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What to consider when choosing alternate cattle feed sources

Anything from pea straw to cull potatoes can help producers plug the feed gap

With a hay shortage looming across much of the Prairies, many cattle producers will need to look further afield for feed.

There are numerous options for alternate feeds, such as salvaging hail-damaged or stressed crops. Nitrate toxicity is a concern if the crop was highly fertilized with nitrogen, but Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture’s Ag-Info Centre, said it can be mixed with other feeds to balance the overall amount of nitrate and make it safe to feed.

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Canola is an ideal crop to salvage. “At the full bloom to early pod stage, the plants are roughly equivalent to a high-quality, first-cut alfalfa grass hay,” he explained. The energy content is similar at around 64 per cent, with protein levels ranging from 14 to 16 per cent.

Testing for nitrates and sulphur is necessary when feeding salvaged canola, especially if sulphur fertilizer was applied at high levels. “If you get about 0.4 per cent sulphur in the entire diet then you could have potential problems with polio.”

Producers can also use byproduct feeds from unexpected sources, including screenings from sunflowers. Cull potatoes are another possible alternate feed. Potatoes have an energy content of 82 per cent total digestible nutrients (TDN), similar to barley grain, and a protein content of nine to 10 per cent. Given their high water content, Yaremcio advises ensiling potatoes in a silage bag on a slight incline to allow water to accumulate at the lower end of the bag. Cutting a small hole in the bag drains the excess moisture. The ensiling process softens the potatoes, so they won’t pose a choking hazard.

You can also feed bakery waste or stale bread, which has an energy content of 88 to 90 per cent, depending on the type of flour used and added sugar.

“Maximum feeding rate on that is roughly six lbs. per head per day to mature cows because of the rapid fermentation of the starches, which could eventually cause bloat, acidosis or grain overload symptoms.” The maximum for younger calves is about three lbs. per day.

Contact malting companies about purchasing distillers’ grains or barley malt sprouts for feed. Distillers’ grains have a protein content of 36 to 44 per cent and an energy content similar to barley grain, making it a good supplement. Watch out for higher trace mineral levels, though.

“Phosphorus especially can be three times higher than what you’d find in barley grain,” said Yaremcio. “It’s going to be short of magnesium as well, so if you’re using distillers’ grains, you need to add extra calcium and magnesium to the ration.”

Don’t forget something as simple as straw and grain. “Pregnant cows only need a minimum of nine per cent protein and 60 per cent TDN in the ration to make it through to calving,” he said.

To keep females in good condition at mid to late pregnancy, he recommends feeding around eight to nine lbs. of barley or oats along with free choice straw at about 20 to 25 lbs. per head per day. The general guideline is females will likely not eat more than 1.25 per cent of their body weight in straw per day.

While it may take a few days for cattle to acquire a taste for pea straw, it has two to three per cent higher protein levels than oat, barley or triticale straw, Yaremcio said. On the other hand, he warns against using flax straw, as it is hard for animals to digest and may contain hydrogen cyanide if the plant was not fully mature and green straw is present.

While certain weeds can be fed, it’s important to know which weeds are present. Weeds such as sow thistle, lady’s thumb, pig weed, lambs quarters, wild sunflower, stink weed and witch grass may have high nitrate levels. This likely isn’t a concern if they’re found in a low area or a field that hasn’t been fertilized, but he said it’s something to consider.

There are greater concerns with baling and feeding kochia, given its high oxalate levels. “What oxalate does is it binds with the calcium or prevents the absorption of calcium into the animal, and therefore you could have problems with downer cows, grass tetany or milk fevers,” he said. “No more than 20 to 25 per cent of the entire ration on a dry matter basis can be kochia, and also don’t be afraid to supplement more calcium than normal.”

If you haven’t fed any of these products before, Yaremcio suggests contacting your nutritionist, provincial extension specialist or feed mill for advice on how best to use these feed sources.

Yaremcio adds that testing for water and feed quality will provide a better idea what supplementation is required when using alternate feeds. Water quality studies conducted in Saskatchewan in 2017 showed that 40 per cent of the samples received had high sulphate levels, making them unsuitable for livestock consumption.

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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