrients is available for consumption and use. This process feeds the continued growth of plants and completes the nutrient cycle.

But it doesn’t end there. An animal feeding on the plant also impacts its root growth. When cattle feed on plants, they trigger a survival response in plants that requires the plant to decide which roots best support the continued survival of the plant. The other roots are abandoned, but still serve as a home and food source for the microbial community. As the abandoned roots degrade, the tunnels left by the roots increases the soil’s water infiltration rate and improves the soil for macrofauna such as earthworms and arthropods. As the plant recovers, roots will resume growing normally and further improve soil structure.

The use of cattle and cover crops in agriculture operations provide the link to completing the nutrient cycle in the soil. The strong root systems of multispecies cover crop mixes provide numerous benefits to soil microbial communities and positively influence soil structure. These mixes can provide nutrients to cattle who in turn return nutrients to the soil. Successful implementation of management practices by well-known regenerative farmers such as Gabe Brown and David Brandt are excellent examples of soil health practices but should not be viewed as the silver bullet to healthier soils. Instead, their principles and view of soil management in a holistic manner can provide helpful guidelines to producers interested in improving their soil. Soils, like people, differ greatly and will require different strategies to strengthen them. So, grab your shovel. Get down. Get dirty. And get to know your soil.

What to Do with Down Corn?

Here in Nebraska, down corn has been an issue for cattle producers who want to graze corn stalks.  Due to a late harvest and weather patterns creating high winds, many corn fields have ears of corn just lying on the ground.  Cattle are selective grazers and will pick the high energy, high starch grain over the high fiber, low energy corn stalks if given the chance to be turned out onto those fields.  This can cause issues such as acidosis, bloat and eventually death among cattle.  The available starch in corn grain is rapidly fermented by rumen microbes, this can result in acidosis where the pH of the rumen decreases rapidly damaging the epithelial lining of the rumen.  If cattle are dealing with bouts of acidosis after eating they will likely go off feed for a short period, but then they will go right back out and consume the high grain diet that made them sick in the first place, thus resulting in another bout of acidosis.   The readily available energy in the corn grain can also result in a feedlot type frothy bloat.  If untreated and not taken off the high grain diet the cow will continue to eat and eventually death will occur.

Due to those risks in down corn fields, different management is necessary to graze those fields.  Unfortunately, varied management also means more labor-intensive strategies.  For example, the first step is to determine about how much corn is down in your field.  For this I would reference UNL extension Mary Drewnoski’s calculator and article regarding down corn https://beef.unl.edu/down-corn-problem-or-opportunity-cattle-producers.  After determining how much corn grain is available in the field, you can utilize a feedlot type / mob grazing strategy where you utilize electric fencing to reduce the amount of corn grain they consume daily and provide extra roughage in addition to the cornstalks already available.  In this way you can gradually allow them to have more access to the field and provide less roughage to acclimate the rumen microbes to the high starch diet without the pitfalls and production losses of associated acidosis and bloat.

Another strategy some producers have looked toward is to rake and bale the cornstalks corn grain and all to mix into a total mixed ration (TMR).  One issue that this strategy might run into is the ash content of the baled corn stalks may be high and may cause an impaction.   Ash is defined as the total mineral content of a feed and has two sources.  Endogenous ash is from the plant and is bioavailable providing micronutrients to the animal. Exogenous ash is from soil contamination of the feed.  This soil is not available as micronutrients and usually just passes through the animal’s digestive tract.  The problem with soil contaminated feeds is that the soil could cause a compaction within the omasum, abomasum or beginning of the small intestine.  An impaction would not allow other nutrients to pass through and could cause cattle to go off feed if it is serious enough.  Not enough research has been done in this area to determine how much ash or soil contamination would result in an impaction.  The more likely issue however would be a decrease in performance due to the dry matter intake the ash is taking up.  Roughages and forages generally range between 8-10% ash with 4-6% being endogenous.  Extremely soil contaminated roughages could contain as much as 18% ash.  Because cattle typically consume 2% of their body weight in dry matter, consumption of a soil contaminated feed can result in a considerable amount of the ash as dry matter intake with no nutritional value. Thereby, resulting in decreased performance for the animal.  Therefore, it would be my recommendation when raking and baling down corn for a TMR to test the ash content and if it is high, mix with feeds that have a low ash content to minimize impaction risk and performance losses. It is also important to remember to test the nutritional value of the baled corn stalks before mixing them into the TMR as it has more energy value than typical cornstalks due to the high grain content and should be treated as such. In addition, soil contamination of any feed can introduce mold spores heightening animal health risks and decreasing production performance. Therefore, it would be my recommendation when raking and baling down corn for a TMR to test the ash content and if it is high, mix with feeds that have a low ash content to minimize impaction risk and performance losses.

