This past winter was challenging, particularly for those of you who experienced drought in 2018. Feed supplies were extremely tight and compounded by unseasonably cold weather in February and March. As a result, many producers had to scramble to get sufficient feed to carry their cattle through the winter. While it is too early to tell what the 2019 growing season has in store for us, for those of you who got caught short last year, it might pay to do some early planning for the upcoming winter. This column will give examples of steps one can take to ensure that feed supplies are in place when needed.
When faced with the prospects of potential drought, the tried and true option that many producers turn to is the use of annual crops to supplement winter feed supplies. Crops such as barley, oat and triticale can be seeded in early spring and then cut and baled as greenfeed or left in swaths for winter grazing. Silage is also an option for those who are set up for it or have access to custom operators. For greenfeed or swath grazing, seeding is typically delayed (i.e. late May through mid-June) such that in early fall prior to a killing frost, the crop is at the soft dough stage in the case of barley and triticale, and in the late milk stage for oat. From a nutrition perspective, cereals cut at this stage are similar to good-quality grass hay. Recent research at the University of Saskatchewan has shown that barley harvested at the hard dough stage will maximize dry matter yield without negative consequences on animal performance, a strategy that can further extend forage supplies. Warm-season crops such as corn and millet have also been successfully used for swath grazing.
Crop residues such as barley or wheat straw are typically in high demand during drought situations. These byproducts, while deficient in almost all nutrients, can be successfully fed to wintering cows as part of a balanced nutrition program. Traditionally, wheat and barley straw have been considered relatively cheap forage sources. However, securing adequate supplies — whether it is for feed or bedding — has become a difficult task. This is in part due to changing crop rotations, as well as to implementation of new harvesting technology that leaves the residue in the field as opposed to laying it in rows for baling. Advanced planning and co-ordination with neighbours is often necessary to secure an adequate supply.
As discussed previously in this column, corn residue also offers significant opportunities for supplementing winter forage supplies. Corn residue consists of the leaves, husks, cobs and stalks, and any kernels or cobs not harvested. The energy value of this residue depends in large part upon the relative proportions of the above residues. If one considers only the plant residue (i.e. leaves, husks, stalks and cobs), one is typically looking at a feed source that is slightly better than cereal straw in both energy and protein content. Residue grain kernels or unharvested cobs will greatly increase the feeding value of the crop aftermath and extend the number of grazing days. For cows in early to mid-gestation and not experiencing cold stress, corn residue can be an adequate energy source. However, protein may be limiting.
Depending on how the summer unfolds, canola is another feed option that may be available to some producers. As with most forage crops, stage of maturity at cutting is critical. When cut at late bloom to mid-pod stage of maturity, canola hay is similar to alfalfa/grass hay in feed quality. However, when harvested at full pod, the plant is much more lignified and quality is similar to slough hay. When cut for silage, canola requires wilting to 65 per cent moisture to prevent excessive seepage. As with good-quality hay, canola silage should be harvested at the early- to mid-pod stage of development. Canola-based feeds should be tested for sulphur and nitrate levels to minimize any potential toxicity issues.
In addition to planning ahead with alternative forage sources, producers who anticipate a drought situation should also be looking to lock in alternative feed supplies. Typically, these are byproducts of the grain and oilseed processing sectors such as oat or soy hulls, grain screening pellets, dried distillers grains, malt sprouts, lentil screenings and various protein sources such as canola or soybean meal. These byproducts vary in energy and protein content according to the parent grain or oilseed as well as to the nature of the processing method involved. For example, from a nutrition perspective, oat hulls are very similar to barley or wheat straw, while corn distillers grains have a similar energy value to corn grain but have significantly higher protein content. Most importantly, these byproducts are in high demand at the best of times and during drought situations can be extremely hard to access. Advanced booking is often necessary to avoid tight supplies and high prices.
As I indicate above, we do not know what 2019 has in store for us. We do know, however, that those who plan for adversity are generally those who are in the best position to withstand whatever Mother Nature throws at us.