Given the less than desirable haying conditions we saw this year, (few producers got their second cutting put up without being rained on at least once), a question cattle producers may have is: “What is the feeding value of my hay?” 

Having a forage test done on your hay is the only way to determine the quality of your hay. A forage test will cost around $20 depending on which lab does the testing and how many tests they perform. Most Extension Offices have a hay probe and testing resources for you to use.

The hay’s nutritional value can be severely compromised if it got rained on, or if it was put up wet. Knowing the nutritional value of the hay is necessary in determining the proper balanced feed ration for your livestock.  Without knowing the nutritional value, you are essentially “shooting in the dark,” and with the cost of hay reaching $150 per ton, why feed more than you need to? 

I recently visited with Rachel Endecott, Montana State University cattle beef specialist, about these hay quality concerns among others. Below are some of her responses.

How much of an influence can the proper amount of protein and energy have on a cow and her unborn calf?

Prepartum nutrition is very important, both for the health of the calf and the rebreeding performance of the cow.  Inadequate energy and/or protein in the cow’s diet can negatively impact colostrum production and quality, which can be very detrimental to future calf health. Also, calves born to cows with insufficient protein in their diet have been shown to be less able to absorb colostrum than calves from cows with adequate protein in their diet. Thin cows have a higher risk of experiencing longer postpartum estrus intervals, which increases their chance of being culled from the herd for failing to breed back.

After producers have their forage tested, what general rule of thumb do you use when determining how much hay to feed bred cows this time of year?

When I visit with producers around the state, they all tell me that their cows weigh 1,200 pounds. However, I suspect that the average cow weight in Montana is considerably higher than that. Cull cow weights in the fall are a good place to start to estimate cow weights. With that said, somewhere between 2 and 2.5 percent of the cow’s body weight per day (on a dry matter basis) is probably a good place to start. Of course, weather conditions, feed quality, and the cow’s physiological stage can all impact the amount of feed a cow would eat each day.

Along with testing the nutritional value of the hay, test cereal hay for nitrate levels especially if the cereal hay has weeds. Weeds such as Canada thistle, kochia, pigweed and Russian thistle can accumulate nitrates. A quick qualitative nitrate test to determine if nitrates are present can be performed by your local Extension Agent.  If nitrates are present, submit a sample to a laboratory for quantitative testing.

Brent Sarchet is the MSU/Lewis and Clark County Agricultural Extension Agent.

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