Feeding stock is a task that requires some prior preparation. While most feeds can be provided to ruminants, it doesn’t mean that you can feed them without following a few simple rules.
The rumen is a living environment, which hosts the micro-flora, fungi and other organisms that actually work to break feed down so that it can be absorbed and used by the animal. Sudden changes in feed type, lack or roughage and reduced water intake can all create a situation where the environment of the rumen becomes unhealthy to the micro-flora and results in digestive upsets and illness.
Mostly the rumen remains fairly stable as livestock select diets that allow the rumen micro-flora to thrive and do their job of breaking down material for absorption and digestion. Problems start to arise when diets and rations are offered that create unhealthy rumen environments.
As mentioned before common issues are changes in feed types, particularly to including grains that have high levels of starch. It also occurs when fibre is lacking or if rations are less than the animal requires and as it becomes hungrier it eats plants that may contain toxins that can result in illness or death.
Poisoning is a risk that many producers have had to consider this year. Common issues have been weeds that have been eaten as hungry stock eat whatever they can chew. It also has been an issue as new weeds arrive in drought feeds. Stock may consume plants that are poisonous simply because they have never seen them before.
However the biggest issue has been with sorghum crops that have been grazed or cut for fodder. The cause has been either from Nitrate poisoning or from Prussic Acid.
What is Nitrate Poisoning?
Nitrogen is needs by plants for growth. They absorb nitrogen through the soil and root system. Young plants and leaves have high levels of nitrates as they are growing. However when plants are stressed or not growing at a rate that allows the nitrogen to be used, the plant stores this as nitrate. Some plants are more prone than others to do this (they are known as ‘nitrate accumulators’), but most plants will accumulate nitrates to some degree if stressed.
The issue for livestock is that when the material is eaten that Nitrate is converted to nitrite. This chemical change allows the nitrite to be quickly absorbed from digested feed into the blood system where it attaches to hemoglobin. These nitrites replace oxygen cells in the blood and cause rapid impacts on the animal.
Within 15-20 minutes symptoms like staggering, difficulty breathing, spasms and foaming at the mouth start to occur. Many affected animals will lie down while some may thrash about. I’ve had it described to me that the cattle looked drunk.
Its mainly sheep and cattle impacted in this way. Horses and pigs are less affected by nitrate because they don’t convert it to nitrite. If levels are high though, the nitrate can damage the lining of their gut.
According to a number of sources, most of the species commonly grazed in Australia can cause nitrate poisoning if stressed. These are species that include oats, sorghum, maize, sudan grass, Johnson grass, canola, lucerne, kikuyu, turnip and sugar beet tops, soybean, wheat, barley and a range of weeds.
It’s essential that you consider feed testing any fodder that you purchase to see what level of nitrate is in the feed. Ask a few questions from the vendor? Was it treated with a big application of fertilizer or manure? Was it stressed before bailing? These questions can help you decide if it is suitable to feed to livestock
Prussic acid is a major concern for producers who graze or rely on sorghum varieties for fodder. It is present in most sorghum, although some varieties will have lower levels.
At a chemical level within the plant, prussic acids exist as a non-poisonous chemical called Dhurrin. This chemical can react with another plant-based material known as Emulsion. Under the right conditions, these two materials will react and create Prussic Acid. It’s also known as Hydrocyanic Acid. In simplest terms this is Cyanide Poisoning!
Damage to the pant through mechanical impact, environmental stress, trampling and even insect damage results in the mixing of these materials and the release of Cyanide.
While sometimes this can evaporate from the plant, it doesn’t all disappear. It also means that further damage, such as harvesting, or grazing will result in more Cyanide being released.
The concern with Prussic Acid is its high level of toxicity. Feed Central suggests that amounts greater than 0.1 percent (1000 ppm or mg/kg) of plant dry matter is considered highly dangerous. Some levels from the Washington State University place that level even lower at 750 ppm.
The effect on animals is very similar to that of nitrate poisoning. The acid is readily absorbed into the bloodstream and it then attaches to the hemoglobin and displaces oxygen.
