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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

The Cow Calf Manager

Livestock Update, October 2003

John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, VA Tech

Management Can Help Offset Problem of Poor Hay in a Good Year
What a difference a year makes! Last year we were discussing how to get fall-calving cows through the calving and breeding season because of the impact of the drought. This year...plentiful grass, high calf prices, lots of hay, cows in good shape...what else could you ask for? Well, maybe better hay. Hay quality from first cutting ranges from poor to average.

Management strategies for dealing with this situation will vary depending on your herd's calving season. In addition, producers need to be willing to "think outside the box" as well as consider all costs of the feeding options. The main objective for most producers will be to minimize the amount of purchased feed or supplement brought into the operation. In a companion article to this one, Dr. Mark Wahlberg will address specific supplementation strategies for low quality first cutting hay.

Test for Hay Quality
Taking hay samples (especially first cutting) for nutrient analysis will save producers considerable money and cattle production losses this year. If hay is not sampled, then producers should assume that first cutting hay will only meet the needs of pregnant cows in mid-gestation. Results from the VT Forage Testing Laboratory indicate that first cutting hay quality is extremely variable this year, but on average contains only sufficient nutrients for dry pregnant beef cows. However, some samples are good enough for cows in the last trimester of gestation, but producers will not know the exact quality without testing. Nutrient analysis of hay is available from several different laboratories. The Virginia Tech Forage Testing Laboratory charges $10 per sample. Your local Agricultural Extension Agent can provide information on proper sampling of hay bales.

Body Condition Score Cows
Most fall calving cows are in good shape, but spring calving cows fed low quality hay this winter may lose too much weight. Some fall calving herds may also be too thin if the pastures they are grazing were too damaged for full recovery after the drought. Research indicates that cows should calve in body condition 5 or 6 for optimum milk production and subsequent reproduction.

When should producers body condition score cows this fall and winter? Spring calving cows should be body condition scored at weaning and 60 to 90 days before calving. It is especially important for producers with spring calving cows to ensure cows calve in body condition score of at least 5. Fall calving cows should be body condition scored at calving and the beginning of the breeding season. First calf heifers and thin cows should be separated from the rest of the cow herd and fed separately. This will improve condition of these young and thin cows while reducing supplementation costs.

Provide Proper Mineral and Vitamin Supplementation
Poor quality hays will not only be deficient in energy, but they will lack important minerals and vitamins as well. Fall calving cows grazing stockpiled grass should be fed a high magnesium (12% +) - high selenium (52 ppm+) containing complete (with calcium and phosphorus) mineral. Spring calving cows grazing stockpiled grass should be fed a high selenium containing trace mineral. Calcium and phosphorus should be added to the mineral during the last trimester of pregnancy.

As long as green grazing is available, vitamin supplementation is not necessary. However, once cows are shifted to hay vitamin A, D and E should be added to the mineral mix. Cows eating poor quality hay should be fed high selenium (52 ppm+) containing complete (with calcium and phosphorus) mineral. Fall calving cows should also receive magnesium in the mineral supplement.

Fall calving herds
Maximize use of grazing. The primary focus for fall calving herds should be efficient utilization of pasture and stockpiled forage. Cows are calving in excellent body condition and have plenty of available forage. This means cows should resume estrous cycles within 60 days of calving. Pregnancy rates should be high during this winter's breeding season. However, to ensure high pregnancy rates producers need to manage grazing to last through the breeding season.

Stockpiled fescue usually exceeds the nutrient needs of lactating cows. East of the Blue Ridge, stockpiled fescue can provide adequate nutrition through early February or later. West of the Blue Ridge it depends on the amount for forage stockpiled and the amount of snow received. Historical data indicates that in western Virginia snow cover is too deep for cows to graze through only about 10% of the time. Most of the time the amount of stockpiled forage not snow depth is the limiting factor on grazing in western Virginia.

To maximize utilization of stockpiled grass, producers should strip graze cattle. Strip grazing can be achieved by using a single temporary electric fence tape or wire located about 40" above the ground. Allow cattle access to enough grass to last 3 to 7 days. It will take a week or two for producers to learn how much grass is enough and how far to move the fence to supply the desired number of days of grazing.

Creep Feed Calves. Creep feeding calves will take some of the pressure off the cows and allow calves access to the nutrients they need. Once cows are 30 to 45 days into pregnancy, their nutrient needs can be lowered with little chance of interrupting pregnancy. With this system, cows would be fed the low quality hay starting about 30 days after the end of the breeding season while calves were creep fed. Cows will lose weight, but are pregnant and can easily regain the body energy reserves when spring grazing starts in April and May.

Another alternative is to use the same feeding strategy for cows and not creep feed calves. The calves will not look as good or grow as much as their creep fed counter parts, but the costs will be lower. Since fall born calves are not usually marketed until July or August, they will gain weight rapidly on spring and early summer grazing. Under no circumstances should the average body condition score of the herd be allowed to dip below BCS 4.

Early Wean Calves. If hay quality is poor and stockpiled grass limited, then producers should consider early weaning of calves. Early weaning greatly reduces the nutritional needs of the cow and improves rebreeding percentage. However, it is not for everyone.

When calves average 90 to 100 days old, they can be early weaned. The best grass or hay available and supplemental feed need to be provided. Calves should be fed a grain/protein mix at about 1% to 1.5% of their body weight daily. The grain protein mix should contain 14% Crude Protein and at least 70% TDN. Calves need to be brought up on the grain protein mix gradually.

Early weaned calves should be vaccinated with a 7-way clostridial (Blackleg) product and IBR, PI3, BVD, BRSV as well as Pasteurella Haemolytica. Vaccination against Haemophilus somnus may also be warranted. Early weaned calves will need extra TLC for the first 30 days after weaning. Producers should check with their local veterinarian for other suggested vaccinations for your area.

Once cows are weaned, they can use the lower quality first cutting hay to meet their needs. If cows have lost too much body condition, then they will have to be supplemented for the first month after weaning.

Spring calving herds
First cutting hay will not approach meeting the needs of late gestation and early lactation spring calving cows. In order to have healthy calves and breed back on time, spring calving cows will either need to be fed second cutting hay during late gestation and early lactation or they will have to receive 5 to 6 lbs of a supplement such as soy hull, corn gluten or wheat midds along with first cutting hay.

Liquid supplements will not provide sufficient energy to meet the cows' needs without excessive consumption. Digestibility of first cutting Virginia hay will not be enhanced by the use of liquid supplements because hay protein levels are high enough to support normal rumen function (see Dr. Wahlberg's article). Convenient self fed liquid supplements will provide some additional energy and the non-protein nitrogen they contain will increase the protein intake by the cow; however, they are a poor choice to supplement this year's first cutting hay.

So, what are producers with spring calving herds to do with all that first cutting hay that won't meet the animals' needs without considerable supplementation? Well, let's think way outside the box for a minute. What if we used it now?

This first cutting hay is perfect for newly weaned cows. By limiting access to grazing and feeding this hay now, better forage will be available to cows in late gestation. By grazing cows in December, January and maybe February, the nutritional needs of the cow will be met by grazing. First cutting hay and supplements can be fed for the last month before calving and second cutting hay can be reserved for cows after they calve.

If calves are not to be sold until November or early December, producers can either wean and background calves for 45 days or allow calves to creep graze while cows are fed only hay. I know it is a bizarre concept to feed hay when green grass is available but it is worth a try.

To keep feed costs down this winter and effectively use low quality first cutting hay, producers will need to use a combination of strategies discussed. Good managers who are willing to experiment with feeding option while maintaining proper cow body condition should be rewarded with greater profitability next year.

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