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Have You Had Your Feed Tested This Year?

Feed testing! I can just hear the collective groan go out across the country. Does McKinnon not have anything new to write about ? However, before you skip the page, I challenge you to read on and then ask yourself how you plan to answer this question.

First let me put the question in context. Last month I attended a meeting on nutritional issues of overwintered beef cattle led by Dr. Murray Jelinski from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, the Farm Animal Council of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. Specifically it was a round-table discussion on issues with starving cattle. This is a topic no one likes to talk about and is one that we can be thankful is quite rare. However, I was surprised and probably a better word shocked at the experiences of veterinarians, and other industry groups with this issue, both in Saskatchewan and Alberta (and quite likely across the country).

Veterinarians at this meeting talked about two types of cases they encounter. The first were those that involved obvious neglect, dead animals and ultimately offending individuals taken to court. The second and the focus of this article were those of experienced beef producers, people who had been long-standing clients, who had asked for help regarding dead or down cows with the thought that they had some type of disease issue going through the herd. In the case of one veterinarian, after a post mortem examination, it was pretty clear that these cows had literally starved to death, despite the fact that there was plenty of feed available. The issue was not feed quantity but quality. The feed was short on energy and likely protein and the cows simply could not consume enough dry matter to meet their needs for maintenance and pregnancy. This resulted in the cows losing weight to the point where they were starting to die of starvation. When faced with this diagnosis, the clients were obviously upset that their cows were dying in such a manner, simply, because they did not know the quality of their feed! Information a basic $25 feed test would provide.

While feed testing seems old hat and a no brainer, it is surprising how many cattlemen skip this critical management tool year in and year out. It seems many would rather rely on visual appraisal (i. e. colour, plant species, and leaf content) or knowledge of cutting time to judge quality. While these are all indicators of forage quality, they do not substitute for a feed test particularly when it comes to the energy content of that forage. For example, a feed test can generate two fibre values that reflect relative energy value acid (ADF) and neutral detergent (NDF) fibre. High ADF values indicate that the hay was cut at a late stage of maturity and as a result it will be poorly digested by the cow. This late-cut hay will be lower in energy than the same hay cut at an earlier stage of maturity with a lower ADF value. High NDF levels also indicate a more mature forage at harvest and more importantly is indicative of the degree to which cattle will consume the feed high NDF values limit forage intake! Forages with high ADF and NDF levels can quickly lead you down the path that the beef producers above found themselves in last winter starving cows despite there being plenty of feed in front of them! Ask yourself does a visual appraisal truly suffice?

As a nutritionist, I cannot emphasize enough how critical knowledge of feed quality is to developing a sound feeding program. Your job as a cow-calf operator is to match the requirements of the cow as she moves through pregnancy with the appropriate quality and quantity of feed and to do so in a cost effective manner. We have discussed in past columns how these requirements change particularly in the last six to eight weeks prior to calving and how they are increased by prolonged cold stress. Meeting energy and protein needs during this time period is critical to preventing weight loss and to ensuring normal calf development. It will also influence the success of your subsequent breeding program.

Today s laboratories use both wet chemistry and near infrared spectrometry to offer accurate results and rapid turnaround times. A basic forage analysis will provide you with moisture, energy (i. e. total digestible nutrients, digestible energy and/or net energy content) and crude protein values as well as a mineral package (calcium and phosphorus). More advanced analysis can provide you with details on all macro and trace minerals, acid and neutral detergent fibre content, nature of protein (soluble, degradable, bypass, heat damaged), fat content, nitrate levels, and the list goes on! This information can be used by you and your nutritionist to develop feeding programs that meet the requirements of pregnant, wintering beef cows and replacement heifers, as well as for targeting gains of growing cattle! At $25 to $30 a sample for a basic feed test, it truly is a no brainer!

[email protected]


JohnMcKinnon isabeefcattle nutritionistat theUniversityof Saskatchewan

About the author


John McKinnon

John McKinnon is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and a consulting nutritionist who can be reached at [email protected].



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