Since many producers look to graze or use sorghum forage there are some basic considerations to be factored into the decision making process. Remember that:
- Leaf blades normally contain higher levels than leaf sheaths or stems
- Younger (upper) leaves have more prussic acid than older leaves
- Tillers and branches (“suckers”) have the highest levels, because they are more leaf than stalk
Most sorghum should be grazed when they are more mature. Often this is over 3ft in height. As plants mature, there are more stalks than leaves in the overall plant causing prussic acid content in the plant as a whole to decrease.
With so much drought-affected crops its important to remember levels will be much higher as the pants are mostly leaves. Sorghum grown in drought may retain high levels of prussic acid, even if made into hay or silage.
My advice to all producers thinking about using or grazing sorghum is to get it tested first! Know the levels before you feed it out. There may be alternative uses to this feed.
If you do have concerns, or you want some more advice, then get in touch with me. Asking questions can save you a lot of risk and the potential of stock losses.
The search for roughage during a drought challenges many producers. Over many years, scrub and some native trees have become a ‘go to’ for producers seeking an alternative and cheap source of feed.
Many people have used scrub very successfully as part of their drought programs. However there are equally many occasions where results have been disappointing or have actually increased problems within the livestock program.
Image: ABC New England
So, just how good is scrub? I know many people will swear to the value of species such as Kurrajongs, Wilga or Native Apple. Mulga is an important species in the inland parts of the country.
However as with any feeding program, it’s never really that simple!
As can be seen in the table above, there is a fair bit of variation in the nutritional ranges of commonly fed species. Most species have an energy range of 7.5 MJ / Kg to 10.5MJ /kg. However in general the average is around 8.5MJ. In general its fair to say that the best-case scenario for scrub is that it is the equivalent of average quality hay. At these levels you really only expect scrub to provide maintenance levels of energy, provided your animals can eat enough each day!
The limitation for many scrub feeds is the level of Crude Protein (CP%). Many of the feeds that have been tested only provide enough CP to meet the maintenance requirements for dry animals. In practice this really means that if you are feeding to animals that are growing, pregnant or lactating, you will have to use a suitable protein supplement to meet these animals daily needs.
Not all stock will take to scrub. And not all scrub is as palatable as you might expect. It is important to use some local knowledge when looking at including scrub in your rations.
If you do start to use scrub, there are a few things to remember. Its important to try to use scrub that has a fair bit of leaf. Increasing twigs and small branches reduces animals overall intake of energy and protein. It also leads to risks of rumen impaction.
When working with producers who have had scrub in their programs, I’ve seen some useful tips. To educate your stock to scrub, start with small amounts close to watering points and stock camps. If needed you can spray a water molasses mix (2 parts molasses to 1 part water) onto the scrub.
When the stock recognize the sound of the saw, you should move away from these area and use trees and stands furthest from water. That way you can preserve the trees closer to water sources for when its hotter or if animals are weaker and won’t browse as far.
Impaction can be a real issue, particularly if there is not enough leaf material in the diet. Twigs can be an issue. Feeding molasses in troughs can help reduce this risk. Its also worth providing a supplement of ground limestone in the molasses mix at 1.5%. This will help maintain animals intakes of calcium.
Signs such as depressed appetite, no cud chewing or discomfort, often characterize impaction. You might notice animals groaning or even kicking their bellies.
Providing a protein supplement can also reduce the risk of impaction. A supplement will help stimulate rumen function and ensure material is digested more effectively. Suitable choices could be molasses and cottonseed meal (fortified molasses mix) or white cottonseed.
If you are cutting scrub, remember if you don’t cut enough, animals will be forced to eat more twigs and small branches. This can also increase the risk of impaction.
The final important consideration when feeding scrub is access to sufficient water. Stock must be able to access enough water each day. Reduced water intake can rapidly increase the risk of impaction, so water sources need to be clean as well as reliable.
Finally a couple of tips. Try to use only one species at a time. Otherwise stock might waste feed by choosing one species over the other. In hot weather you might have to feed more frequently than a typical 2-3 day program. Daily cutting might help avoid leaf loss as scrub dries out in the heat and becomes inaccessible to stock.