6 Cautions When Grazing Cover Crops

Grazing cover crops can be a cost-effective way to achieve multiple productions goals.  Cover crops can provide ground cover to prevent erosion, improve soil health over time, and provide nutrition to beef cattle.  However, cover crops are not a fool proof feed.  Turning cattle out onto cover crops to graze without proper feed tests can lead to a wreak due to improper management.  Recently, I had a producer lose 12 head of growing cattle to polioencephalomalacia, a neurological disease in cattle consuming too much sulfur.  After the incident, that producer wanted to test his cover crops to ensure he did not experience another tragic loss.  My advice, is to test cover crops before grazing for protein, energy value, minerals, nitrates, and under some circumstances, prussic acid to ensure proper management and prevent undue losses. These are the 6 cautions to consider when grazing cover crops:

  1. Nitrates

Cover crop mixes include several plant species known to accumulate nitrates for example: brassicas, such as turnips and radishes, or small grain plants, such as oats, millet, or grain sorghums. When cattle consume high nitrate feeds, the microbes in the rumen convert that nitrate to nitrite.  The nitrite is then in the gas, which the cattle belch and then inhale.  The nitrite then binds to the blood hemoglobin preventing oxygen from binding.  At levels between 1,400 – 2100 ppm NO3-N this can cause spontaneous abortions with no warning signs or symptoms.  At levels between 2,100 – 4,000 ppm NO3-N sudden death may occur and therefore, animals grazing cover crops should be slowly acclimated to consumption of nitrates and offered a low nitrate roughage to fill up on first.  Never allow hungry cattle onto a high nitrate field.  Nitrate levels above 4,000 ppm NO3-N should not be grazed as sudden death will likely occur.

  1. High sulfur

The toxic level of sulfur in a cattle diet is 0.40 ppm on a dry basis.  Brassicas are sulfur accumulators, that occasionally test above the maximum tolerable level, and are often included in cover crop grazing mixes.  When sulfur intake is above the tolerable level, thiamin metabolism is impaired in a condition known as polioencephalomalacia (PEM). Head pressing, blindness, and muscle tremors are all clinical symptoms of PEM which, untreated, results in death.

  1. Low magnesium

Grass tetany is a condition commonly associated with lush spring pastures.  These pastures are known for having low magnesium due to rapid growth conditions. Cover crops also tend to have low magnesium.   The magnesium requirement for a beef cow is 0.2% of the diet at peak lactation and 0.1% of the diet for growing cattle.  When cover crops contain less magnesium than is required, a magnesium deficiency can develop resulting in grass tetany.  The signs of grass tetany are cattle stop grazing, become overly alert, and appear uncomfortable, they will then begin to stagger until they finally lie down with their head pulled back into a “star gazing position”.  Untreated, this condition will result in death.  To prevent the development of a magnesium deficiency, many producers grazing cover crops feed a mineral between 8-12% magnesium to be consumed at a rate of 2.5-4oz per head per day.

  1. Prussic acid

In cover crop mixes there are species of plants which accumulate hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous gas commonly known as prussic acid, in their leaves under stressful growing conditions.  These plants include sorghum grasses, sudan grasses, and flax.  Stressful growing conditions includes drought or frost.  Plants grown in drought conditions should be tested for prussic acid prior to grazing because consumption of high levels of the gas is sudden death.  Contrarily, frost typically breaks cell walls allowing the release of the gas and therefore should be safe to graze after 4 days.  Regrowth after a frost however, should be tested prior to grazing because the plant is stressed from the previous frost, but the cell walls have not been broken to allow the gas to escape.

  1. Bloat

A frothy bloat is often attributed to legumes or high protein grasses.  Cover crop mixes high in legumes such as clover, beans, or cowpeas may result in some animals over indulging in the legumes resulting in frothy bloat issues.  These legume plants are high in soluble protein and sugars which allows the microbes to ferment and grow at a rapid rate resulting in a high rate of gaseous by-product accumulation.

  1. Choke

Brassicas such as radishes and turnips may be pulled from the ground to be consumed by cattle grazing cover crops.  If they are swallowed without proper mastication the animal may choke on the large root.  This is typically more of a problem for young cattle who are inexperienced in grazing brassicas.

