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Low-quality hay causes long-term problems

Jeff Caldwell 12/05/2012 @ 1:57pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Even if the drought was ending shortly, the effects on your beef herd wouldn't end with it.

That's because after a drought, it can take up to 2 years for cows and their calves to recover from the effects of subsisting on drought-shortened hay, namely in how heifers develop in late summer before calving in the winter, says University of Missouri Extension beef nutritionist Justin Sexten. And, that's exactly what happened last year, causing affected heifers to lose body condition scores and resulting in taking away body conditioning in the back and hip area.

“Unfortunately, much forage harvested last season does not meet base requirements,” Sexten says. "During July and August, when no grass grew, heifers mined condition off their back."

A heifer should be at 85% of her mature body weight or above in order for her adequately support her calf after birth. Sexten says if a cow's lighter than that and her body condition score is at 5 or below (out of 9), she'll likely have trouble supporting a calf on her own colostrum, something that can get the young animal started off weakly or, at its worse, lead to a short lifespan.

These issues are propagated in a year like 2012 by a forage supply that's low in volume and protein, Sexten says. For example, a gestating cow needs a steady supply of hay with at least 10% protein. And, with what hay that's out there now -- at least that grown in an area under drought this year -- a lot of it will fall short of the basic nutrient requirements for a heifer or bred cow. And if that's the case, you'll have to supplement it with additional nutrients.

"The only way to know hay’s nutrient content is with a forage test,” Sexten says. “Marginal hay requires supplementation."

So how will you supplement your hay? Take corn gluten, for example. An additional 4 pounds of gluten per head per feeding will carry additional cost now, but "you can pay now or you pay later," Sexten says.

"If a heifer loses her calf, a $2,000 replacement heifer becomes worth $900 in salvage value," according to a university report. "A heifer in poor body condition after calving likely will not rebreed to calve the second year. That happens often, causing huge losses for beef herd owners. A lost heifer must be replaced. "Loss of a calf or heifer puts hay and grain prices in new perspective."

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