by Tamara Scully

The past year has been excessively wet in many parts of the country. Planting as well as harvesting hay at optimal times wasn’t an easy task, and the overall quality of that hay has been reduced. When faced with low-quality forages, farmers need to determine how to feed it, and to find other options to meet nutritional needs.

When the season is rainy, forages grow rapidly. Although abundant, the quality of the harvested hay is decreased, due to this rapid growth combined with wet conditions which don’t allow for adequate harvesting windows. By the time the harvest is in, the grass has matured, with excessive stems and less leaves, leaving it less palatable and nutritionally inferior.

“The quality of that hay at harvest is going to decrease as that plant matures,” said Ben Beckman, Beef Extension Agent, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Some regions of the country had a “perfect storm of wet conditions, (and) really late harvests,” which creates low quality hay.

Beckman recommends sampling stored hay prior to feeding. Samples from the same fields, harvested at the same time, can be co-mingled for analysis. But hay from different harvest dates, or different pastures, will have different nutrient profiles and each lot needs to be analyzed.

Low quality hay is of more concern in some life stages than others. Lactating cows, just after calving, have increased nutritional needs and providing them with enough energy from a low-quality forage is challenging.

“Having those cows lose body condition, throughout the time period after calving and going into breeding, could be detrimental,” due to a negative energy balance, Beckman said. Producers who breed in late winter before spring grass is available should be particularly vigilant.

Energy and protein supplementation

Some energy from feed is lost to fecal, urine and metabolizable energy losses, Mariah Woolsoncroft, Nebraska Beef Extension Educator, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said. The net energy remaining is put into maintaining the body condition scores (BCS), and providing fuel for growth, lactation and pregnancy.

About seven months after calving, when weaning typically occurs in beef cattle systems, the energy and protein requirements of the cow level off and revert back to the maintenance levels. On a dry matter basis, this maintenance level is about 60 percent total digestible nutrient (TDN) for a 1,200-pound cow, Woolsoncroft said.

“When you’re trying to balance energy, your concern is when your cows are thin and your BCS are low, and when your forage ability is limited. You need to meet both the energy and protein needs,” she said.

Distillers grains can complement low quality hay, to meet nutritional needs. Other supplements which can meet energy and protein requirements include cottonseed, sunflower and canola meal, she said.

Alfalfa hay can meet protein needs, but may not be enough to meet energy needs, depending on the life stage of the animal, Beckman said.

When cows aren’t thin, have adequate BCS, and forage availability is adequate, then you feed for protein.

Moldy hay

If you did get the hay harvested, it may not have properly dried, and mold could be a problem. Dr. Bruce Anderson, Extension Forage Specialist, University of Nebraska, said. It can be challenging to determine the amount of mold present.

“Mold is not always dangerous, but some mold can be extremely dangerous,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of things that mold will do to hay.”

Non-ruminate animals are most susceptible to moldy hay, as rumen fermentation detoxifies some mold concerns. Horses are highly susceptible to mold spores, and respiratory diseases or digestive issues such as colic are common. Mold spores also cause human illness — farmer’s lung — and caution must be exercised around moldy bales. If you smell mold, the hay should be handled in a well-ventilated area.

Cattle can generally tolerate higher levels of mold in feed than can equine. Mycotoxins from mold can cause abortions in cattle, ketosis, hemorrhage and other concerns, however, and feeding hay where mold is present is a risk.

While small amounts of mold may make the hay less palatable, it still may be safe to feed in some cases. Feeding cattle hay with mold concerns is best done by rolling out the bale, without any added ingredients that might tempt them to eat the moldy hay they normally would avoid, Anderson said. If cattle aren’t eating the hay, it indicates that it does have contamination enough to cause concern.

“Avoid feeding it to the most vulnerable and most sensitive animals,” Anderson said. If mold is too pronounced “we may just have to discard it. It’s nearly impossible, at least from an economic standpoint, to evaluate that hay to determine if it has enough mycotoxin presence to cause problems.”

Grazing beyond hay

Some producers are seeking other forages to graze, to guard against hay quality concerns in the future. Crop residues are one increasingly popular forage. In corn crop residues, cows will first prefer the grain, leaves, and husks. The stalk or cob is not their first choice. The residue will be higher in protein under dry conditions than in wet or irrigated fields. But there is more residue in irrigated systems.

“The cattle are rarely ever actually eating the corn stalk,” Beckman said.

Grazing crop residues does not negatively impact the crop yield the following year, or cause damaging soil compaction. An approximation tool for determining how many grazing days are available from a corn field after harvest is to take the number of bushels of corn per acre harvested, and divide by 3.5, giving an estimate of the number of grazing days the corn crop residue will provide for a 1200-pound non-lactating cow.

Lactating cows will need protein and energy supplementation when grazing corn crop residues. If calves are grazing, any daily gain in excess of one pound per day will require supplementation, Beckman said.

Another grazing option is to use cover crops and fit those into your growing system. Even if wet weather and late hay harvests mean that winter small grains get in later than is ideal, “they’re going to be okay. They’re going to overwinter and we’re going to get really good quality spring grazing out of these options,” Beckman said of winter rye, wheat and triticale.

Mixing brassicas with grass provides a high-quality forage for fall or early winter grazing. Oats and brassicas planted together in late summer provide fall forages and can last into the winter months, holding quality well after the first freeze.

If it’s been wet, and baling isn’t possible, windrow grazing is an option. Instead of doing the work of baling and feeding, the animals can graze the swath. The swath maintains its quality well into the winter, with crude protein similar to that of baled hay. Too much snow or ice can inhibit access to the windrow. Some other concerns are controlling the graze, by utilizing temporary fencing. If managed well, windrow grazing can have less loss than bale grazing.

“We can actually get quite a low loss of our harvested forages. Windrow grazing is really a great option,” Beckman said.

Information in this article was compiled from recent University of Nebraska webinars and podcasts.