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Testing forage even more necessary in a dry year

With many parts of the country having endured a dry season, knowing feed nutrient levels is crucial

A startling amount of beef producers run the risk of nutrient deficiencies in their herd by not testing their forage sources.

Analyzing forage sources to better plan for feeding and supplementation is even more crucial in a dry year to ensure cattle receive the nutrients they require as the colder months and calving season approach.

Courtney O’Keefe.
photo: Supplied

“Feed testing is an invaluable tool,” said Courtney O’Keefe, ruminant nutritionist with Blue Rock Animal Nutrition at Innisfail, Alta. “It’s ultimately going to take out that guesswork and it’s going to allow you to make those necessary decisions to maximize production.”

However, it is estimated that only 10 per cent of beef producers are aware of the nutrient content of their forage, leaving a gap in understanding of what their cattle are actually receiving. “Producers are starting to learn more about this and I think they’re starting to test more and more, but there’s still a lot of producers out there who don’t,” she said.

Blue Rock Animal Nutrition is a small nutritional consulting service that creates custom mineral pre-mixes for cow-calf producers. The company also works with different industry partners, including post-secondary institutions, veterinarians and forage organizations. “Our main goal is basically we want to develop effective and sustainable nutrition programs that are specific to their individual operation,” said O’Keefe, who is currently finishing a master’s degree in beef cattle nutrition, focusing on extensive grazing systems.

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Like many nutrition companies, Blue Rock offers feed analysis and consulting to help producers adjust their mineral supplementation accordingly. Blue Rock’s feed tests analyze a basic list of nutrient specifications, including dry matter, protein, energy and fibre, as well as macro- and micro-minerals. Fibre content analysis looks at acid detergent fibre (ADF) and neutral detergent fibre (NDF). Tests offered by other companies may also analyze factors such as moisture and relative feed value.

Testing forage generally requires a minimum of 10-15 samples to get an accurate representation of the nutrient content. After testing, O’Keefe will review the results with the producer. “First we determine where they plan to utilize this feed on their operation. At this point, I’ll be able to identify with the producer if there are any issues or not any issues with nutrient imbalances, and then we look at basically where and who we need to supplement if we need to,” she explained. “Once I know where they’re wanting to allocate these resources, we look at balancing the appropriate rations for the different groups of animals on their operation, whether it’s from their replacement heifers all the way up to their mature cows.”

The ideal level of each nutrient will vary depending on a number of factors that affect an animal’s nutrient requirements, such a female’s physiological state, size and immune status, the weather and average daily gain targets.

Proper supplementation is especially important when planning for winter feeding and pre- and post-calving nutrition. A rule that O’Keefe follows when she balances rations for cow-calf operations is that a cow in mid-gestation generally needs seven per cent protein and 55 per cent energy; a cow in late gestation needs nine per cent protein and 60 per cent energy; and a lactating cow needs 11 per cent protein and 65 per cent energy. “For that cow, those levels of nutrients are increasing as they move from mid-gestation into late gestation and then into lactation and calving.”

A mineral program will also follow the seasons. “In the summer typically feeding a trace mineral salt will be sufficient, but starting into the fall and into the winter, producers need to look at feeding a full-mineral pre-mix with those vitamins because those macro-minerals are definitely starting to decrease in the forage at that point,” she said.

Without proper supplementation, a number of health issues can arise, such as metabolic diseases that lead to downer cows. This could be due to an imbalance of macro-minerals, such as milk fever resulting from calcium and phosphorus deficiencies. O’Keefe noted that this could also be due to an energy deficiency or winter tetany caused by low magnesium or high potassium levels.

Another related issue is low body condition score, leading to problems during calving and being bred back in the spring. O’Keefe explained that dry matter intake can also become a problem, making it necessary to know the level of NDF in a forage. “Neutral detergent fibre is that fibre component that is ultimately showing the bulkiness of the feed, and so if that’s really high that can limit intake, so you could see some issues with that.”

Forage analyses illustrate the mineral deficiencies common in Western Canada. “We typically see all forages and feed that are deficient in most micro-minerals, so that’s copper, zinc, manganese and selenium,” she explained. “Depending on the type of feed, whether it’s a cereal crop versus hay that you’re feeding, this is also going to fluctuate the levels of macro-minerals present in the feed, so that’s the calcium and the phosphorus and the magnesium.”

Even with best practices, there are factors out of a producer’s control when it comes to the nutrient content of their forage. “We can try to control the quality of forage that we’re going to harvest as best we can with some management practices there, but sometimes conditions are not ideal and we’re ultimately going to get what we’re going to get.”

With many parts of the country being dry this year, knowing the nutrient levels is even more pressing. “Feed supplies are already tight this year for many producers, and many will be feeding low-quality forages such as straw and trying to stretch out the feed that they already have,” she said. This is also important when producers may be forced to seek out alternative feed sources, such as canola silage, due to the spring and summer’s conditions. “Having that feed test is basically going to allow you to make those decisions and ensure those cows are getting a balance of nutrients without compromising the herd’s productivity.”

O’Keefe recommends that all beef producers test their forage sources as they look towards creating feeding and mineral plans for the winter and into calving season. “It’s a cheap test to run on your feed just to determine exactly what you have,” she said. “Knowing the feed value of these forages that you’re planning to feed or purchasing will ultimately allow you to make those confident feeding decisions for your herd.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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