Better than SnowballsMost of the Northeast during 2022 was not blessed with bountiful quantities of high-quality perennial forages. For most locations, first cutting tonnages were fairly normal and quality by lab analysis was quite good, depending on the cutting date. The weak link in the chain was second cutting.

Though there were exceptions to the rule, most locations’ second cutting tonnages ran about half of what was harvested as first cutting on the same fields. The good news is that the quality of those second cuttings generally was quite good. Yet there were many growers who somehow amassed enough precipitation throughout growing season 2022 to end up with very good corn yields, particularly silage. Mother Nature was unusually whimsical in terms of where she bestowed her blessings – and curses – during the past year.

Much of the rest of the country got more than its fair share of curses. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on Jan. 10, summed the situation up as follows: “Ian was the third costliest U.S. hurricane on record with $112.9 billion in damage, followed by $22.2 billion in damage from a Western and Midwestern drought that halted barge traffic on the Mississippi River – getting international fertilizer ingredients to farmers was seriously hampered – as was the case with shipping harvested grains. More than 40% of the continental United States was under official drought conditions for 119 straight weeks, a record in the 22 years of the federal drought monitor, easily passing the old mark of 68 straight weeks. At one point, the country peaked at 63% of the nation in drought in 2022.”

Very often when hay yields are down meadows may be harvested that were left standing the previous growing season. This type of forage generally earns the term “heifer hay” and “dry cow hay” – also described as “better than snowballs.”

For instance, there’s a lot of hay that’s certified organic, but it’s organic by default – the grower didn’t feed the soil any disapproved inputs. They didn’t feed the soil anything at all. Animals fed that kind of hay are usually voracious mineral eaters. Lack of high-quality roughages in the Northeast often forces hay-deficient farmers to shop for forages grown with deep-well irrigation in the West, even before drought became so prevalent in the last many months. Most such hay sellers farther west consistently test their forages so that buyers know what they’re getting beforehand.

From what I’ve seen, too few local hay growers test the forages they’re marketing. So how do we best utilize less-than-perfect hay crops? Winter provides an answer to that question. A major benefit of cold weather is that extra fibrous feeds tend to be more palatable to, and appreciated by, otherwise shivering ruminants.

During extreme cold, cattle owners often complain to me that animals guzzle down forages at higher rates than they planned. I tell them that during really cold weather these bovines – in addition to producing milk – are four-footed furnaces. Cold weather is the best time to feed more fibrous (hence lower energy) roughage to ruminants.

My logic here is that if they can generate body warmth from digesting this fiber, this helps lower the extent to which they tap into energy better used for milk production. Let’s address the body-warming traits of lower-energy feeds.

In his 1959 edition of “Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding,” Cornell animal science professor F.B. Morrison discussed heat increment (HI). He wrote that it’s easy to envision the energy required by jaws to chew food, but less visible are the workings of digestive juices, plus the increased work of the heart and lungs during the dynamic process of rumination. Quoting Morrison: “There are losses of energy through the heat produced through the bacterial action upon carbohydrates. The energy expended in all these procedures takes the form of heat, and it may help to warm the body, if sufficient heat is not being produced elsewhere in the body.”

Morrison also wrote that a speeding up of the body processes takes place, a development which always follows ingesting and digesting food. At the peak of this digestive activity, more heat is produced than at other times, an event which occurs in all animals, particularly ruminants. When humans are chilly and eat something, they soon feel noticeably warmer. If they eat too much in hot weather, they suffer even more from heat.

Scientists use the term HI to include energy losses associated with consuming and metabolizing food. Such energy losses in HI are much greater with fibrous foods, like roughages, than with grain and other less fibrous concentrates. In “Feeds and Feeding,” Morrison wrote, “About 33% of the nutrients ingested in corn grain is used in the work of digestion, while this loss is approximately 60% in the case of wheat straw.” These extreme examples of different feedstuffs enable us to visualize how mammals with a different digestive system – one created to process vegetative materials rather than seeds – can crank out a lot of heat. Cattle, sheep and goats, all with their four stomachs, fall in that last category, followed by equines, with a single stomach and a cecum.

Here’s an example of how roughages increase ruminant body heat in the dead of winter. In February 1979, I was cow-sitting for an Otsego County dairyman. When I hit the barn about 5 a.m., the temperature was typically about -15º. If the barn wasn’t tight, water buckets froze. Barn fans hardly ran at all. Cattle had all but cleaned up last night’s dry hay feeding. I made sure cows never ran out of dry small bales, their only roughage. As dawn approached, the outside temperature dropped a little more. But then the barn fans kicked on. As cattle body temperatures dropped, because the milk had left them, these animals aggressively ate more hay in order to warm themselves up. They abundantly achieved that goal, liberating enough additional body heat to trip the fan thermostats.