The impact of cold weather on your livestock isn’t to be underestimated. So far this July we have already seen several strong cold fronts sweep across southern and eastern Australia. These fronts have been accompanied by strong winds, snow and sleet and then days of intense frosts.
These events have a big impact on your livestock. The demand to stay warm requires extra energy. At present the intense drought conditions mean many livestock are low in body condition and surviving on minimal rations. The combination of low body reserves and reduced energy intake means your stock is less able to cope with the cold, and at greater risk of dying.
How does cold affect your cattle?
We often assume cattle can cope with cold conditions more easily than other species like sheep. However, cattle can be just as impacted by the cold as any other species. As a warm-blooded animal, cattle have a normal temperature of 380C. Under most circumstances cattle can cope with some temperature fluctuations without needing to expend too much extra energy. As the season changes they grow thicker coats, and in periods of cold weather they change their grazing patterns to find shelter.
However this behaviour can only go so far. If temperatures fall to what is known as the ‘lower critical temperature” your cattle will start to be cold stressed. To cope they start to require more energy to stay warm. And in this situation they need to have more energy in their diets.
Some research by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture in Canada identified the differing levels of lower critical temperature, depending on cattle coat thickness. These levels do vary depending on coat thickness.
Lower Critical Temperature
Summer coat or wet coat
Heavy winter coat
These temperatures don’t take into account the impact of wind speed. Wind has the biggest impact on the lower critical temperature. This can be seen below
Looking at the table, if the wind was only 8km /hour on a 40c Day, the actual air temperature is really 10C.
This is close to the Lower Critical Level for cattle with a dry winter coat. But a wet coat after rain means your animals are at real risk of cold stress.
Cold and wet conditions have a massive impact on sheep programs. At greatest risk are lambs that are often unable to cope with the impact of cold weather. Rain and moisture significantly increases the risk of mortality. As with cattle, sheep manage to cope to some degree with cold by changing behaviour and seeking shelter. They also have a fleece that will offer some protection.
However its important not to overestimate how effective a fleece may be. The table below highlights the Lower Critical Temperatures of Sheep
Lower Critical Temperature (ºC)
5-mm fleece (fixed)
As with cattle, when wind speed increases, the impact on Lower Critical Temperature is much greater. And for lambs with no fleece and a large surface area and low body mass, their energy loss is very high.
Managing the Risk
In practical terms it's impossible to avoid cold fronts. However we can manage for them. The options that are available to help your stock cope with cold conditions include:
- Increasing rations ahead of the cold front: Hay is a very good option to increase a ration. It is more slowly digested and the process of digestion helps stock stay warmer as well as getting more energy. However it’s no good just offering a bit! You need to increase your rations by 10 – 20%. If your stock are light in condition or slick coated cattle I’d definitely be increasing to 20% ahead of and during the cold period.
- Provide shelter. Breaking the wind speed up can have a dramatic effect on improving conditions for your stock. Moving them to sheltered paddocks that have trees and shrubs that break up the wind will be vital. There are plenty of well proven strategies and studies that show the role shelter has in livestock survival
- Longer term, consider developing shelterbelts and wind breaks to moderate the wind across the farm. You certainly can’t grow shelter over night, so in the short term consider what other options you have to shelter your stock.
Cold fronts often only last for a few days, and with adequate warning you can prepare your stock to cope with the challenge. It is important to make your plans happen when the fronts are forecast. Don’t leave it to the day of the windy and snow to start doing something. Often moving stock in those conditions makes it worse not better! Pre preparation is everything to give your stock a chance!
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
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.
Every now and then I’m asked for some advice on new ways of feeding cattle. With the drought extending its impact across NSW, those requests are much more frequent. Most requests are generally pretty straightforward. But there are always one or two requests that need a bit more of a response beyond feeding rates and methods.
One of those more challenging requests for advice comes when people ask me about the benefit of feeding sprouted grain to cattle. You may have seen this system somewhere. It involves soaking grain on trays and allowing it then to sprout and grow for about 5 days. The sprouted grain is then taken off the trays and feed to cattle.
On the surface it seems like a pretty good way to feed cattle. Promoters of these systems will tell you that they can turn 1kg of grain into 6 to 9 kilograms of green feed. Again that sounds pretty impressive, and almost too good to be true. To make it seem even more exciting, you’ll probably be told it’s the cheapest way to feed cattle.
