Spring Calving and Magnesium: 5 Risk Factors for Grass Tetany

As they say, “spring has sprung!” That means the birds are out chirping, summer is on its way, baby calves are on the ground and lush, green pastures ready for grazing.  While this does paint a picturesque image, cattlemen know there’s a danger in those beautiful, green spring grasslands: a nutritional disorder known as Grass Tetany, Grass Staggers or Hypomagnesaemia.  Grass Tetany is a deficiency of magnesium in a cow’s body that causes them to stagger, look alert and become easily excitable and often results in death.  Magnesium is a required mineral for beef cattle.  It is involved in many enzyme activations and therefore important biological processes.  Magnesium is particularly involved in nerve and muscle impulse transmissions. There are 5 risk factors for developing this deficiency:

  1. Age or Maturity of the Cows

Older cows that have produced 2 or more calves in prior calving seasons are more at risk to develop a magnesium deficiency during lactation.  As a beef cow moves from the gestational to the lactational physiological state, magnesium requirements increase from 0.12% to 0.2% of the dry matter intake.  Older cows have a more difficult time mobilizing stored magnesium from bone to meet these increased requirements.  In beef cattle 65-70% of the body’s magnesium is stored in the bone. While the diet may technically meet requirements, without mobilization of stored magnesium grass tetany can develop.  More mature cows have more difficulty with this biological process.

  1. Fertilization Protocol of the Pasture

In soils, the fertilization protocol can greatly affect the minerals available in the grasses grown on that pasture.  High levels of potassium, nitrogen and to a lesser extent phosphorous in the soil can interfere with a plant’s ability to absorb magnesium.  This creates a forage that is low in magnesium and high in potassium and nitrogen.  Therefore, it is recommended that pasture fertilization protocols be managed with the use of soil testing at Ward Laboratories Inc. to prevent over use of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK) fertilization.

  1. Manure Management on the Pasture

Similar to over fertilization of pasture ground, over accumulation of manure from previous grazing seasons can also result in decreased magnesium in the grasses produced. Manure is going to add nitrogen, organic acids, and long chained fatty acids to the soil, which will also decrease the absorption of magnesium by growing grasses.  Resting a pasture,that has a high manure load, can help alleviate this risk for the next grazing occurrence.

  1. Species of Grasses

Plants deficient in magnesium tend to be rapidly growing cool season grasses.  Some species commonly involved with magnesium deficiency are orchard grass, rye grass, timothy grass, fescue grass, crested wheatgrass, brome grass, and small grain producing varieties such as oats, barley or triticale.  To decrease the risk of developing Grass Tetany, it has been recommended that producers introduce legumes to the pasture at a rate greater than 30% since species, such as alfalfa, are not typically deficient in magnesium with the NRC average being 0.37% of dry matter.

  1. Forage Nutrients

Pasture grasses with dry matter mineral concentrations of less than 0.2% magnesium and greater than 3.0% potassium are known to cause Grass Tetany.  Just like in soil, excess potassium in the diet interferes with magnesium absorption and forces cows to rely on mobilization of stored magnesium for lactation.  You can send your forage samples to Ward Laboratories Inc. to test for mineral concentrations to determine if your forage matches that profile.  If so, feeding a high magnesium free choice mineral may be necessary.  Magnesium concentrations in those minerals typically range from 8-12%.  Magnesium Oxide is typically the compound added to the mineral mix and is unfortunately unpalatable and therefore, as a producer if you may need to get creative with how you are going to get that magnesium into those cows, for example mixing it in with a protein supplement if free choice mineral intake is low.

In conclusion, there are 5 risk factors for development of Grass Tetany: maturity of cows, fertilization protocol on pasture, manure on pasture, species of grasses and forage mineral concentrations.  Ward Laboratories Inc. can help you manage your pasture with soil testing and your forage with feed analysis.

 

 

Get the Scoop on Using Your Poop

Phewy! Smell that? From an early age, we are often told the old phrase “That’s the smell of money!” Although this phrase is often used to indicate cattle profits, the manure in those pens also holds a wealth of resources that can help enrich and strengthen your soil. Once used routinely in integrated farming systems, manure plays a critical role in returning nutrients to the soil. With the shift from integrated livestock and row crop farms to separated specialized operations, the natural cycle of many nutrients has been disrupted. This separation of practices has led to an overabundance of manure in some areas and a lack of nutrients in others, causing a shift to synthetic fertilizer use. So, what does manure do to our soil?

Manure is an important source of raw or partly decomposed organic matter. The nutrients in manure can vary depending on the animal type, health, age, feed ration, bedding and water content. In addition, the various management practices associated with handling manure, manure storage, duration of storage, application amount, application technique and weather can all dramatically alter the nutrient content in manure and thus the amount of nutrients available in the soil and for future crop use. Understanding and applying the correct amount of manure to your fields can be accomplished by testing your manure prior to application. You would be surprised how much it can vary! The table below highlights the difference in nutrient levels found in beef cattle manure that we have processed at the lab in the past five years. Want to see how swine, poultry, dairy cattle, or compost fared? You can check it out here.

