On dry years it can be difficult to provide adequate feed for cattle. Barry Robinson, an independent consulting nutritionist (Great Northern Livestock Consulting) in Westlock, Alta., says traditional winter feeds are hay, silage and straw, but a low-protein forage like straw needs to be balanced with a higher-protein source like alfalfa hay.

“This year alfalfa supplies are short because of dry conditions and fewer acres planted to alfalfa. A lot of alfalfa in Alberta and much of Western Canada was sprayed out and farmers raised grain instead, particularly canola,” says Robinson.

If hay is short, cattlemen may have to use non-traditional forages and supplements, or other concentrate feeds (if cost effective) like cereal grains or byproduct feeds such as dried distillers grains. One alternative is canola silage. Robinson had a lot of experience with canola silage during the drought of 2002. “Canola typically tests similarly to a low-to medium-quality haylage. The key thing with canola silage is that it can be put up at about 55 to 60 per cent moisture. If it’s much wetter than that, it’s a problem in terms of palatability. Over 70 per cent, and it’s not palatable at all. Cows will only eat it if there’s nothing else,” he says.

Canola straw can also be fed. “In the drought of 2002, canola was the saviour crop. There was a great deal of canola silage put up and canola straw baled. With canola as straw or greenfeed, neither one are very palatable, however. They need to be tub ground and mixed with silage,” he says.

Alberta beef and forage specialist Barry Yaremcio says canola may have 19 to 20 per cent protein at full bloom. “At late bloom to early-pod stage it drops to 12 to 16 per cent. At full pod it will be no more than 10 per cent protein. In canola silage, most of the feed value is in the leaves and flowers. If you’re baling it as dry feed be careful not to lose the leaves or flowers or you’ll end up with sticks — which is only good for bedding. When making canola silage, it takes at least a day longer (depending on volume of material in the swath) to dry down to 62 to 65 per cent moisture, compared to barley straw. If you harvest it like barley straw there will be seepage from the bottom of the pit; it will be too wet for proper fermentation and quality will drop,” says Yaremcio.

Robinson says canola straw will usually test around six to eight per cent protein, which would be similar to a pea straw. “It works as a high-quality straw in a wintering program. This winter there will be canola silage, greenfeed, and straw fed to cows.”


Yaremcio says the important thing when changing from any kind of feed to another is to do it gradually. “If changing from hay or greenfeed to canola silage, for example, include only 25 per cent canola silage (dry matter basis) in the total ration for the first inclusion. Keep it at that level for three or four days to allow cattle to adjust to the different texture and taste. You’ll see a difference in the manure; it will be looser — softer and wetter. If manure is not watery and appears normal, then it’s safe to increase the silage up to 50 per cent. After a few days you can take it up to 75 per cent, then to 100 per cent, giving the animals several days to adjust to each new level. This type of gradual switchover works for any kind of forage, allowing rumen microbes time to change and get into balance to handle the new feed,” says Yaremcio.

When increasing grain in a ration, it should be increased no more than one pound every second day. “If you are changing from eight to 12 pounds, take eight days to accomplish this. Watch the manure. If the animals experience digestive upset, the manure will indicate there’s a problem. If manure gets loose, reduce the amount of grain being fed by two or three pounds and let the cattle settle there for a week and then try increasing it again, no more than one pound every two days,” says Yaremcio.


“There may be some reasonably priced oats available in Western Canada,” says Robinson. “Oats are cheaper, per unit of energy, to feed $130 a ton oats as compared to hay at $130 a ton. So there may be some grain fed (such as five pounds of oats per head daily), to extend forage supplies,” he says.

“Typically forage is a cheaper way to winter cows, but this winter we’ll see oats and sometimes rolled barley coming into feeding programs for cows just because hay will be so expensive,” he says. There will also be some screenings available. These may be raw screenings or pellets, and may fit nicely into a feed program — depending on how far you have to ship them.


“If you include a low-quality forage such as straw, forage seed aftermath or low-quality hay in a ration that also includes a cereal grain, protein supplement or byproduct feed, adding Rumensin or Bovatec will improve feed efficiency and reduce the chances of digestive upset,” says Yaremcio. “For every dollar spent on an ionophor, improved performance will result in a $3 to $4 return.”

“If producers have the ability to feed Rumensin, either in a pellet or a mineral mix that’s mixed with grain or silage, this will improve feed efficiency by about eight per cent,” says Robinson. Rumensin-based mineral or pellets must be force fed, however (added to feed), rather than simply offered free choice, or some cattle won’t eat enough and others will eat too much. “Even if overconsumption of Rumensin doesn’t cause physical harm to cattle, it’s hard to capture efficiency if their Rumensin level is bouncing all over.”


Chaff aftermath collected or piled after combining can be fed. “How good the chaff is depends on the amount of weed seeds and light kernels of grain within the pile,” says Yaremcio. “If you let a lot of the light grain kernels go over and be collected, energy and protein content of the piles will be higher.”

Grass seed straw can also be fed. “Fescue and timothy aftermath are common in some regions. Treat this forage as low-to average-quality cereal straw when developing a ration. It will be five per cent protein at best, and 40 to 45 per cent TDN. Calcium to phosphorus ratio in these feeds is relatively low compared to higher-quality hay, but these are useful as filler. In mid-pregnancy grass seed straw can be included at 30 to 50 per cent of the ration. In late pregnancy it should be no more than 25 to 30 per cent,” he says.

“Pea, lentil, and chickpea straw are all in the legume family and will have energy content just slightly lower than cereal straw, but protein will be seven to nine per cent. Calcium-phosphorus content is similar to alfalfa-grass hay, but it doesn’t have the energy or protein. Try to keep as many leaves/pods as possible when harvesting, to keep the quality up,” says Yaremcio. Many types of straw can be fed, but because of the drought there’s less total quantity of straw available. “Crops with second-growth material in the straw can be good feed, with higher protein than mature straw.”


