Rayner Reckons

Sep 21

Are you feeding enough?

Posted on Friday, September 21, 2018

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

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.

Sep 05

Have you really considered what you are feeding?

Posted on Wednesday, September 05, 2018

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

Pumpkins

Potatoes

Grape Marc

Bread

Orange Pulp

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.

Protecting Yourself

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 DoneA 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 

Jul 13

Critical decisions for your cows

Posted on Friday, July 13, 2018

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.

 

Jun 13

Some drought feeding tips

Posted on Wednesday, June 13, 2018

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.  

Feb 21

Water has no nutritional value!

Posted on Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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.

Sep 30

Have your cows got enough fibre?

Posted on Friday, September 30, 2016

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 salivaSaliva 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.

Dec 11

A few tips on fodder

Posted on Friday, December 11, 2015

I have to say I really do like fodder conservation.  To me being able to conserve pasture or crops and use it to top up a feed shortfall later on makes a lot of sense.  Storing fodder can also be a pretty cost effective way to undertake supplementary feeding when you compare it to purchasing other supplements and transporting them to the farm.  In my mind I like options that offer a chance to be more efficient and utilize on farm resources first, so making hay or conserving silage is always something I get a bit excited about.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 20 years talking to farmers about getting the most from their hay or from their silage.  Even though both silage and hay are commonly fed on farms throughout Australia, I’ve found that farmers don’t always consider the best ways to use these options in their programs.  So I thought it’s definitely worth spending some time to touch up a few basics on fodder, how to use it and things to keep in mind when you do use it to support your livestock.

I reckon it’s worth starting by asking you why you might choose conserve fodder? There are I guess two approaches to fodder conservation.  The first is to specifically prepare a crop or pasture to harvest and store as either silage or hay.  The other approach tends to be more of an opportunity to use excess pastures or a failed crop as a fodder source.  At least that way the resource isn’t totally wasted and you can get some use from it.

The difference in these two approaches is important.  Like anything, good quality hay or silage is the result of hard work.  If you have prepared your fodder source for harvesting – say growing a lucerne crop to make hay or silage, it will be of higher quality and have greater feed value than you might expect from pasture hay or silage.

So my first tip is if you are going to make hay or silage, the better the quality of the feed, the better the quality of fodder you will have.  It’s important to remember that the higher the quality of a fodder animal performance will also be better.  If you want to look at the economics, its actually much cheaper in the long run to make better quality fodder because the return you get in animal performance pays for its production. 

My second tip in regards to making fodder is to check the economics first.  I know I said a minute ago that conserving fodder on farm is often a cost effective strategy.  Well it is if you do it right.  That means again thinking about the quality of the fodder you are making.  If you are going to use a low quality feed source, so something that is low in digestibility, has a lot of dead leaf or stem and seed head as its main bulk then fodder you are making might not be worth much as a feed source, and so could really be a waste of time feeding it.  Or if you do use it, it might need another supplement to accompany it. 

All this means you need to plan your fodder making.  Consider what you will use and how much it will cost you to make it.  And what will you do with it when you have made it.  If you can answer these questions with a positive response then go with it. 

I think its really important not to overstate the capacity of fodder you are making.  Cutting a pasture or crop for hay or silage doesn’t automatically make it a magic feed!  If it is poor quality before you cut it, then it will be a poor quality fodder and so you have to recognize that before you get disappointed and complain about the process!

I have a few other tips to consider if you are making hay or silage.  Make sure you cut your intended feed source at the right stage of growth.  The more mature plants become, the less digestible they will be.  This means there will be lower energy values per kilogram of feed and as a result will be less valuable as a feed. 

Now I can spend a long time talking specifics about making hay or silage.  Instead what I will say is that for either form of fodder conservation you need to make sure you follow best practice by allowing the cut feed to wilt or cure before you bale it or collect it for storage as pit silage.  Its really important you work t the best practice as the longer you leave a cut feed source on the ground drying out, the more chance you have of having the feed you have grown loss its quality through decay.  You really need to get it baled, wrapped or stored properly as soon as you can.

I guess the big thing is to not expect your conservation methods to improve the feed you’ve decided to make into hay or silage.  Remember its only ever going to be as good as it was when you cut it.  And if you are a bit casual about the process of making it into hay or silage, well you’ll probably make it worse!

You should also think about what else could potentially be going into the bales you are making.  One of the big causes of livestock deaths is due to botulism.  Botulism is a disease caused by Clostridial bacteria and produces a toxin that can kill livestock very quickly.  The bacteria spores that cause the disease germinate in moist, low-oxygen environments such as rotting carcasses or decaying organic material. 

