Caution when feeding hay during drought

As we continue on through the summer with very little pasture and hay resources available, and we are having to feed cattle now and make preparations for the fall and winter, make sure that you are cognizant of the risks associated with feeding forages harvested under extreme drought conditions.

Nitrate accumulations can occur when plants that are highly fertilized and harvested for hay or grazed. Pay particular attention to those which were highly fertilized and did not produce much grain. Nitrates will accumulate in the stalk of these plants and will never leave the plant. If they are high when harvested, they will never be safe to feed.

Any sorghum plants such as grain sorghum or forage sorghum should be suspect, as well as corn. Further, johnsongrass harvested in grass meadows has the potential for accumulations.

To make the situation more difficult, be concerned with grazing cattle on standing grain sorghum, forage sorghum, and johnsongrass. In these standing crops, prussic acid can accumulate to lethal levels as well.

While nitrates will not leave the plant once present unless vigorous growth has resumed, prussic acid is not a concern in properly cut and cured hay because it is a gas and will dissipate prior to baling. However, prussic acid is a concern if not cut.

Ranchers risk potential nitrate poisoning with hay harvested during a drought. Ranchers risk potential nitrate poisoning with hay harvested during a drought. Whether you are making the decision to bale grain stubble from harvested fields, purchasing hay from others, or feeding to your own cattle, be prepared to harvest a sample and have it lab tested to ensure that it is safe to feed to your cattle.

The sample is easy to obtain and the $5 spent to ensure that the forage is safe is money well spent to ensure that your cattle are not poisoned by high nitrates. For an additional $5, crude protein analysis can be obtained and will ensure that you know the quality and will be better prepared for how best to supplement your cattle.

Other concerns

Other issues to be concerned with during periods of prolonged drought are the lack of quality water. Make sure that your livestock have access to adequate water. A mature cow can drink upwards of 40 gallons of water per day, and it may be difficult to provide a herd with enough water.

When nutrition is not adequate, stock will begin to lose body condition and will negatively affect their productivity for years to come. Cattle may not cycle, may abort, or give birth to calves that are light and may have issues with vigor, health, and growth. These issues could affect your profitability for years to come. And the expense of recovering these cattle to adequate condition will require additional expense in recovery feeding.

Also, since many of us have been feeding cattle since last summer, make sure that you take a long hard look at the receipts and numbers to determine how much money you are willing to spend on hay, feed, and water until the weather provides us with good rainfall and green pastures. It may take many years and profits from several calf crops to recoup the expense incurred by feeding this year.

While many herds have already been thinned of older, less productive cows, deeper cuts, or complete liquidation may be necessary to remain viable in the future. As difficult as these decisions may be to make, wise decisions and management of the bottom line will be necessary to ensure that you are able to make a profit in the future.

Also, as you make these decisions, make sure to keep records and retain receipts of hay and feed purchased above and beyond your normal feeding regimen in the event that a federal disaster program becomes available. These will be retroactive and appropriate documentation will be required to validate losses and receive compensation, should some become available.

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2009-07-30 digital edition

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