It is important to consider the way you cut and lop scrub. For regrowth its essential that you try not to cut too heavily, particularly preserving the trunk and major braches. Some foliage should be left to help the tree recover, ideally above stock browsing height. You should also really only lop a tree once a season to allow it to recover, although depending on the length of the drought, this period may be much longer.
Your own safety is vital! Climbing trees and using chainsaws are dangerous undertakings. When you are hot, tired or stressed the risk of injury is much greater. So consider ways to be safe. Can you do it early when its cool and you are not tired? Can you access a cheery picker or other method that means you don’t need to climb trees.
Keep thinking is there a SAFER way!
Finally after a few months, stock will lose their appetite for scrub. So I reckon it is important that your plan takes this into account. If you don’t know what the next phases might be, then why don’t you get in touch with me and we can work a plan out together.
Unfortunately cost isn’t actually an indicator of the feed value!
Feed value is actually determined by levels of energy; crude protein; digestibility, fibre and the amount of moisture contained in the feed. All these components contribute to the usefulness a particular feed has in meeting animals nutritional needs as well as impacting on the amount the animal can physically consume each day.
It’s actually pretty difficult to tell any of these things from a visual inspection. And while looking at a hay, or silage you might be able to have a guess it the digestibility of the plant when it was cut and the general moisture content, its only ever going to be a guess.
Over the past few months, many people have been full feeding their animals as the drought restricts paddock feed. A lot of these rations have been well planned and meet the various needs of the stock. However there are still plenty of rations put together on the basis of guess work! And by guessing some classes of stock are being underfed.
Obtaining a feed test is the most reliable way to determine the value of a feed. Its also is essential if you want to develop a ration that actually meets the needs of your stock.
Feed tests kits can be obtained through private companies or state departments of agriculture. Pretty much any feed can be tested. The kits will provide instructions regarding the amount you nee to collect to send away.
There are various levels of testing that you can request. For most situations, a standard evaluation is enough to give you the information that will help you know how useful your feed really is.
The things I look for include the following key components:
DRY MATTER (DM): All feeds contain some amount of moisture. This moisture has no nutritional value. When you prepare a ration, you need to allow for the water in the feed, and in many cases you will actually have to increase the physical or ‘as fed’ amount per animal to account for the moisture. If you don’t, your rations may end up being lower than what your stock need each day. Over a period of time, this can lead to significant underfeeding!
DRY MATTER DIGESTIBILITY: This explains as a percentage, how much of a feed your animals will be able to digest. Digestibility and energy are positively related, so having high levels of digestibility not only means your animals can use more of a feed, it also means that the energy levels of the feed are at a level that will meet their needs.
DRY ORGANIC MATTER DIGESTIBILITY: A further measure of digestibility is made on the organic matter of the feed. It is expressed as a percentage and again the higher the percentage, the higher value of the feed for animal production.
CRUDE PROTEIN: Crude Protein is expressed as a % of the Dry Matter. Crude Protein is essential for rumen function. Low levels will reduce the ability of a rumen population to effectively use a feed. For maintenance cattle require Crude Protein to be a minimum of 8%. Lower values may mean that you will need to add a protein source to your ration.
FIBRE: Fibre is an important part of a diet. Low levels of fibre can lead to digestive upsets. More commonly, in rations I’ve seen recently, fibre is often very high. High fibre not only lowers digestibility (and energy) but it will also reduce the amount of feed an animal will actually eat.
Fibre is measured by either; Acid Detergent Fibre (ADF) or Neutral Detergent Fibre (NDF). Acid Detergent Fibre (ADF) is a measurement of cellulose and lignin while
Neutral Detergent Fibre (NDF)is a measurement of hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin. Its possible to calculate how much of a feedstuff will be consumed by an animal by dividing 120 by the NDF.
Lower NDF figures will see your animals eat more, and so potentially achieve their needs more easily each day.
METABOLISABLE ENERGY (ME): The energy that an animal can actually use in its daily needs is refereed to as Metabolisable Energy (ME). It is expressed as Megajoules (MJ ME / kg of Dry matter). To maintain cattle the ME of a feed must be at least 8MJ. If a feed is below this level, you will need to add an energy source in order to achieve your stock requirements.