Most cattle deaths from Botulism are a result of ingesting preformed bacteria and toxins.  This can happen when cattle chew bones they may find in paddocks.  But it is often common in intensive situations like dairies and feedlots.  It’s a result of a decaying animal carcass being included in a role of hay or silage. 

So have a think about what might be in the paddock.  If you have any dead animals that might be in the paddock then it’s probably an idea to dispose of it rather than let it decay and potentially end up in a fodder bale.  You might want to drag it to another part of the farm to be buried or if its safe for burning.  Either way just leaving it to decay could put your fodder and more importantly your livestock at risk. 

Botulism can also be caused by poorly made silage.  It’s really important if you are making silage to minimize air pockets in wrapped bales and to seal pits well.  Rotting organic matter, which happens when air can access the material can create the right environment for the Botulism bacteria to produce.  In silage it’s often an issue if silage hasn’t reached adequate acid levels of pH 4.5 or less. This occurs when the level of soluble sugar in grass is insufficient to produce the acid necessary to preserve the silage. 

This means your harvesting is important, but also you want to make sure you plants are at the right stage of growth and you don’t leave it to wilt to long because the sugars will burn off.  At worst you can make it possible for botulism to occur, and at best you’ve just made an expense mulch or compost, and that really isn’t what you wanted to make!

The other thing to consider about hay and particularly silage is that if you bale up unwanted weeds, the preservation process wont destroy the viability of the weed seeds.  So don’t think you can use silage or hay to destroy weeds.  If it’s hot enough to destroy weed seeds your fodder is at risk of catching alight!  At the other end, if you are feeding a fodder that may have weeds in it, then Id suggest you be prepared for weed seeds to be capable of establishing a new foothold on you pastures.

That really brings me to one my last points about feeding out hay or silage.  Just remember the time, effort and money it took you to grow the feed, to cut it, bale it and store it.  Every kilogram of feed you make has a dollar value.  So don’t waste it when you feed it to your livestock.

There is nothing that frustrates me more than seeing a round bale dumped on the ground with half the feed being trampled into the mud, dunged on and ruined before it can be eaten.  Some really good research is available that shows how much hay you waste by feeding it on the ground. 

In general wastage is anywhere from 11% to 34% of the amount you are feeding.  The research say that the more hay you put out, the more you waste!  So if you dump a 200kg bale of hay or silage in front of your cows you can expect that around 60kgs will just be wasted. 

If you add the wasted hay or silage up over a 3-month period, you’ll work out just how much money you have thrown away. 

My feeding suggestions are to put your hay or silage into racks so that cattle or sheep can access it easily without wasting it by trampling, laying or crapping all over it!  If you are worried about weeds, especially if it’s a bought in fodder source, in that case I reckon you should try and confine feeding to a few selected paddocks.

The last thing, I guess its more just to reinforce my point about feed quality, is to make sure you know what you are feeding and adjust your livestock feeding program accordingly!  If you have made it form the best feed source you could grow, you preserved it and stored it well then you can expect your livestock to get excellent value from it.  But if you made it from a more ordinary pasture or crop, then you need to adjust your expectations accordingly.

If you do buy in hay or silage, ask questions about the feed.  I think its worth sending a sample away for testing for feed quality and then you will know for certain exactly what the energy and protein levels are.  I think it wont hurt to do that with your own fodder as well.  A test will help you set some benchmarks for your standard of production as it is.

If you are buying in fodder, especially silage, I’d also think about vaccinating your cattle against Botulism.  If you don’t know what’s in a bale, then it’s a good idea to protect your cattle before they start eating the feed.

Oct 08

How much nutritional wisdom do your cows have?

Posted on Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Have you ever heard someone state categorically that "animals know what they need to eat"?  I hear claims like this quite often.  In general I hear statements like this when we are discussing supplementary feeding programs, in particular the need for adding minerals and trace elements.

There's no doubt animals need minerals and some trace elements for their well being.  In general animals obtain the minerals and elements they require as part of their daily feed intake.

In most circumstances the feed cattle eat each day has enough of minerals and trace elements to satisfy the animals needs.  

There is another way cattle obtain them in their diet.  Thats through the soil.  I remember being told in a lecture from a vet that cattle eat roughly about 1kg of soil a day!

It makes sense when you think about it.  If plants are pulled out from the soil during grazing, some soil will make its way inside!!  Fortunately it comes out in the dung!

In that process cattle can access some of the minerals that may not be available form the feed itself. 

Having said all that, there are times when the plants or the soil can't supply the minerals and elements cattle need.  

So, do cattle know they need to have these minerals and elements, and will they actively search for them?  Many people say that cattle will do this.  They use plenty of examples to demonstrate this position.  

