Feeding livestock has become the primary task for many producers across eastern states. As the drought continues to extend across the country, some producers have been feeding stock for over eight or nine months.
In the past few weeks, I have been travelling across Central and Northern NSW talking to producers, and discussing their feeding programs. As part of these visits and discussions I am seeing a developing trend that is concerning.
Quite simply most rations are well below the daily requirements for the livestock people are choosing to feed.
The results of underfeeding have varied from significant weight loss, poor calf and lamb growth and unfortunately in some cases, weight loss has been so severe animals have had to be euthanized.
There are two issues around feeding that have been contributing to this situation. The first is the choice of ration ingredients. And the second is quite simply the physical amount offered to stock. Some people have wildly overestimated the amount of feed they are actually providing and in doing so have created problems in their program.
I wanted to offer a few comments that are important to consider when determining how much you should feed.
CLASS OF STOCK
The stage of production determines how much feed your animals need to eat each day. A dry cow will require lower amounts of physical feed, than a lactating cow needs. At the same time an animal with higher production demands, like lactation or joining not only needs more feed, that feed must have higher levels of energy and crude protein.
Quite simply, some feeds are not of good enough quality to meet your animal’s requirements. And when these feeds fail to meet those levels, your animals will lose weight. In many cases, if weight loss is prolonged production losses are not restricted to lower milk yields or weight loss. Over a longer period animals may die.
Intake levels do vary significantly each day, not only as a result of the production status of your animals. It is possible to calculate intake based on a percentage of body weight for each production class, it’s not the only factor to consider.
The amount of fibre in a feedstuff will also determine intake. If fibre content is too low, it can lead to rumen upset and low intake. High fibre levels restrict the voluntary intake of animals. Quite simply, they can’t eat enough each day.
It’s equally important to recognize that some feeds have fibre levels that are too high for pregnant cows but would be acceptable for dry animals. The reason has to do with bulk fill and the internal capacity of a cow to consume and digest the feed while carrying a calf as well!
The other important factor is the moisture content of feed. All feeds have some moisture. However as moisture has no nutritional value, the amount you actually feed each day needs to reflect the water contained in that feed.
In simplest terms, the higher moisture content of a feed, the more you will physically need to supply to your animals each day.
HOW MUCH ARE YOU FEEDING?
Perhaps one of the biggest limitations to livestock intake is the amount of feed that is actually fed out!
I’ve asked a lot of people, how much are they feeding. The range of answers is quite surprising. Most are based on a guess, or a rough idea. Very few people have actually taken the time to weight out how much they need to feed.
The risk with this approach, besides underfeeding, is that if you need to add other ingredients to your ration, such as limestone or bentonite, your additions will be out. So your ration may be even less effective than you expected, and your cattle’s daily needs continue to be compromised.
At the very least, weigh your rations and make sure you are physically providing enough for daily intake. Check the value of the feed, and if you’re not sure get a feed test done. And if you are still not sure, give me a ring and I’ll come and help you put the rations in place for your stock.
NSW is now categorized as 100% drought affected. As the state emerges from winter and looks towards a hotter drier spring and summer, there are many producers considering what options they have available.
For many the decisions include choosing to continue destocking, with the goal of retaining a core group to focus on. Other producers have spoken to me about their plans to keep feeding and maintain numbers. For a large portion of people the decision is a mix of selling and feeding.
None of these decisions are easy. Having spent close on the last 12 months advising producers on strategies, I know how hard choices can be. However, regardless of the difficulty, you must make decisions, and build a plan to help manage the direction you want to take.
Perhaps the hardest part of this process has been for producers who are choosing to feed, and have started to draw on uncommon feeds to support their herds.
By uncommon feeds, I mean choosing options outside of the usual products that include grains, hay, silage, plant based meals and prepared products like pellets.
As these feeds become more difficult to source, or more expensive to source, producers have looked to alternatives. In the past few weeks I’ve spoken to producers feeding products that have included;
Scrub cut on farm
I’m sure there are plenty of other things being fed to cattle and sheep. These are just the ones I’ve come across lately.
While these options can be useful feeds, its essential you use them after considering the risks associated with these feeds. Not all of these feeds are as useful or as good as they might be made out to be.
The important things you must consider are:
Residues: Chemical residues are one of the great risks in feeding unusual feeds. Many products from the horticultural sector may have been treated with chemicals for pest control or grown in soil that has a chemical risk. These products might be fine for use on horticultural products, but in meat these same chemicals may be prohibited.
You need to consider if there is a risk with products that may have been treated or grown in soil. Products like potatoes, pumpkins, and sugar cane tops can contain soil which may lead to a residue issue. So its important to ask a few questions about the background of the product before you feed it to stock.
Dry Matter: All products contain some water. However the amount of water will vary considerably. If a product is 50% Dry Matter (DM) that means half its actual weight is made up of water.
The implications are that in transporting that feed, half the weight in the load is water, so you wont get as much as you were expecting to be delivered!
Secondly it means that the amount you actually feed out will be twice the amount of product. In simple terms, if your co requires 10kg/ DM/ day you would need to feed 20kg of feed to meet those requirements.
Often variations in Dry Matter mean ration amounts are not meeting livestock requirements and causing nutritional issues for stock.
Variable Feed Quality: In a drought we are really aiming to provide the energy (Mega Joules – MJ) that animals require for their daily intake. This needs to be balanced with an appropriate level of Crude Protein (CP%) for their production needs. In addition the amount of fibre in the feed will impact both on energy levels and the amount an animal can physically eat each day.
Some unusual feeds can be reasonable in their energy levels, but very low in protein. Others may have reasonable levels of protein but it is unavailable to the animal as the protein is tied up in tannins within the feed.
For many people these unusual feeds help keep their program in place. There’s noting wrong in using these feeds.
However you need to use them in the full knowledge of the risks they may have.
If you are going to use them, there are some things you must absolutely do. These are:
Request a Commodity Vendor Declaration. The Commodity Vendor Declaration or (CVD) outlines the product source, the chemicals it may have been treated with and its suitability for feeding to livestock in regards to exposure to restricted animal materials (RAM).
If you cannot obtain a CVD you must record the feed stuff, where it came from, the amount, the date your received it, when you started feeding it and to what stock you fed it to. This is all part of the standard records required for your LPA accreditation anyway. I also tell my clients to keep copies of the invoice and supplier details.
Get a Feed Test Done: A feed test will tell you the quality of the feed you are intending to use. If it has sufficient energy, protein and fibre. The results of a test will help you decide if it is product that can be fed on its own, or if it requires something else blended to balance the ration for your stock.
Either way, once you know, you can then decide how best to use it.
There are other practical considerations. For example, feeding scrub is a commonly used source of roughage. However you need to consider how you will feed it. Don’t forget your own safety in cutting scrub! We are not all NINJA warriors able to leap around trees lopping limbs! So you need to be realistic as well.
Other products sue to their bulky nature, water content or size may pose limitations to how much your animals can physically eat, and therefore reduce the usefulness of the feed source.
If you are thinking of going down the path of using unusual feeds, then do some research. Consider the risks and evaluate the true value of the feed and its usefulness to your program. Remember one size doesn’t fit all! If you do want to talk through your options, please feel free to get in touch
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