Emergency forage planning for when hay is tight

For a good portion of Ontario, rain has returned mid-summer. The trouble is that rain took a long time to show up, and where it has fallen, it’s been spotty and selective. Plenty of hay and pasture fields are still in need of moisture and are only now showing any real re-growth from first or second cut.

Knowing that hay supplies are likely going to be tight for the coming winter months, we’ve compiled a list of a few options either through management, planting, or feeding, to help keep animals cared for in the months ahead.

Cull mercilessly: The first consideration to making hay last is to first feed only those animals you really should. The first round of culls is usually easy, but it’s the next round of selling possible replacements, bred animals, or past-their-prime favourites that can take real courage. Ultimately, remember that livestock has the amazing capacity to replace itself — a hard cull now could mean the farm stays profitable. And that’s more sustainable than holding back animals on very expensive feed.

Get growing: Depending on your location, there’s still time, potentially, to plant emergency forage options. It’s likely just a few weeks too late for quick-growing, heat-loving sudangrass, but there’s still time to plant oats (give them a shot of nitrogen and be prepared to spray for rust). Spring cereals are always an option, with rye and triticale really putting up some biomass. If you want to bump protein, you could add peas or soybeans to the mix. If the land will be grazed only, look at adding turnips for extra feed.

Fertilize what you have: Christine O’Reilly, forage specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs says that applying nitrogen to hay or pasture just before a rain can help improve yields of late summer and early fall growth. However, something to watch in all grass and cereal forages in a dry year is nitrates – a lab test can check if these are elevated. “When we get a rain that ends a dry spell, the water flushes a lot of nitrogen into the crop, and it takes five to seven days for the plant to metabolize it. If the crop is harvested before the plants can turn all that nitrate into protein, there is potential to cause nitrate poisoning in livestock,” she says.

Protect what you have: O’Reilly adds that one issue that often gets overlooked in dry years is potato leafhopper damage to alfalfa. Hopper burn frequently gets mistaken for drought stress, because the leaves turn yellow and growth stops. However, alfalfa has really deep taproots that make it pretty resilient under dry conditions, so it’s generally not going to show stress as early as most annual crops, she says. The only way to know for sure what’s causing the leaves to bronze is to get in the field with a net or a baseball cap and scout. Weekly scouting for leafhoppers enables producers to be proactive in protecting their hay yield. Potato leafhoppers will produce multiple generations until they are killed by a hard frost.

Graze crop residue: Cows are especially easy to fence for, once they know what an electric fence to the nose feels like. Electronet fencing or reel systems can work for smaller livestock, such as sheep, too. If you don’t have your own corn stover or crop aftermath to graze, call a neighbour who does and see if you can’t work out a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Use online/mobile tools to find feed: Droughts are often regional, and trucking in hay can make sense if you can find what you need (see the next point) at a price that makes it worth it. Kijiji, Facebook ag groups (just make sure you’re in ones that draw from a larger area), or the ag-only Combyne market place, are all good options.

Test that feed: Feed tests are not complicated to perform, but can be more than a little overwhelming to interpret. Dairy producers are very familiar with working with a feed analyst, but for sheep and beef production, it’s less common. When feed is tight, a feed test and consult can literally save you thousands (or at least help you understand the task ahead when trying to meet production needs through the winter). There are several ration planning software options, if you’re more of a do-it-yourself type. Feed testing may also help make culling decisions easier when you begin to tally up what supplemental feed you may have to buy-in.

Related: What you see is not what you get

Feed straw or alternative feeds: If there’s one thing beef producers got really good at post-BSE it’s feeding cows through winter as cheaply as possible. A mixture of straw and hay, either set out as bales, or in a TMR, can stretch forage supplies. Not all straw is equally palatable however (hear more on that here). If you’ve got cattle, get creative — local micro-breweries often have wet distiller’s grains they need gone once a week or more. Food processing companies can be a great source of feed sources that would be otherwise wasted.

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