Forage management is one of the most important factors in success of a cattle operation. Forage can be a source of sickness, a major determinant in profit, and a major area of labor and financial investment. Adequate forage intake is essential for every bovine over three months of age. As the rumen develops as a fermentation vat, forage acts to buffer changes in the vat which occur from eating different feedstuffs, and create a stable, healthy environment.
This fermentation vat is unique in that it is connected to the body of the animal and full of chemical and pain receptors, so if rumen health is poor, the health of the animal will be poor, and we will not maximize animal health, welfare and profit.
The first aspect of good forage management is to feed forage that is not poisonous to the cattle. This sounds dramatic, and indeed it can be. You can see abortions or reproductive failure from feeding moldy feed, or high nitrate feed. You can see illness, or even death, from feed inoculated with dangerous clostridial spores (similar to blackleg), very high nitrate feed, or feed contaminated by a deleterious substance such as a herbicide or pesticide. Molds are commonly produced in forage production because we don’t get the optimal conditions to store the feed without spoilage.
Hay must be dry enough to not mold, and must not be heavily contaminated with soil from tedding and the pickup on the baler.
Silage must be created in conditions that limit oxygen supply, so it must be wet enough to pack well, and yet not so wet that moist, cold, slimy clostridial fermentation occurs. Again, silage must not be contaminated with soil. We have seen outbreaks of blackleg associated with feeding this type of silage.
The second aspect to address is nutrient quality. The definition of “quality” is largely dependent on the animals being fed. The classic example is the difference between cows prior to calving and those milking, and getting in shape to breed back. The dry cows must be fed feed of low potassium content (not heavily fertilized with manure) and of adequate energy supply so they don’t get pregnancy ketosis. The milking cows must be supplied with feed of adequate calcium, phosphorus and magnesium to keep them from going down, and of excellent digestibility so they don’t lose too much condition, and thereby have difficulty breeding back.
The management part of forage preparation comes in creating enough feed of the different qualities necessary to create optimized balanced production. For the beef producer it means little more than making sure you have adequate low potassium feed for the pre-calving time that will at least supply 10 per cent crude protein, then having adequate feed to supply about 14 per cent crude protein rations of good energy to the milking cows. Other than that, having some creep forage (beautiful grass hay) is what a beef operation needs to prepare for Cadillac calves. For the dairyman, because he is feeding a higher percentage of grain, and maybe even some byproducts, planning is more involved, and beyond the scope of this discussion.