With high quality cattle feed expected to be in short supply in some parts of the West this year, beef producers may be looking at cereal straw as an inexpensive and plentiful alternative feed source.
But cereal straw isn’t the only option.
Animal nutritionists say canola straw is not only palatable to cows but also has more protein than wheat or barley straw and is a good source of calcium.
“When there’s a drought or shortage of forages, canola straw can be used in substitution for wheat, barley, triticale or rye,” said Barry Yaremcio, a beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture.
“What we’ve seen is that canola straw is a feed that cows really like to eat.
“It might take two or three days for them to get used to the taste but once they get onto it … look out, because they won’t leave a stick behind.”
Yaremcio said canola straw has a number of advantages over cereal straw.
For starters, canola straw typically contains six to seven percent protein, compared to four or five percent in wheat straw and five or six percent in barley or oat straw.
Pea straw tops the list with protein levels typically in the range of seven or eight percent.
Calcium levels are also four to five times higher in canola straw than they are in cereal straw. It is an important nutrient, particularly in bred or lactating cows.
Calcium levels in canola straw typically range from 1.2 to 1.4 percent.
By comparison, calcium levels in oat and barley straw typically range from .2 to .25 percent.
“That extra calcium really helps if you’re having trouble getting enough calcium into the diet,” Yaremcio said.
“If your straw’s got a lot more calcium, that means there’s less limestone that needs to be fed to supply that extra calcium to the animals.”
Ideally, rations for cows or calves will contain approximately two parts calcium to one part phosphorus.
Where calcium levels are low, limestone can be offered on a free-choice basis, but limestone is dry, chalky and not very palatable.
Providing supplemental calcium through a more palatable feed source such as canola straw is a good option.
There are limitations that producers should be aware of when including any type of straw in winter rations.
“Most of these straws have high levels of neutral detergent fibre (NDF) and NDF is the component that limits the rate of digestions,” Yaremcio said.
“So as your NDF levels go up, it becomes more difficult for the bacteria and the enzymes to break down that feed, so it has a longer residence time in the rumen.”
Too much NDF can result in reduced feed intake, weight loss and in severe cases, rumen compaction and death. So can significant protein deficiency.
The maximum recommended amount of straw in a well-balanced ration can be calculated as 1.25 to 1.5 percent of the animal’s body weight, on a dry matter basis.
For a 1,400 pound cow, that means straw intake should be limited to 17 to 20 lb. per day.
Straw of any kind is relatively low in protein and energy.
For that reason, it should be supplemented with grain, silage or other protein sources in order to keep the rumen functioning properly.
In all cases, producers should test their feed sources to ensure adequate levels of protein, calcium, magnesium and other key nutrients.
Canola that has been desiccated or sprayed for pre-harvest weed control should be safe to use as a feed, as long as proper interval times are observed, added Mark Cutts, a crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture.
The number of canola acres that receive a pre-harvest chemical application is still quite small in canola, he added.
Paul Entz, field boss at the MacMillan Hutterite Colony west of Cayley, Alta., told freelance photographer Mike Sturk that his colony has been baling and feeding canola straw for years.
People are often surprised when they see the colony baling canola straw, but it makes good feed. The colony also uses it as bedding in the turkey barn, he said.
“The cattle love it,” Entz said.
Yaremcio said beef producers that use canola straw as bedding will have trouble keeping it on the ground.
“Once they get on to it, they will clean it up.”