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This Winter's Hay Quality Seen Weak

With excessive rain this past spring, hay harvests across the Corn Belt were pushed back resulting in a crop that is low in energy. Cattle producers need to be conscious of what they’re feeding herds before unintentionally depriving cows of needed nutrients.

Dr. Mark Hilton, clinical professor of food animal production medicine at Purdue University, has found that about 90% of the hay samples he’s seen this fall have inadequate energy levels to sustain a healthy cow in her third trimester of gestation. 

Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist, worries about the nutrition needs of lactating dairy cows and has seen many dairy farmers supplement lacking diets with corn silage in the past. With this year’s low corn grain prices, he predicts some farmers may choose that route to make up for low hay-energy levels.

To prevent serious birthing issues, Hilton urges farmers to invest in a hay test that averages around $20. 

“It’s very inexpensive and easily done. Testing helps producers put together the right types of supplements,” said Anderson. “In many cases, it will save people money because they find out they’re using too much of a certain supplement.”

What may cost cattle producers this winter is moldy hay. With this year’s rain, Anderson believes there will likely be an increase in mold damage amongst hay. Mold can put cattle at risk for serious health problems and can make them less likely to eat their food. This costs producers more in terms of animal size and feeds costs.

With hay test results, cattle producers can contact a nutritionist at the feed company they work with, Extension educators, or herd health veterinarians to get an idea of what individual herds need to be in optimal gestational health. Using a combination of those resources will help producers understand what is lacking or fulfilled in a herd’s diet.

With corn and wheat prices at an affordable rate, cattle producers have options for what kind of feed their animals consume. Using dried distillers' grains or range cubes are two options to supplement a diet that is lacking in a specific area. 

If the right amount of energy isn’t consumed, pregnant cattle will begin sacrificing muscle and fat reserves to keep fetuses alive. Birthing a calf will be difficult for an undernourished cow with little strength, which increases the likelihood of the calf dying during birth. 

“After all of that, the cow will be thin when she calves, so her chances of getting pregnant again during the breeding season are much lower than if she calves in adequate body condition score,” Hilton said. “There’s zero good that happens from a cow having inadequate nutrition during gestation.”

Calves that survive birth will likely not have the strength to stand quickly enough to nurse 60 minutes after being born. If they somehow manage to nurse, their mothers will not have the volume or quality of colostrum the calf will need to gain strength and develop immunity to disease. 

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