Knowing the levels of nutrient in your feed places you in a pretty powerful position! This knowledge will determine if the feed is suitable for the stock you are planning on feeding.
It will also help you determine the amount you need to feed. This information not only allows you to manage your animals more effectively.
It also means you will be using your feed more efficiently and getting the best return on the money you’ve spent to purchase it and feed it out!
Don't forget, you don't have to work these things out on your own. I'm always available to assist you with your feed tests, developing your rations or helping plan your strategies. If you want a hand, please don't hesitate to get in touch with me!
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
I’ve been working as an extension officer for both the NSW DPI and privately for almost a quarter of a century. I actually didn’t think it has been such a long time. However one of the benefits, if you can call it that, is I’ve seen and worked with producers through quite a few droughts.
Unlike other natural disasters that occur rapidly, drought is an insidious creeping event. And in my experience, droughts are a different type of disaster. Each drought impacts people in different ways and at different rates.
The onset of drought is one thing. How individuals respond to the onset will often determine how rapidly the drought has an impact on them.
To be fair, its important to remember that not all places, businesses and locations are the same. So some locations enter drought more quickly because of the combination of regional weather, soil, topography and time since the last drought.
As an advisor, I have worked with many producers to prepare for droughts. We have strategies and plans. There are business models we have developed to balance stocking rates with country. We have diversified and implemented development strategies to store feed and fodder and maintain or capture run off.
But there comes a point where even as well planned as you would hope to be, the drought catches up. And when that happens the focus isn’t on preparation, its on response and survival.
Almost all of my work now is in response and survival.
My difficulty is not response and survival, although that is a challenge. I’m actually struggling to deal more with the people who like to play the “I told you so” game.
In the past few weeks, I’ve seen three separate responses to drought that have left me a little dismayed. The first was from a corporate manager of a farm portfolio I consult to. Over the past 8 months the portfolio has responded with a strategy and with plans that have worked really well.
But like many other producers, this drought has gone beyond all forecasts and expectations. So now the plans need to be redrawn. And in the corporate world, despite regular briefings, the response I’ve had was that the drought can’t be blamed for poor farm performance this year and that the feed prices being paid should have been forecast.
Its taken the front page of the Sunday Telegraph to finally convince the corporation to appreciate the drought isn’t being made up.
At them same time I saw feedback from a farm business manager criticizing producers and the media for demanding a better response from the state government. This individual stated farming is a business and that this drought should be managed by businesses and not bailed out by taxes.
My final straw came this week. A Facebook post I shared was used by an individual to criticize producer’s drought strategies. My post, which was written to encourage producers to ask for help, to look for external input and to take care of themselves used an old image I had of cows being fed hay. Despite not knowing who the producer was, where it was taken or why the cows were being fed, the comments launched into a debate about stocking rates and drought preparedness.
I’ve been pretty shocked to have seen and experienced now this range of criticism and to a great extent lack of understanding about where things are now at for most producers.
The trouble is, these experiences are happening to lots of producers. So I wanted to share a response with you, and to remind you of a few things:
- Your plans were based on the advice, information and experiences you had access to.
- You’ve made responsible choices and decided to follow a plan
- You are a business person who has made choices appropriate to your position, skills and attitude to risk
The drought we are all facing is now unprecedented. So now the next steps are to re-evaluate and re-plan. Your plans will all be different and individual.
Finally I think sharing your stories are important. Don’t forget to share how you prepared for this, what you did to manage and minimize the impact. Awareness is the first step in understanding. And for people not living in drought, or who are quick to criticize, maybe its just they aren’t aware.
As I wrote at the start, this drought has impacted people in different ways and at different times. So don’t let the comments of the “I told you so” brigade impact on you. Instead reflect on what you’ve done and share what you will do.
Don’t forget to keep looking after yourself and your family. Drop over and see the neighbors. And try and take a little break away. Even a weekend away can be a huge boost. Lastly don’t judge. We are all doing this one together.