Beef Manure

 

First, let’s set the stage. Before manure ever touches the soil, soil fauna (e.g. ants, earthworms, arthropods etc.) and microbial populations (e.g. bacteria, fungi, viruses) naturally exist in your soil. These populations, or communities, are incredibly diverse and have varying community structures that reflect your soil quality, or “soil health”. The majority of the microbial populations exist within the top few inches of your soil, clustered around the root structures of plants, known as the rhizosphere. Soil microbial activity is responsible for the main decomposition of all litter inputs into the soil. Larger fauna in the soil are important for the preliminary break down of residue into small pieces, creating greater surface area for microbial activity. They also move fragments of litter throughout the soil structure, exposing the litter to larger microbial communities, which provides a natural incorporation without resorting to mechanical methods. When food is scarce (e.g. winter months when no living plant is present), microbes have the natural ability to enter a low energy requiring comatose-like state to preserve their nutrient supply until food is readily available again.

Initial introduction of manure is a feeding frenzy for soil microbes. Manure not only contains a large amount of macro and micro soil nutrients but also inoculates the soil with microorganisms excreted by livestock. The nutrients in manure, although processed by the host, require a suite of soil microbe activity to alter the chemical structure of nutrients to make them available for microbe and plant use. Much like hungry teenagers at a buffet, microbes attack the most easily accessible forms of food first: sugars, starches and other soluble nutrients. This initial process is often rapid. Once these resources have been used, the breakdown of more complex soil compounds begins and is a slower process like preparing a box of mac and cheese. It takes time and a little bit of effort. This process includes the breakdown of cellulose and hemicellulose, both found in plant tissues. Lastly, complex compounds, such as tannins and lignins (found predominantly in woody plant species) are broken down. This process occurs over a long period of time and with a lot of help. It’s almost like preparing a Thanksgiving feast. This process requires the specific activity of select microbes (e.g. White Rot) to breakdown these compounds.

Microbes are very similar to people in the way they act. Although the main end product of aerobic (or oxygen loving) microbial activity is to release carbon dioxide (CO2) and water, microbes require nutrients to support growth, maintenance and reproduction. Thus, microbes make a living by harvesting carbon and other nutrients from the soil organic matter. Microbes are responsible for converting many minerals from organic to inorganic forms (often referred to as “mineralization”) that are easy to take up for both the microbe and plants. For instance, microbes need N to meet many microbial needs (e.g. protein building). If there is an abundance of N in the organic matter, extra microbial processed N, in the form of ammonium-N (NH4+-N), is released into the soil environment. Due to the close proximity of microbial communities and plant roots, the released, easily available N is taken up by the plant. Increases in nutrient sources, such as the addition of manure, stimulates microbial growth and reproduction, resulting in a larger, more active microbial community. Larger populations lead to greater microbial turnover, in which the death of the microbe releases nutrients gathered during its lifetime and can now be utilized by plants.

In addition to the minerals microbes liberate for plant use, manure and microbes can also help build your soil structure. Increased presence of organic inputs promotes microbial activity and decomposition. During this process, polysaccharides are produced as a by-product and help bind macroaggregates together in the soil. Polysaccharides  are sticky, glue-like substances that form bridge-like structures between aggregates and are resistant to degradation in the soil. The accumulation of this activity creates a snowball effect in the soil. Stabilized aggregates create tunnels that increase soil porosity, soil water holding capacity, nutrient cycling and nutrient availability to microbial communities. In turn, these characteristics support an improved soil drainage system, a decrease in bulk density and compaction, and a decrease in soil crusting and erosion.

The rate at which decomposition occurs in the soil is dependent on the quality and composition of the manure, the microbial community structure, weather and time. This rate causes manure to act like a slow release fertilizer, ensuring all the nutrients are not lost during initial application or shortly after. A manure analysis report often provides a “First Year Availability” value to help you understand and apply the correct quantity of nutrients needed for your crop. These manure mineralization approximated values are calculated based on similar mineralization rates found in research for each manure type. If you like to apply manure in the fall but are concerned about potentially losing nutrients due to soil moisture and microbial activity, consider incorporating cover crops into your rotation to help cycle nutrients in the soil. As they breakdown in the winter and spring, they will release the nutrients consumed from your manure application while supporting a healthy, thriving soil microbial community.

Applying manure to your soil can be an efficient way of stimulating an active, healthy microbial community while providing nutrients to your crop. Manure quality is dependent on various factors that contribute to the dominate microbe community and nutrient forms. Be sure to properly analyze your manure before you apply to ensure you are getting the most out of your valuable resource. Understanding and properly applying manure could help save fertilizer costs in the future while boosting your soil microbial community resiliency and soil health. So go ahead and take a deep breath. That’s the smell of money.

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.

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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.