For our family, the opening day of rifle hunting season means the cows are supposed to be home. This year we were a bit behind, lulled, just a bit, by the lovely fall weather. It had been cool but snow had stayed away until mid-November and it was still warm enough for the dugouts to be open. Feeding the cattle out on pasture is always nicer than having them at home — but then it snowed.
It actually snowed on opening morning of hunting season which brought back memories of when we were still living in the city and my husband and father-in-law would venture out in snowstorms so as not to miss the opening morning shoot. Fast forward 30 years and the first snowfall was met instead with us chopping holes in the ice and rushing our cattle home. We have an open tractor so it is as much a convenience for people as it is for the cows for all to be home once winter is really here.
Our sheep and goat herds are not totally grass based and our hay is not going to be a high enough quality to be their only feed. In the past the most successful products we have used for them was field peas ground finely in combination with field pea screenings. Whole peas are also available from a local processing plant but without proper milling machinery they are unacceptable to feed small ruminants due to their capacity to damage teeth.
The field peas are very palatable and protein usually ranges from 20 to 27 per cent and energy 88 to 90 per cent TDN (total digestible nutrients) making them a great choice for creep feeds. Luckily the local processing plant feed tests their screenings which showed us that their pea screenings average about 10 per cent protein, making them a great choice for a base grain to build a ration on. Apparently supply of these will be tight this winter but we are still hopeful.
Protein lick tubs
One option we are exploring for the sheep and goats is using lick tubs. They are not the cheapest alternative but they are the easiest way to let each animal get what they require. The biggest selling feature right now is that we wouldn’t have to feed both a mineral and a protein supplement so that also lowers labour input.
The tubs for sheep and goats that are all natural with no urea and no added copper (which makes them unadvisable for goats actually) run $134 for a 200-pound tub. If their consumption remains the same it would cost us 11 cents a day to feed the tub which is more than a pound of barley but the tub eliminates the need to buy vitamin supplements. When we fed protein lick tubs in the past, a tub lasted almost a month and the sheep wintered very well on them. We are feeding a high-quality salt/mineral called Sea-90 which rounds out their ration very well. Our beef herd will be another challenge.
Our forage will be a combination of hays, as well as timothy straw. We used a bit of it last year but need to depend on it more this season since it was too wet to finish the haying season. According to Alberta Agriculture, grass-seed straw (timothy straw in our case) is a feed alternative for beef cattle. A 1,350-pound mature beef cow in decent shape going into winter will require a minimum of 6.5 per cent crude protein (CP) and 50 per cent TDN.
As the cow approaches late pregnancy (the last six weeks prior to calving), protein and energy needs increase to 7.5 per cent CP and 54 per cent TDN. After calving a cow’s protein needs rise to 11 per cent and TDN to 63 per cent when the demands of milking and post calving recuperation come.
Timothy straw, on its own, averages a 4.9 per cent protein content with a 57 per cent TDN. This will not be our only hay but our mature cows are going to be fed it as a portion of their forage allotment. The easiest way to increase usage of the timothy straw appears to be with the addition of molasses in the form of a liquid feed supplement. Molasses will encourage cattle to eat the timothy to utilize the nutritional value that is there and at the same time improve the nutritional quality of the feed.
Stick with forages
We have been totally grass-based for years now. Grain feeding cattle without an infrastructure could be tricky plus we would be unable to sell our cattle into our current niche market. Years ago there was a product available in our area called Kamlik, now known as A-1 Nutrition, which was used by pouring it onto the bales, making the feed more palatable and more digestible. Research being done on dairies utilizing liquid protein supplements looks very promising.
According to the studies at the University of Guelph in 2012 the average increase in dry matter intake with the liquid sugar supplements was 1.1kg/day. Although this isn’t a huge amount it had other positive impacts on the cows. They chewed more, produced more saliva and as a result had a higher rumen pH. This created a cycle of higher dry matter intake — in our case timothy straw — and a higher level of total carbohydrate fermented in the rumen. The sugars in the liquid supplement (based on molasses) apparently helps to increase fiber digestion.
This science isn’t new. Fifty-eight years ago scientists discovered that by adding molasses to livestock diets the cellulose digestion increased while feeding starch (grain) decreases cellulose digestion. Beneficial rumen bugs grow the best on simple sugars.
It will be an experiment this winter but the decision will be to use the A-1 Nutrition product to help our cows through the winter. The goats are going to be offered this product in its liquid form in a lick tank. We are in the process of devising a feeder goats cannot climb on or get their feet into. The sheep will get the tubs.
It is a funny thing on our farm — we have been reading and researching the use of molasses for a while now but until it was a necessity nothing changed. We are hopeful the plan works.