Consider more than cost when switching winter rations

News Roundup from the March 2016 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Reducing feed costs for wintering cows can pay huge dividends.

“It’s been estimated that for every $1 that you save in winter feed costs, the net profit for the operation increases by $2.48,” says Barry Yaremcio, beef/forage specialist, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Stettler.

High hay prices have resulted in some producers changing to a straw/grain ration prior to calving.

“This is a good option,” says Yaremcio. “By feeding straw and grain pre-calving, it is possible to save roughly $350 compared to feeding hay throughout the entire winter. The question then becomes, is it cheaper to feed oats or barley to the cows?”

But there’s more than just price to consider before you decide.

The first step is to look at the price differential needed to replace barley with oats in a ration, or vice versa.

“On average, barley contains seven to 10 per cent more protein and seven to 10 per cent more energy on a pound-for-pound basis compared to oats,” explains Yaremcio. “So, if there is six pounds of barley in the ration, it would be necessary to feed 6.6 pounds of oats to get the same amount of nutrients into the animal.”

Put on a per-tonne basis you would need 2,352 pounds of oats to replace the energy in 2,204 pounds of barley, plus six pounds of canola meal to match protein levels. To equalize the cost oats would have to be $1.50 per bushel cheaper to make it pay.

“There are a few other considerations that need to be made before making the switch based on price alone,” explains Yaremcio. “If feeding whole grains to calves under 700 pounds, there’s no need to process the grain. The calves will do a good job of chewing and breaking the kernels so they are digested.”

Animals over 700 pounds (including cows) tend to “gulp” their food and don’t chew as much. So it’s important to note that whole oats fed to larger animals results in a five to seven per cent drop in digestive efficiency versus a 10 to 15 per cent reduction in digestive efficiency with whole barley.

“This factor needs to be brought into the price differential discussion,” says Yaremcio.

If processing costs more than 15 per cent of the price of barley or seven per cent of the price of oats, it may be beneficial to feed extra grain and be money ahead in the long run, notes Yaremcio.

“Changing from oats to barley in a ration should be done gradually. Start with 25 per cent barley in the mix for three to four days, and then increase the barley by 25 per cent every three to four days. If all goes well, in 16 days the animals can be on 100 per cent barley.”

Changing to feed wheat has different limitations.

“Wheat must be cracked into two pieces (no finer) when fed to larger cattle. If it is fed whole, digestive efficiency is reduced by 25 per cent. Wheat is digested faster than oats or barley, which increases the risks of bloat or acidosis. Maximum feeding limits for wheat is three pounds per head per day for calves under 700 pounds and six pounds a day for mature cows. If switching to wheat, a gradual introduction into the ration is necessary. It’s advisable to include an ionophore into the ration when feeding wheat.”

When making the changes from one grain to another, there are two things to watch for:

  • Feed refusal. If feed consumption declines after a change, it may be an indication that the rumen is not functioning properly.
  • Consistency of the manure. If the manure becomes loose and watery, this is another indicator there are digestive problems.

“If either of these two problems occur, reduce the total amount of grain fed or go back to the previous mix of grain until the problems dissipate,” adds Yaremcio.

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