Well, the simple fact is, when something is too good to be true, there is generally a catch. And in the case of these sprouted grain systems, there are quite a few!
The first big catch comes in the form of the feed you are providing. Quite simply if you do sprout 9kgs of feed from 1kg of grain, you don’t actually have 9kgs of useable feed! Most of that weight is made up of water in the plant. And water has no nutritional value! There is no energy or protein in water.
In fact the Dry matter percentage (DM%) of most sprouted grains ranges from as low as 6% to 15%. So if you’ve produced 9kgs of spouted feed with a 15% Dry Matter, what your animals really get to eat is 1.35kgs of feed.
It’s not a lot of feed really! In fact all you’ve done is taken 1kg of feed and marginally increased the amount that you have to feed stock.
The second catch comes from the quality of the feed you have produced. Some very neat work by the QDPI on the use of sprouted grains summarized the research work done to compare shed sprouted grains, grasses and grain. The interesting thing comparing say sprouted barley against barley grain, apart from the spouted being so low in DM%, was that the Metabolisable Energy (ME) of the sprouted grain was lower than the cereal grain. Crude Protein % was a little higher in the spouted grain.
If you are wondering how that is a catch, its really quite simple. In a drought we are looking to provide energy to stock in the cheapest way. Feeds that are higher in energy are more useful to feed. To be economic in a feeding program its more ideal to provide higher or more energy dense feeds. This basically means you can feed smaller rations but still meet animal requirements.
Lower levels of energy mean you need to feed a little more. Combine that with the impact of low DM%, and the actual amount you need to physically feed each ay can become pretty significant.
I decided to compare this scenario through the NSW DPI Drought Feeds Calculator. To make it simple I decided to compare feeding 10 cows for a month on either sprouted grain or normal cereal grain with the addition of roughage for rumination.
To make it more relevant, I used the figures given to me by a producer who told me he buys grain to sprout for $70 /tn. I compared it to barley at $310 /tn, which is what one of my clients paid this week.
The amount and cost of feeding spouted grain (without the labor cost added) for 30 days to feed 10 cows can be seen in this summary
Basically to allow for the Dry Matter of the sprouted feed, you would need to grow just over 31kgs of feed per animal. That would cost you $2.18 / day and for a month you would need to spend around $650.
This compares to feeding grain. While the cost of feed barley is much higher (as per the quotes I’ve been given) it is in the long run a much cheaper option.
The first thing that should jump out when you look at these comparisons is the difference in the amount you need to feed. The difference of 4.8kgs of grain compared to 31kgs. This then translates into a cheaper daily cost per head, and a significant difference in your monthly feed bill!
However, the comparison needs to go a lot further. To feed grain you do need to consider how to introduce it, to feed it either in self-feeders or in troughs each day. There is some labor in feeding!
The QDPI work also considered the cost of labor to produce sprouted grain. The systems can be very labour intensive (although some systems are automated). However to make sprouted grain work there is a range of tasks from loading grain into the soaking solution, making the nutrients; outing grian into trays, checking growth, cleaning old trays out and then actually feeding the sprouts to the livestock!
The report suggested that it takes between 2 – 4 hours to produce 1,000kg of sprouted grain, which in reality is about 150 – 200kg of feed for cattle.
The cost of your time is a huge factor to include when considering these systems. Based on the sums I did earlier; 1,000kg of sprouted feed would meet the needs of about 32 adult dry cows. That’s a lot of time to feed a small number of animals.
Finally the report considered the actually cost of producing the sprouted grain. Most systems require a sizeable shed (which is often something you have to build first) and install the hydroponic system to sprout the grain. You’ll still need silos to store grain anyway. On top of this are the running costs as well as the cost of grain and considerations such as repairs and maintenance. The QDPI team calculated it costs around $92 to produce about 800kg of sprouts. On a dry matter basis, that’s $92 for 96kg DM.
That’s a pretty high figure to include in your comparisons!
I think its important to also ask if there is any difference in the performance of animals that are fed on sprouted grain compared to grain. If there were significant advantages, well I guess it would help explain the attraction of the system. Sadly it appears that there’s really no significant benefit from feeding sprouted grain.
So what does it mean! Feeding cattle is a costly, time consuming exercise. If its not planned well, costs quickly blow out! You need to choose a system that is cost efficient and provides the best balance of energy and protein without incurring huge costs. Its better to fed less of higher quality than more of average quality. Equally important is not spending a lot of time and effort producing a product that really offers no nutritional advantage!
