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Extension specialists encourage producers to calculate winter feeding costs

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“What is the most valuable thing on your ranching operation?” Aaron Berger, University of Nebraska Extension Specialist asked the students of the High Plains Ranch Practicum group in their Sept. 5 meeting.
    As the students pondered the question, answers varied from themselves to the equipment they would use to feed their cattle with this winter. Suddenly, one person looked down at the desk in front of her and said, “My calculator.” It was the answer Berger was waiting for.
    Staying in the ranching business through this upcoming winter is going to be a challenge, he said. It will require ranchers to “run the numbers” and explore different scenarios to make it through a year of high feed costs, diminishing feed supplies and dropping cattle prices.
Sample the hay
    One area of tremendous importance is having hay sampled, whether it is hay a rancher owns or plans to buy.
    “There is a tremendous variation in hay,” Berger explained. “If there is a year to have your hay sampled so you know what you have, this is this one. The return for your dollar invested will be well worth it this year.”
    To stress the point of the value of hay sampling, UW Extension Specialist Dallas Mount pointed out two stacks of hay. The two stacks looked similar, except one was bright green in color, while the other was turning yellow from being bleached in the sun.
    He questioned the group as to which stack they thought would have the higher feed value, and most everyone agreed the stack that was brighter green in color. Taking it one step further, Mount took samples from both stacks and put them side-by-side for the students to look at. Looking at the samples, there was very little difference.
    “The point I want to make,” Mount said, “is that a lot of hay is bought and sold this way – just by looking at the outside appearance of the bales.”
    Pointing to the bleached bales, he continued, “You may be able to buy this hay a lot cheaper than the other stack, but after it is sampled, its nutritional value may be just as good. It is important to know what is inside the bale.”
Know what you have
    The nutritional value in hay can significantly vary, which can affect the cow’s diet. A rancher could save hundreds of dollars by spending $15 to $20 for a hay test.
    If the hay is high in protein, the cow may require little or no supplement, depending on her nutritional requirements at the time. On the other hand, if the hay is lacking in protein, a producer will be better equipped to purchase the exact supplements he needs to formulate a balanced ration.
    In addition, Berger said producers should pay attention to the moisture content of alfalfa hay, and purchase bales that are between 12 and 15 percent moisture. If the alfalfa has more moisture than 15 percent, a producer is paying for the water content in the hay, and the bales may not store as well. Likewise, if the bale has less than 12 percent moisture, the hay may be too brittle and lose its leaves, leaving only stems for the cattle to consume.
    Lastly, if a hay test isn’t available from the seller, Berger said it is a good idea to ask if the buyer can take samples and send them in to be analyzed. Samples should be taken from each bale down both sides of the stack. Then, place the hay on a flat surface like a cookie sheet, dividing it into fourths and mixing the samples together so they will fit into a bag.
    “It is important to get a good, representative sample of the pile,” Berger explained. “Probing two bales on the end of the pile doesn’t make for a good sample.”
    He added, “Quality can vary throughout the stack.”
Determining needs
    Stockmen can take advantage of online tools to calculate feed rations, like the Cow-Culator, which can be accessed online at no cost by searching for the tool. Producers can type information into the program, such as the number of cows, cow weight, body condition, calving date, weaning date, birth weight and breed. Once all the information is input, the program can determine nutrient requirements for mid-gestation, late gestation, early lactation and late lactation.
    The program also has a feed library where producers can input the types of feed available, nutritional information and the costs for each type, enabling producers to explore different scenarios of feed rations to determine a least-cost ration and which combinations will best meet the nutrient requirements of their cows. The program provides ranchers with a cost per day per cow, based on each scenario.
    When using this program, producers need to make sure their protein ratio is at least positive one to meet nutritional requirements.
    “If it is less than one, then protein needs to be added to the ration, and if it is much over one, the rancher is feeding excess protein and could cut back,” Berger explained.
    If the protein level is met, the cow will be able to physically eat her predicted dry matter intake.
    Also, Berger encouraged ranchers to pay careful attention to the calcium to phosphorus ratio to ensure it is close to a two to one ratio, so the minerals remain in balance.
    Where a cow is regarding her nutrient requirements will change what feed resources are needed. After weaning and early in gestation, the cow’s nutrient requirements are at their lowest, since the cow isn’t producing milk to feed a calf, and the calf inside is still small. Nutrient requirements are highest just before and after calving when a cow is producing milk to feed a calf.
    Berger encouraged producers to use the Cow-Culator program to evaluate the resources they have available and get the most value out of their operation to make a profit. He cautioned producers to be honest when inputting figures and costs into the program.
    “Garbage in, garbage out,” he warned. “If you aren’t honest about the costs you put into the program, the information you get as a result won’t be real accurate and won’t do you a lot of good.”
    Berger’s final thought on ration formulation was to remind producers that protein is the first limiting nutrient in a range cow ration.
    “Once protein is met, energy is the next ingredient to look at,” he said. “During years like this, I would encourage you to look at alternative feed sources, plug in the numbers, and formulate a low-cost ration that meets nutrient requirements for the cow.”
    Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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