In my experience and from many years working with researchers, I'm not so sure.  I reckon my position is best summed up in this picture.

More recent research suggests that animals will look for particular minerals, but only when they have been deliberately depleted of that mineral and when the deficiency is major.  It seems that when the deficiency is minor, the animals don't know they are missing it and don't go looking for it!  

So what does this mean for producers designing feeding programs?  I reckon it means that in the short term, deficiencies are not recognised by animals, and you can't expect them to go and eat a supplement to correct the problem.  If you do want them to eat something, its more likely they will go to something they are used to eating, suck as a block.  This is why sulphur blocks work quite well on some forage crops.  

In the long term, deficiencies like calcium and phosphorus seem to be felt more by the animal.  In these longer term deficiencies, animals do seem to look for options to address the absence of these minerals. This is when cattle will lick the soil, and in many cases chew bones. 

While its easy to think they know that chewing bones is a result of nutritional wisdom, most researchers think its more likely that they do it because it makes them feel better.  

There is one big exception to this!  And its the need for sodium, in other words, the need for some salt.  

We know there are some specific metabolic needs that will trigger the animals brain to crave salt.  When this happens you will see cattle licking the ground or looking for salt deposits.  

It was actually this behaviour that first made people think cattle possessed nutritional wisdom.

So what does this mean at a practical level?  I reckon the first thing is to realise your animals are not smart enough to choose their specific mineral needs in the short term.  Its up to you to monitor your animals and ensure they are not deficient.  

You also need to think of how you supply your animals needs.  Don't rely on the animals to pick and choose.  If there is a deficiency in your animals intake, then design a program that will actually correct it quickly and effectively.  In the long run it will be much more cost effective.

I reckon the final thing is don't have a guess! If you're not sure about your cattle and their nutritional needs, get some advice.  If you don't have nutritional wisdom, just remember your cows can't tell you what they need either!


Feb 17

Working out how much to feed cattle

Posted on Monday, February 17, 2014

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.

Feb 05

Feeding Grape Marc to Stock

Posted on Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Grape Marc is the focus of many phone calls I've received in the last few days.  People want to know what this product is, if it can be used to feed cattle and if there is any usefulness to this as a feed.

Basically Grape Marc is the remains of wine making. It consists of the stems, seeds and pulps after the grapes have been processed for wine.

Grape Marc can be very variable in its feed value.  The moisture content of this product can vary significantly depending on its processing method.

The energy and protein content of Grape Marc is also variable.  Tests by state Departments of Agriculture highlights the variation in feed values of Grape Marc.

NSW DPI figures indicate Grape Marc has an average value of 50.7% DM; just over 13% CP and around 6MJ of metabolisable energy (ME).  

At best Grape Marc can have a dry matter of 90%; and up to 8 MJ/ ME.  

Effectively this means Grape Marc is a basic feed which can be used as a filler in a ration.  

I reckon a lot of producers need to consider how cost effective this type of feed can be to their circumstances.  If feed is low in Dry Matter, e.g. 50% then you needs to work out how much it is costing to actually get that feed home. 

For example; if a truck load of feed is 55% Dry Matter; 45% is moisture.  So for every 1000kgs on the truck, 450kgs of that load is moisture!

When you feed your stock, your are feeding a ration based on Dry Matter & MJ/ME  So in the case of that 55% DM feed it might have 7MJ/ME, it works like this: 

  • if your animal needs 80MJ/ME day (based on its weight) then it needs to eat 11kg/DM a day
  • based on the DM of that feed, you would need to feed out 20kgs of feed a day.

I reckon when you start looking at those quantities, and the costs associated with such a feed, you will quickly work out if it actually is the best option for you to purchase.

Grape Marc is also a feed which can pose a residue risk to your stock.  You must ask for a Commodity Vendor Declaration form and make sure you keep a record of the vendor, the stock you feed and how much you feed.

The skins and seeds contained in Grape Marc can be risk for chemical residue.  The Victorian DPI notes some studies indicate oil soluble chemicals can be ingested easily from grape seeds to accumulate in fat tissue. 

Dairy Australia has developed some suggestions for producers using Grape Marc, which is a handy reference.

As with any unusual feed, I reckon you need to way up the costs and the risks pretty carefully before you start using it.

If you can't get a Commodity Vendor Declaration for the products you want to use, then I reckon you should avoid using that feed.

If you do your homework and work out the options, then Grape Marc may be a good choice for you.  But don't rush in until you've made a few enquiries and worked out if it is the best option for you.

If you are unsure about a feed, its usefulness or its suitability for your stock, make sure you get some sound advice before spending money or taking risks with it.  I reckon the drought is tough enough without the risk of feeding the wrong products.




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