With what appears to be a dry spring shaping up, it never hurts for beef producers to be prepared in case forage production is in short supply any year.
In drought years it’s often hard to locate an adequate forage supply for cattle. Sometimes producers use alternative feeds, which might include drought-stressed or salvaged crops. An important overriding message, whether it is a traditional or non-traditional crop being considered for livestock feed, is to have a feed analysis to know if or how it can be used in a beef herd feeding program.
Dr. Bart Lardner, now a professor of Animal & Poultry Science at the University of Saskatchewan and for many years senior research scientist with the Western Beef Development Centre, says some of the drought-stressed crops that might be available are annuals such as a pulse, oilseed or cereal that normally wouldn’t be used as livestock feed. If the crop is not good enough to use for grain or oilseed, it might be harvested for cattle.
“If you plan on using something like this, I recommend sending in a feed sample to see what the protein and energy density might be, and determine if there are any anti-quality factors that would make it not so good for livestock,” says Lardner. “Some drought-stressed crops can be high in nitrates, for example. We often see nitrate accumulating in oats and other cereal crops.”
A feed analysis determines if the level of nitrate in that crop and whether it can be fed safely, or how much to feed and be within a safe range.
“Generally if the level is about 0.5 per cent nitrate in that crop, we have to dilute it when we feed it to cattle to about one-third of the normal ration per day,” says Lardner. “If you know what you are dealing with you can dilute it with other feeds that are not high in nitrates.”
What about canola hay?
Along with cereals, drought-stressed oilseed crops can also be used as feed. “Canola hay can be surprisingly good quality, but feeding it straight is not very palatable, and it can also accumulate nitrates,” says Lardner. “So again, do a feed test.”
He estimates that protein levels in canola cut at mid-pod stage average about 15 per cent, with about 60 per cent energy. At later stages of development (fully podded, stemmy, with little or no leaf) canola has about 10 per cent protein with energy levels around 50 per cent. However the more mature it is. the less palatable it becomes than a typical grass/legume hay.
“You have to make sure you build it into the diet at a blended level at something less than half the diet, and pay attention to minerals,” says Lardner. “Make sure cows are on a good mineral program if you use drought-stressed canola as a forage source.”
Other drought-stressed crops can also work for livestock feed.
“One year we had a drought-stressed lentil crop which is one that typically would not be used in a livestock feeding program,” says Lardner. “But lentils are an annual legume and can be a feed alternative. In the case we had, the lentils were not put up as hay, but simply grazed in the field by cattle. There can be some issues there as well, with certain levels of anti-quality factors, so again it is important to have the feed tested.”
Lardner says he has often looked at different crops and tried to figure out if they could be put in front of a beef cow.
“You have to know what you are feeding, and how to do it,” he says. “Canola is a big crop in Western Canada so we get a lot of questions about feeding canola in a drought year. In a dry year, producers even wonder about using a high-energy crop such as wheat for livestock feed. Do a feed test and find out what you are dealing with first, and realize that in a drought the plants tend to increase concentration of various constituents. They are not what you’d normally expect.”
Watch for diseases
Lardner says there are also diseases in some drought-stressed crops that need to be considered as well. For example, cereal crops infected with fusarium head blight can produce a mycotoxin known as DON, which at certain levels can be toxic to livestock. Also, grain infected by ergot should generally not be fed to cattle. “Again, this is why it’s always good to send away a sample and make sure that there isn’t an issue with something like that,” says Lardner.
Often in a drought situation there’s a huge demand for pelleted products to be used as supplements. Many producers try to build a ration that’s 50/50 straw-hay or a 50/50 straw/greenfeed diet and then use a supplemental range pellet purchased from a feed mill. Those pellets usually consist of barley or peas, with grain screenings added. “Just be watchful, those screenings might sometimes bring in a fusarium or ergot problem,” says Lardner, speaking from experience.
“We had calves on a research trial one winter, and they were doing fantastic on the first load of pellets during the study. Then we brought in a new load of pellets and the calves went off feed. They were telling us something. We sent samples to a lab for testing and the report came back showing high levels of fusarium. Closely watch and monitor livestock when feeding drought-stressed crops, and be alert to any usual activity or signs of illness, or going off feed.”