January 24, 2009

Cattle farm husbandry – feeds for cattle

Cattle, farming, husbandry, feeding, feeds available, pasture, silage, balage, hay, good and bad features of feeds, stocking rate, stock units

By Dr Clive Dalton

“Pasture” is what grows in a paddock, and if you mark out a square metre to make close inspection easier, you’ll see different species of grasses, some of good feed value and others not. Then there will be different species of clover all of which are excellent feed. There will probably be a range of weeds most of which cattle will eat but they won’t be ideal feed for production. There will also be bare ground and dung patches.

Good things about pasture

Pasture has highest feeding value when it's kept at a vegetative state
  • Pasture grows well in New Zealand’s temperate climate, so it’s comparatively cheap to grow and feed to stock compared with cereal grains.
  • All stock will eat grass and clover with relish – until it becomes very mature and stalky.
  • You don’t need expensive machinery to control pasture –all you need is an electric fence.
  • It’s a simple system so pastures feed your stock and your stock control your pastures.
Bad things about pasture
  • The main aim of a pasture plant (grass or clover) is to mature as quickly as possible and produce seed.
  • Pasture feeding value varies in both quality and quantity every day of the year.
  • It may be deficient in copper, selenium or cobalt depending on the soil type.
  • Good pasture management is as much art as science.
  • Regular water is needed for good growth – rainfall or irrigation.
  • There is no free lunch. You must replace the nutrients removed from what goes off the land.
This is the worst thing you can do to a pasture.
Pugging destroys the delicate crumb structure of the soil
and delays recover for months if not longer

How feeding value changes over time
The table below shows how feeding value of pasture at different stages of growth changes over time

Key points from the table
  • As pasture matures, DM and fibre content go up rapidly.
  • And as pasture matures, protein, minerals, digestibility and energy (ME) go down.
  • So try to keep pastures at the vegetative green stage for as long as possible during the year – and the best and cheapest machines you have to do this are your animals.
  • Your pastures feed your animals, and your animals keep the pasture under control preventing it seeding. As stated above – it’s a very simple system, but not always easy to get it right all the time.
  • At the first sign of the stock losing this contest, then take the paddock out of the grazing rotation and make silage or hay to be fed back to them in summer droughts or winter feed deficits.
Good things about hay

  • Cattle of all ages will eat hay with relish unless it’s really old, mouldy or full of thistles or docks.
  • Hay has high DM and the high fibre content is good for rumen digestion which generates heat in the animal.
  • It’s easy to make hay as long as the sun shines.
  • It’s easy to handle when baled in the paddock, in storage and when feeding out – provided you have small bales or equipment to handle big bales which seem to get bigger every year.
  • Hay keeps well for a couple of years and is easy to buy and sell.
Bad things about hay
  • It can vary greatly in quality depending on the pasture it was made from and how mature the crop was when it was cut, also how badly it was weathered before baling.
  • You lose about 80% of the feeding value of the original grass crop when you make hay of it.
  • The protein content in good hay is only around 4%.
  • Hay will catch fire, and if baled or put in a shed slightly damp it will heat up and self combust.

Silage Good things about silage

Big silage bales need good protection from stock - a single hot wire is not enough

  • In good silage you only lose about 20% of the original nutrients from the pasture if cut at the 10-15% seed head stage.
  • Good leafy silage is a high protein feed at around 17-20% protein in the DM.
  • Really good silage is around 25% Dry Matter.
  • After cutting a silage crop the paddock will return to regrow quicker than with hay.
Bad things about silage

Mouldy silage is dangerous to stock and humans
  • Silage smells and many people say it stinks, regardless of whether it was made well or badly. On small farms this regularly causes problems with non-rural neighbours.
  • You must get everything right in the ensiling process or you’ll end up with an inferior product which can cause animal and human health problems - especially if it goes mouldy.
  • You cannot make good silage from short, lush spring pasture as it is hard to get a good fermentation, and the end product will be only 20% DM or less. This will restrict the nutrient intake of the stock.
  • Likewise, pasture that is well on the way to hay makes poor silage.
  • Silage is hard to cart around and feed out as bales are 500-700 kg, and too many folk have been injured by them. A bale on a small trailer pulled by an ATV can jack-knife and kill you.
  • If you open a bale in the paddock and let stock help themselves, the acid in the silage will burn the grass and the stock will pug the area. Burning can also happen if you dump it in great forkfuls and stock don’t clean it up that day.
  • The juice that can leak out of bales or pits is an extremely bad environmental hazard as if it gets into streams it eats up large quantities of oxygen.
  • Old silage wrap is an environmental hazard too. It can cause serious digestive problems in stock if they eat it and it blocks open drains. It is supposed to be disposed of in “an approved land fill” – which could cost you dollars.
  • Wrapped bales need care in handling and protection from stock, rats and magpies to prevent punctures, air entry and mould.
Balage and haylage – what’s the difference?
  • There is no difference and balage seems to be most commonly used! Both are made from a very mature crop that ends up around 40% DM.
  • But beware especially when buying it as it could be a hay crop that became wet, or a silage crop that went too far to seed.
  • Get a sample analysed to be sure what’s in it before you buy it. And pick the sample from a range of bales.
This is 'balage' made from a mature crop which had gone too far for top silage and was cut too early for hay. Fermentation was good and the beef stock relished it.

