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Lower Your Feedcost By Improving Your Forage Quality

For most cow-calf operations, forage is the primary source of nutrition. Therefore, it is important to provide cattle with the best quality forage available. By paying close attention to the quality of forages, you can ensure healthy, productive animals and minimize the cost of purchasing supplemental feedstuff.

Matching forage quality to animal nutritional needs is part of cattle management. Nutrient requirements of cattle change throughout the year based on the stage of the production cycle, as outlined below:

  • Young, growing calves ranging from 300 to 700 lbs. with an average daily gain of 2.0 lb./day will need relatively high levels of TDN (69%) and CP (13%) in their diets to support growth
  • Depending on body size, pregnant/gestating cows would require 7% CP and 55% TDN
  • Depending on body size, lactating cows would require 11% CP and 65% TDN

When feed grain prices are high, a high-quality forage can provide a lower cost ration than a low quality forage supplemented with a concentrate. Failing to provide all the nutrition a cow needs due to low quality forage, can have animal health and performance consequences that directly impact cost of production (e.g. loss of body condition, lower milk production, and delayed returning to estrous). 

Forage quality can be defined in many ways since it is associated with nutrient, such as energy, protein, digestibility, fiber, mineral, and vitamins. Protein and energy are the most essential nutrients in cattle diets. A higher protein level typically indicates higher forage quality, but it is not the ultimate measure. In fact, the energy value of forage is often the most limiting attribute for meeting an animal’s requirements in most forage-based feeding. Alot of producers do not associate forage quality with animal production and spend more time focused on nutritional supplements. Remember that feed is a major proportion of the total cost of beef cattle production. Producers should focus more on providing forage quality based on the nutritional requirements of the cattle operation and different livestock classes throughout the year. Producers should focus on strategic supplementation more than supplements being a common and frequent management practice to improve a cow/calf producer’s profitability. Appropriate supplements for beef cattle should be selected based on the quality of the forage and livestock’s stage of production to optimize efficiency of feed rations and choice of supplements with greater economic return. Below are a few examples of recommended supplementation strategies to forage base feeding programs for brood cows:

  • Free choice minerals – year round
  • Protein tubs – during fall and winter months to optimize hay digestibility

A common belief is that cows can simply eat more low quality forage to meet their energy demands. This is not true in most cases since the higher fiber content in low-quality forage decreases intake. Forage with low protein content (7% or less) and high fiber content (ADF and NDF) cannot meet the nutritional needs of many, if any, classes of livestock without supplementation. Table 1 shows the relationship between forage quality, nutrient density and the animal’s ability to consume the forage.

 Forage quality moves in a simultaneous direction with maturity and fertilization. As maturity increases, overall forage quality declines. As you can see in Figure 3 below, quality values were highest while the forage was young and declined as it matured. Studies show that cool season grasses often have dry matter digestibility above 80%, during the first two to three weeks after growth initiation in spring. Thereafter, digestibility declines by one-third to one-half percentage units per day until it reaches a level below 50%. At the same time as fertilization declines, crude protein levels decrease. Usually, cool-season forages tend to be higher forage quality than warm-season grasses, but cool-season forages tend to be lower in energy to match livestock’s requirements. Many producers do not do a good job and balancing yield and forage quality, and they might need to depend on supplementation of commodity feeds for animal growth, fetal growth, and milk production.  

To sum it up:

  • Manage forage for quality and nutritional value
  • Maximize use of forage for cattle – typically your most economical feedstuff
  • Supplement to meet gain and/or body condition targets
  • Optimize profits from cattle by producing high quality forages




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