Winter is coming. Even though much of the country has experienced a warmer fall, temperatures will drop and with it forage quality during the winter months.
Low grain prices, especially corn, offer producers more options for feeding cow herds this winter. In spite of those lower grain prices, cattlemen will still need to balance their ration nutritionally and economically to compensate for cattle prices that continue to slide.
Before you consider adding more grain to your ration you should analyze the forage you have on hand, says Adele Harty, South Dakota State University Extension cow-calf specialist.
"Make sure you have your hay tested. Do it every year, because a little change in growing conditions from one year to the next can save or cost you a lot of money," he says.
An analysis for forage quality should be conducted far enough ahead of winter feeding so any supplemental feed purchases can be made. Additionally, testing will allow producers to equally compare their forages with other feedstuffs on a cost per nutrient basis. "Those feeds that are lower quality are most likely going to be used as the energy source. Typically with low quality feeds, protein is the concern," Harty says.
Considerations should be made for which protein sources deliver the most bang for the buck. Along with the price of grains or byproducts, consider the delivery cost to the ranch and how it will be fed.
"If you have to start a tractor every morning what does that cost?" Harty asks. "Or a pickup with a cake feeder?"Compare and analyze which feed options work best for your operation. Those decisions could depend on which feedstu¬≠ffs are accessible in a particular area of the country. Producers should look at their own goals and the available opportunities, says Chris Reinhardt, Kansas State University Extension feedlot specialist and nutritionist.
"Do you have mixing capabilities? Can the grain be processed? Maybe a local elevator or mill can handle getting that processing done," Reinhardt says.
Both Harty and Reinhardt caution producers to be attentive when adding more corn to a ration because it can have a limiting factor when for-age feeding comes out of balance.
"Essentially, what happens is, if you get too much starch in the diet it changes the rumen environment. Rumen microbes will become more starch digesters than forage digesters, losing the efficiency of feeding forage," Harty says.
Digestive upsets, such as acidosis or bloat, become more common when feeding higher amounts of corn if cattle haven't been properly acclimated to the diet and the pH level rapidly declines in the rumen.
"Rumen microbes digest cellulose in forages best when rumen pH remains in the range of 6.0 to 6.5," Reinhardt says. "The more grain or other concentrate feeds we provide, the more likely the rumen pH is to decline below 6.0."
To keep pH balanced, Reinhardt advises feeding less than 30% concentrates in a diet with the remainder being forage. He does not recommend feeding between 30% to 70% of dry matter as concentrates because of the negative impacts on forage digestion. However, if forage availability is sparse, cows can be fed 70% or greater concentrate through a limit-fed diet.
Ideally limit feeding is "providing a level of intake of the high-energy diet which supplies a similar total daily amount of energy and protein, in a smaller intake package, as we would normally expect when full-feeding a forage-based diet," he explains.
Feeding whole corn might be a consideration for some cattlemen looking to help reduce the costs of milling.
"That is an option," Reinhardt says. However, hungry cattle won't chew whole corn as much. Research from Kansas State indicates nutritionally stressed cattle will swallow about 85% of the corn whole, without chewing. While the corn could have been bought at $3.50 per bushel, with the loss through a lack of chewing the real corn cost would be more like $4.50 per bushel.
Whole corn feeding might work better for cattle that are calm and consume a ration slowly. "Those calm cattle will swallow 15% of the corn whole. They break the rest while chewing similar to a roller mill," Reinhardt says.
Limit-feeding whole corn will likely be inefficient for producers. The same concept applies to feeding whole wheat, barley or sorghum because the grains are so small they are often swallowed whole. Reinhardt recommends milling or processing grains to capture their nutritional value.
"It is not simply a matter of switching from hay to grain," Reinhardt says. "It is much more complicated."
Note: This story appears in the November/December issue of Drovers.