Drought conditions continue to extend across eastern Australia. Unlike many other events, droughts are progressive. Not all properties enter drought in the same way or at the same time. At the same time, recovery from drought is often variable, depending on the strategies and the management of individuals throughout the drought.
Drought plans need to be responsive and change to adapt to the conditions. There are some important things in a drought plan. These are the critical dates of events – be it calving or lambing; shearing and joining for next year. There are also some critical trigger points. These can be the amount of water available; feed reserves; and importantly the enterprise budget. How much money should you use to feed vs. a decision to sell and buy back in later on?
Right now, many herds have commenced calving. This is a critical time in the annual calendar of any herd. In drought conditions, it is one of the most critical events.
When cows calve, their energy requirements double. This energy is needed to produce sufficient milk to support their calf. However in many instances, cows cannot eat enough energy to meet those needs. So cows will often lose weight in early lactation.
The flow on effect of weight loss is a delay in the return to oestrus. Cows in an average fat score (Fat Score 3) take on average 50 days to return to oestrus. In an ideal world this allows the cow to heat cycles to rejoin and so meet a production target of a calf produced every 12 months.
However if fat scores are lower than average (Fat Score 2) and below, the length of time to return to oestrus extends. This sees calving spread out beyond 12 months.
In drought, most cows are already in low condition scores. The on going risk is these cows will struggle to join successfully in spring, without the added pressure of high-energy demands from raising a calf.
Over the long term recovery from drought is dependent on cash flow and resuming normal operations as soon as possible. For many beef producers lower fertility levels that are a direct result of cow condition during the drought period often compromise this recovery.
So what are the practical things producers can do? Here are a few strategies that could be considered in most drought plans.
Ensure your feeding program matches your cows needs and paddock conditions: Almost all feeding programs are now taking place where paddock feed is less than 1000kg DM/Ha. In these situations, protein supplements like roller drums are not only ineffective but a waste of money and time for you. More significantly these supplements do not address the limiting requirement of energy!
Draft cows into similar groups based on Fat Score; Weight and Production Status: Cow intake is driven by their liveweight and production status. So drafting cattle into mobs based on these factors will allow you to feed them more appropriate levels of an energy based supplement.
Dry cows will eat less than lactating cows, so it’s worth considering drafting lactating cows into their own groups so they can achieve the nutritional levels they require.
Plan ahead to early wean: For many people talking about weaning even before calving has ended might be a crazy suggestion! However if the season doesn’t improve, early weaning could be a very good strategy to reduce feeding levels of the cow herd. In other words dry cows need less feed, and you could feed them at a lower level. At the same time early weaning would allow you to manage your calf growth and keep them on track for market targets rather than suffering low growth from low levels of milk production. Successful early weaning needs to be planned, as you need to consider rations, space in yards and on going health programs.
Ultimately now is a critical time that needs you to refocus your efforts and make sure you are getting the most effective use from your available resources. If you are not sure or want a hand, you can always ask me to come out and help you draw up a new focus to your program.
When I was commencing my agricultural degree, one of the subjects we were required to study was agricultural paradox. The best description I have seen of a paradox involves contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time. I guess we see that a lot in agriculture. Situations that are incredibly important for one sector of the industry are detrimental to another.
I think drought feeding is a paradox that many producers are grappling with right now. In the first instance the greatest challenge for most producers who have chosen to feed stock is affording and sourcing feed in sufficient quantities for their stock. There’s no doubt this is a huge challenge and an increasingly difficult one.
On the other hand, I think full hand feeding is much less complicated than supplementary feeding to address quality gaps.
Why do I think it is less complicated? Supplementary feeding involves addressing a specific deficiency in pasture. Generally it’s about “topping up” protein to stimulate rumen activity. This leads to increased intake and may require a ration readjustment to add in energy as feed is consumed. To carry out a supplementary feeding program effectively requires constant monitoring and adjustment to meet changes in pasture and livestock needs and matching those to feed suitability.