Droughts are tiring and difficult. Checking cattle, assessing feed, moving stock, checking water, well you know the things you need to do every day. I don’t think adding 2 to 4 hours work into the day to produce a product that is ultimately no better nutritionally but much more expensive makes much sense.
Perhaps for small numbers or for a specific purpose it may suit your program. But for the producer looking to efficiently feed a large number of cattle appropriately, I don’t think its an economic option.
Ultimately you need to run your numbers. Just remember that when you do, you need to take out the water component! Compare the feeds on their value and Dry Matter. Then you’ll know if it’s a system for you.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been visiting a lot of clients. We’ve been looking at new pastures, and discussing how to manage livestock on lush green pasture. As well as discussing the importance of vaccinations for clostridial disease, there are other things to consider.
One of the topics we have had to consider is the role of fibre in the diet. Fibre is something we often don’t think too much about. I reckon we overlook fibre, as in most cases we probably take it for granted! After all, plants contain fibre in their physical make up, so I suppose we assume livestock are getting sufficient quantities in their daily diet.
You might ask, why is fibre important anyway?
Fibre plays a very important role in keeping a rumen healthy and functioning. And in livestock production, a healthy functioning rumen is directly related to production and performance.
The intake of fibre fulfills a few roles in the diet. The first is to encourage the development of saliva. Saliva is developed through the chewing and rumination of feed. Saliva does more than just making your cows slobber!
More importantly saliva helps keep the rumen from becoming too acidic. Rumen microbes prefer a pH level of around 6.2 – 6.6 for most effective activity. Saliva has a pH of around 8.0, so its slightly alkaline, and it also contains some naturally occurring buffers.
In healthy cattle, rumen pH does fluctuate quite a lot in a 24-hour period. It’s not unusual for pH to drop as low as 5.5 for a few hours before recovering. This drop can be caused particularly be eating lush feeds, silages or grains that are all low in fibre. The high digestibility and low fibre content of feeds may mean that a cow doesn’t need to chew and ruminate as much. This reduces the saliva production and allows the rumen pH to drop.
As the rumen pH drops, bacteria such as Step Bovis rapidly increase. This bacteria is an acid producing bacteria and this also adds to the acidification of the rumen. If the rumen can’t buffer the impact of the acid build up, the rumen will shut down. If the pH level is below 5.2 you will notice the animal. It will appear physically ill, have scours and if not treated could die.
In grazing situations, particularly on lush pasture, animals can suffer from acidosis without being easily recognised. This occurs when pH fluctuates between 5.2 and 5.6. Your cattle many not appear sick, but they will eat and produce less.
So what does this mean in practical terms? For livestock managers your target should be for your animals to have around 30% of their daily intake of dry matter as fibre. In most pasture situations, this will occur without you needing to do much at all.
However in seasons where you have young, lush pastures that are low in fibre, you should consider adding some fibre to the diet. You can do this by providing access to hay in feeders, or by allowing cattle access to more mature grass pastures. This will allow stock to consume adequate fibre to manage their diet. Cattle that have access to the right amount of fibre will produce more than 180 litres of saliva a day, which really helps manage the acid levels in the rumen.
The other role fibre plays in the rumen is called the roughage effect. It’s basically the natural reaction of the rumen walls to the scratching of the material the animal has eaten. As the feed presses on the walls, it seems to trigger the rumen to contract and expand, which basically helps the rumen churn the feed around, and allow the bacteria a better chance to break the feed down and release the energy and protein within the feed to be absorbed by the digestive system.
I reckon the rumen is an amazing organ. However, knowing a little bit more about its needs will help you manage your pastures and your livestock more efficiently and effectively. So if you are looking out over some lush green feed, think about the need to include some fibre. If you’re not sure about how much fibre there is in the feed, why don’t you take a feed sample and send it off?
A feed test will tell you the Neutral Detergent Fibre (NDF) of your sample. NDF is the measurement of the amounts of hemicellulose, cellulose, lignin and ash in plant material. Basically it is the digestible and indigestible fibre in a feed. As a guide you would want to make sure the NDF value is higher than 25% and for dairy cattle it should be up to 40%. If it is less than this in your feed sample I would think you should be actively supplying hay or allowing access to another form of fibre.
It won’t take long to bring your rumen back on line, particularly if your cows can ruminate and produce enough saliva each day. So when you manage fibre you will find a happy rumen and more importantly productive livestock.
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