Overall, grazing cover crops can be a great way to provide nutrients to cattle, prevent soil erosion and improve soil health.  However, the producer should be aware of the risks they are assuming feeding these diverse forages.  Testing for nitrates, minerals, and potentially prussic acid is highly recommended to avoid unnecessary losses due to grazing cover crops.

 

4 Considerations For Feeding Hail Damaged Forage And Crop Residues

 

Here in Central Nebraska we have experienced several mid-summer thunderstorms. These hail producing storms have wreaked havoc on crops and forage productivity, particularly in the Broken Bow and Ansley areas. As producers move forward with crop insurance, they will also be scrambling to utilize what is left of their standing row crops and forages. There are three laboratory tests I would recommend to make an informed decision about the remaining forage. Then depending on the results of your laboratory tests, you can determine what your most economical option is.

1. Nitrates

Defoliation due to the pounding hail results in decreased photosynthesis within the plant. This means that the plant can not convert nitrates to protein. The root system of the plant still continues nitrogen uptake, although the plant cannot utilize these nutrients, resulting in the potential accumulation of nitrates in the plant. Nitrate (NO3 – N) levels between 1400 – 2000 ppm can result in abortions while levels higher than 2000 ppm can result in sudden death if not diluted with other sources of roughage. Therefore, nitrate testing of hail damaged forages is highly recommended before making a decision to graze, hay or ensile the forage.

2. Mold and Mycotoxin Potential

Hail damages the outer cell wall of the plant. The cell wall is an immune defense similar to skin on animals. It prevents infectious agents from penetrating, proliferating and using the plant as a food source. When the cell wall is damaged, opportunistic molds may infiltrate and grow. Consequently, when haying or ensiling forage, testing for mold counts is important. Mold counts above 1 million cfu/g impact animal health and lower production potential.
If the forage is a grain producing forage such as corn or milo, a producer may want to inspect the crop to determine if grain has been produced. If there is grain and it is damaged by the hail, mycotoxins become a potential risk when feeding to livestock. Mycotoxins presence may be present even in the absence of a high mold count. If you suspect mycotoxins may be an issue, remember mycotoxins and molds are often produced together however, the absence of one mycotoxin does not mean conditions were not ideal for another mycotoxin to emerge. If haying the hail damaged forage, proper drying can cut down on mold and mycotoxin presence. If ensiling, proper fermentation and additives may reduce the risk of having these agents in the feed.

 

 

3. Relative Feed Value

The relative feed value (RFV) will be less in a hail damaged forage or crop than its intact counterpart. Defoliation caused by the hail results in the removal or the leafy mass of the plant and what remains is the stocks and stems. These parts of the plant are lower in protein and higher in fiber, which results in a lower relative feed value. Additionally, this also means lower total digestible nutrients (TDN), and net energy of gain (NEg), lactation (NEl), and maintenance (NEm). Therefore, when feeding hail damaged forage, testing the protein and energy of the feed is important to determine how much energy and protein supplementation will be needed to meet production goals.

4. Economics

The last thing to consider, and the most important to your bottom line, when determining how to feed a hail damaged forage is what is the most cost effective delivery system based on the results of feed reports. If the nitrate reports came back low and you have the means to supplement cattle in the field to meet energy and protein needs, grazing may be the most cost effective option. Haying may also be an option under that scenario, however, if selling the hay profit margins may be small do to the lowered feed value and potential mold risks associated. Additionally, when haying you must input equipment and fuel costs associated with cutting, windrowing, and baling. If the nitrates levels have been reported between 2000ppm and 3000 ppm ensiling the damaged forage may be a good option as the nitrates can decrease by up to 50% and then be fed back to the animal. Equipment, fuel and storage costs must also be taken into account for ensiling the feed. In the case of moderate nitrates, haying and mixing with a high quality forage, such as alfalfa, to both dilute the nitrates to the appropriate level and meet the difference in protein and energy provided by the damaged forage and the animals requirements, may also be a viable option. Finally, if the nitrates report is high, utilizing the forage as a fertilizer for next years crop may be the only option.

When determining how to best utilize hail damaged forage, always take nitrates, mold and mycotoxin risks into account as well as the lowered feeding value. Consider the man power, equipment, fuel and supplementation costs associated with each option. This will allow you to make the most informed and cost effective decision possible.