Drought feeding, or full hand feeding is less complicated in many ways as the focus is on providing a complete ration. So the choice is really down to providing energy for daily animal needs, balanced with protein to ensure adequate rumen function. When there is no pasture left, full hand feeding can focus entirely on these issues and it is much more straightforward to manage.
Most of my work in the last month has been to provide advice to producers who are now implementing full drought feeding. There are a few common themes emerging that are important to share.
- Full feeding is about energy first. Energy has to be balanced with protein. Feeds should be chosen on the basis of energy. The more energy described as Metabolisable Energy (ME) per kilogram of feed the more efficient it will be to feed livestock.
- Protein supplements such as dry licks; blocks and roller drums are not designed for drought feeding. These products are designed to provide protein in situations of abundant dry feed. Quite simply these products can’t provide the energy your stock need each day. If there is little or no paddock feed then you are wasting money
- Feed should be compared on ME / kg / Dry Matter. Not all feeds are the same. If you are feeding products with low ME values, or low Dry Matter (DM) values, you will have to provide higher total daily amounts to achieve the same outcome compared to higher ME valued feeds or feeds with different DM levels.
- Test all feeds before you use them! Feed values vary enormously. A feed test is a very quick way to check the energy levels, protein levels and fibre of a product. All of these will determine how much you need to provide to each animal. Never assume that something is the same as the last load! And don’t rely on your nose or fingers! I don’t think its possible to smell energy or protein!
- Don’t guess how much to feed! There are easy ways to determine how much your animals need to eat every day. If you want help please ask me, or your own advisor. Make your calculations on those amounts. Then weigh out that amount so you know. A shovel full varies from place to place!! And don’t get me started on a bucket size! If you are going to feed at least be accurate.
- Check your feed choice is actually suitable for your stock! I’ve seen recommendations lately from some sources that are incorrect and could lead to animal deaths. There are well-published guides on feeding animals products that range from grain, to hay, silage and white cottonseed. If you haven’t used a product before, do some homework.
- Get advice from qualified experts. Not everyone really knows how to feed stock. What was acceptable in the drought of the 1960s may no longer be relevant, safe or even available now!
- Lastly don’t waste your feed! I’ve seen paddocks where stock have been fed hay and cattle and sheep are trampling on it, sleeping on it and covering it with dung. We know this level of waste can be about 30 – 35% of your daily feeding amount. So can you really afford to waste that much feed?
Droughts test your resilience and it’s important that you make sure to stop and reassess your position. Good plans need reevaluation. While drought feeding is straight forward, you need to check your feeds and amounts are correct for your stock. This is vital as animals go through production changes such as calving or when the season changes. Wet cold winter weather can have a huge impact and you need to be prepared.
Finally, if you think you need some advice, don’t hesitate to ask for it. I’ve been working with producers across NSW and into QLD over recent months. So while I am out and about its very easy to for me to come and spend some time looking at what you are doing and then talk through ideas and offer some reassurance and the chance to make sure you are doing ok.
One of the most common questions I'm being asked is "how much should I be feeding my cows?" The strengthening drought conditions have seen an increase in people commencing feeding programs for their cattle. Part of a feeding program is working out how much feed you need to meet your livestock requirements.
The other key part of a program is working out your budget and the length of time you are prepared to feed stock. Ideally you should be thinking about windows to sell stock off, either to processors or to restockers in areas unaffected by drought. In most cases these destinations can't take stock immediately, and by booking them in for sale now, at least you have a timeline for feeding.
So when should you start feeding your cattle? And most importantly how much should you be feeding them?
Once your pasture has fallen below 1200kg / Dry Matter (DM) / Ha your cattle need to be fed. As I've written in these posts before, once pasture is at or below this amount, feeding with protein supplements is both ineffective and wasteful.
At this stage of pasture, you should be concentrating on feeding your cattle to meet their daily energy requirements. This means choosing and providing a feed which is suitable and capable of providing the energy your animals need.
So how do you work out the energy levels of the feeds you might choose? There are a couple of ways. The most accurate is to take a sample and send it for analysis. The results will provide you with the energy levels in Mega Joules (MJ) of Metabolisable Energy (ME) as well as Crude Protein (CP%). You can ask for other test results, but these two are the most important.