A buyer’s guide to silage

  • When you buy silage, get the vendor to open a bale and dig deep inside to see what it’s like.
  • Check the bales for tiny holes as mould forms quickly if air leaks in. You can also do a squeeze test. Take a handful and squeeze it hard and if juice comes out between your clinched fingers – it’s too wet and certainly below 20% Dry Matter.
  • Or take a sample and twist it to see if juice appears. It’s easy to squeeze juice from wet silage lower than 20% DM. Do a “sniff and feel” test using the Table below.

Again, send a good representative sample of the silage to a laboratory for feed analysis to get DM%, Protein% and ME.

Other crops
Maize is now a very popular crop to provide large amount of Dry
Matter when chopped and made into silage
  • Look in any seed company’s catalogue and you’ll see a wide range of crops that can be grown to feed cattle. The term “crop” covers such things as subtropical grasses and a wide range of brassicas and pulses.
  • The catalogue information is comprehensive and well presented and companies have specialist agronomists who will help you.
Soft turnips are a popular feed for cattle, but work out the cost of growing them.
The tops may look good but most feed is in the bulbs

Key things to look out for are
  • ٱWhen do you need the extra feed the crop will provide?
  • What yield of Dry Matter can you expect per hectare?
  • What climate limitations does the crop have? Will it grow in your area?
  • What soil type limitations does it have?
  • What fertiliser requirements does the crop have?
  • How will you control weeds? These are always a major threat.
  • How will you harvest the crop – do you need a machine or can it be grazed?
  • Are there any animal health risks from grazing the crop?
  • What are the costs of establishment?
  • How long will the pasture be out of production while the crop is growing?
  • How do you treat the paddock after the crop?
There are probably many more questions so that’s why you need to talk to an agronomist.

Concentrate feeds

Feeding dairy cows maize silage.
It's not economic to feed it to beef cattle in New Zealand

It's not economic to feed high energy concentrate feeds to beef cattle, and it's only dairy cows where feeding them is justified - and that's not in all conditions.

Fodder trees
There are a wide range of willows and poplars which are very good feed for cattle, being rich in minerals. They can be especially farmed for this purpose. They are a great insurance for drought conditions.

Willow being relished by beef cattle
It has good feeding value and should be used more on
cattle farms for both feed and shade

Have you got too many stock?
This question is always a concern and can keep nagging away at you and it’s like how long is a piece of string? If you are constantly running out of feed, even in the spring flush, then the chances very high are that you have too many stock.

You are “overstocked” or have too high a “stocking rate”. These are all farming terms to describe the situation that needs fixing before you run into problems. So it’s a good idea to see what your stocking rate is, and to do this you can use the old, if not ancient, system of Stock Units or SUs.

Stock Units
  • The idea behind Stock Units is to compare all the stock on a similar basis so that you can get some overall measure of the feed requirements.
  • The theory is sound enough, but it’s an old if not ancient system and is of little if any value on today’s farms.
  • But it’s still used for beef and sheep farms by vendor’s and land agents where the farm is described as carrying or wintering a given number of stock units. Farm workers and managers’ jobs are also described using stock units.
  • A SU is also called a Ewe Equivalent (EE) as the base used is one 55kg breeding ewe rearing a single lamb needing approximately 520 - 550kg DM from good quality pasture, which includes what the lamb will eat up to weaning at 3½ months.
  • You may also see the term LSU or Livestock Units used.
  • A farm’s carrying capacity or stocking rate (SR) is expressed as the number of SUs carried on 1 July so is the number of stock that will be wintered.
  • If you can farm your stock through the winter, then the rest of the year should be no problem.
  • The table below shows you the Stock Unit conversion values. Remember these general values have great limitations and can only be a very crude guide.

So where do you go from here?
  • The honest answer is probably - not very far! When you ask someone who is supposed to know the answer – they invariably start off by saying - “Well it all depends!”
  • Here’s what you are supposed to do. After converting all stock on the farm into SUs, and then dividing by the number of hectares, then you’ll know your SU/ha.
  • But how do you know if it’s too high or too low, or what’s the ideal for your farm? This is when you should talk to local farmers, neighbours or farm consultants – but don’t be surprised if they are scared to commit themselves and fudge the answer.
  • If you hear of a farm successfully running 12 SU/ha then it must be a good farm as this is at the high end.
  • To make some sense of the fudged answers you’ll get, go back and analyse what happened in the dead of winter. If you were in deep trouble then, reduce your overall stocking rate. Don’t judge your stocking rate in the spring flush!
  • Smart operators know what live weight of stock they carry per hectare and this makes a lot more sense if you can work it out. This will be a lot more help when you do a feed budget.

This material is provided in good faith for information purposes only, and the author does not accept any liability to any person for actions taken as a result of the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) provided in these pages.

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