There are no magic bullets. Viable options will depend on the region, and crops and byproducts available. “It’s worth looking at some non-traditional options. Rather than just looking at hay, also look at grain costs. Talk to an experienced nutritionist who might be able to help you figure out a ration using something you hadn’t previously considered,” says Robinson. Test your feeds. Using unusual, damaged, frozen or different feeds in a ration can create nutrient imbalances if the nutrient content is not known.

“There are ways to feed differently. And if by doing this you learn a strategy


Stockmen feeding grass/alfalfa hay often use a 1:1 (calcium/phosphorus) mineral. If they change to grass hay they usually use a 2:1 mineral to increase the calcium. “If you start to feed dried distillers grains, barley malt pellets, corn gluten feed or other by-products, the phosphorus levels may be up to four times higher than you’d find in grain (which is also high in phosphorus),” says Yaremcio.

“Calcium will be deficient in these rations if adjustments are not made in the mineral being fed. Feeding a 2:1 mineral won’t solve the problem. If you are adding four or five pounds of dried distillers grain to get more energy and protein into the ration (dried distillers grain may be as high as 42 per cent protein) the phosphorus level will be 3.5 to four times higher than you’d find in barley, oats, wheat or triticale,” he says.

“To solve that problem you need to feed 2.5 to three ounces of calcium carbonate or limestone per head per day. There’s no point in paying $40 to $45 for a 1:1 or a 2:1 mineral when a $4 or $5 bag of calcium is more beneficial in balancing the ration.

To improve intake, add eight to 14 per cent dried molasses into the mixture. If cows aren’t eating enough, increase the molasses. If they eat too much, reduce the molasses,” says Yaremcio.


Farmers often add high amounts of nitrogen fertilizers to various crops to optimize yields. If crop germination is poor or growing conditions are cool in spring, nitrogen uptake will be limited. If mid-season rains cause a growth spurt, or the crop is cut during cool, cloudy conditions, nitrate may be accumulated in the plants. Nitrates also become a problem if there’s an early, light frost in the fall and plants keep growing. Leaves are damaged and can’t convert the nitrates into protein as efficiently so it builds up in the leaves. If you end up with feed that’s high in nitrates, it must be diluted with other feeds to make it safe. Always test for nitrate levels to know how best to use the feed.

“When introducing high nitrate feeds to cows, do it gradually,” says Yaremcio. “After about five to six days of feeding low levels, the rumen bacteria will multiply and be able to detoxify a greater amount of nitrates per day and the safety margin increases. The number of red blood cells in the body also increases, so the animals do adapt to become able to handle higher levels of nitrates. After a period of 14 to 21 days of adjustment, you can feed up to 0.75 or even 0.9 per cent nitrates without problems.”

Spontaneous abortions will occur in late pregnancy, however, if cows are fed a high-nitrate feed during the last 30 days, since the growing fetus requires more oxygen. “As calving approaches, maximum nitrate concentrations in the ration should be reduced back to the 0.5 per cent limit for the last 30 to 45 days of pregnancy,” says Yaremcio.

to be more efficient in tough times, be open enough to continue with it when times get better, to have reduced costs of production,” explains Robinson.

In feedlots, and as an option for some cow-calf producers, this year there are thousands of tons of corn distillers coming into Western Canada from the Dakotas and Nebraska. “Currently corn distillers are cost effective in feedlot rations. Additionally, backgrounders and people wintering beef cows may find it feasible to purchase wheat in their area that has been frosted, or some low bushel weight barley. There may be some off-grade grain (at discounted prices) that will fit very nicely into a back-grounding ration or cow ration, to help reduce costs,” says Robinson.

There also may be some limit-fed grain rations fed this winter in feedlots, due to roughage being so expensive. Limit feeding can work under certain conditions for cows, too. Limit feeding cows when forage is short, and meeting their nutrient needs primarily with grains — after a period of adjustment to the new feed — can work when grains are cheaper per unit of energy than forage.

Some ranchers always carry over a significant amount of forage, and this can really pay off during a time of shortage. “I have some clients who carry over a year or two of silage, and they have much more peace of mind going through this kind of winter than those who only have enough forage to get to October. Carrying over enough to get through a tough time keeps you from being at the mercy of the market,” says Robinson.

“Some people will truck their cows to regions where there’s more feed, and trust someone else to winter them. When this was happening in 2002, my experience was that three out of four of those arrangements didn’t work very well. There has to be a strong contract, and you need to research the person (and facilities) who is going to winter cows for you. Also, make a few trips to that farm during winter to monitor the program.” Sometimes it is cheaper to move the cows to the feed than it is to move the feed to the cows, but you need to make sure that the arrangement will be satisfactory.

Grazing crop aftermath is often a good program, but many stockmen don’t take full advantage of this option. “They don’t take the opportunity to communicate with neighbours about doing this. We might have a big dump of snow in October and it won’t work, but during an open winter it can be an excellent option. The stockman might ask his neighbour if he can run an electric wire around a quarter section of crop residue and graze it. There’s a lot of aftermath that cows could graze on, and fair payment to the grain producer is essential for good relationships,” he says.

“There are also some lifelong stockmen who have sold their cows and they may enjoy wintering cows this year. They just don’t want to calve them out. A lot of farmers, if they have wintered cows all their life, they are at loose ends if they don’t have something like that to do,” says Robinson.

There may be pasture available in areas where cattle have to depend on licking snow for water. “Some of the healthiest cow herds I consult for lick snow all winter. The elk, deer and moose do fine over winter with no one out there cutting holes in the ice, and cows will too, once they learn to lick snow,” he explains.

It pays to look around and see what options are available.

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