The other option is to refer to standard ranges for feeds which have already been tested. These will give you a guide and can help identify suitable feeds for a program. You can find these ranges on the NSW DPI website under Nutritive values of feeds (database).
Establishing the energy levels of the feed is the first step. The second is to determine the amount you need to feed per head, per day. The easiest option is to use this chart, which can be downloaded from the NSW DPI website.
To use this chart all you will need is a ruler, and to know both the average weight of your cows and the energy levels of the feed you intend to use.
When you know the weight of your cattle and the energy of the feed, draw a line from the weight through the feed and to the feed amount on the right hand side of the chart.
This will give you the amount of feed your cattle will require per head per day. You will need to allow for the moisture in the feed. You do this by multiplying the amount you have worked out off the chart by 100. You then divide that figure by the Dry Matter to give yourself the daily as fed amount for your stock.
Depending on the class of stock you are feeding, you may need to adjust the as fed levels. For instance a cow which is 6 months pregnant will need her daily ration increased by 20%; at 8 months pregnant its an increase of 40% and a lactating cow its an increase of 60%.
Taking the time to work out the amount of feed you need per head per day to meet your cattle's energy requirements is essential if you are to feed cattle properly. Depending on the feed you select, you may need to consider options such as how to feed it out, how to store it and if it is the most cost effective feed option available to you.
Doing some homework first will pay off in the longer term particularly if you can use it to calculate a program based on time and budget.
Reducing cow numbers is a fundamental strategy in many producers drought management plans. People talk about getting down to their core breeders, but what makes a cow part of the core breeding group?
In an ideal world, I reckon every cow in your herd should be considered a core breeder! However not all cows in a herd are the same, and not all of the cows you own will have the traits or production qualities you should seek to retain.
So where do you start? I reckon the first selection process is to identify the cows which are not in calf.
Preg testing your cows, particularly in drought at least allows you to identify animals which need to go.
Preg testing shouldn't be just about identifying the non pregnant females. Yes its a good start in identifying the first to go. But if you are looking to identify a core group of females to keep, you should use your preg test results to inform that selection.
With preg testing you should seek to identify the early, mid and late pregnant females. Early pregnant females are most likely the more fertile females and this is a trait producers should select for.
Ultra sound preg testing is a very efficient way of identifying pregnancy and the stage of pregnancy. The producers I have worked with have been able to start making some plans around the fertility levels in their herds.
While pregnancy status is vital to identifying productive females, its not the only thing to consider in your search for a core breeder!
In each cows history, how maternal has she actually been? Has she successfully raised a calf each year? How heavy have those calves been at weaning? Fertility is one thing, but its only completed if the cow can raise the calf through to weaning.
Fertility and maternal traits are key attributes of a core breeding female. However there are other characteristics which producers should include as they choose which females to retain.
What maturity pattern have you identified as the optimum for your environment? Are there cows which are too early or too late maturing? If they don't fall into the optimum then they might not be as close to the core group as other cows.
What are the production traits of the females you are assessing? Which have the better growth traits, the best muscularity, and which are the more structurally sound animals? These are traits which are ideal to retain in a herd and can ad to a profitable enterprise as you rebuild after the drought.
How old are your cows? If they are towards the end of their productive life, they may not be essential as core breeders? What traits do they have in regards to health status?
Finally what are the other important traits to you? I reckon you can never underestimate traits such as temperament!
We know temperament is highly heritable, and has a major influence on eating quality as well as your safety in the yards!
Are there any other traits you need to retain in your herd? If there are, then ask yourself are these specific only to your herd, or can you replace those traits with other cows later on.
You have to be honest with yourself! If you have average maturity cows with average muscle scores, average growth and are just cows, then you can be pretty confident you can replace those with similar or better cows down the track.
If it is coming down to choosing cows to retain as core breeders, then any cows which fail to meet any of these traits shouldn't be considered as core breeders.
In a drought such as this, the core breeding herd should be the most fertile, productive cows with the best structure, temperament, age, maturity pattern and productive traits which will allow you to plan a rebuilding program around.
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