Prospect of dry year prompts future feed planning

With little feed left over and stressed pastures, beef specialists are requesting producers plan differently this spring to avoid shortages next winter.

Long-range forecasts point to a warmer and drier growing season this year, so growing and gaining access to lots of feed could be challenging. As well, many pastures are currently stressed due to last year’s dryness, overgrazing and grasshoppers.

To ease these problems, beef producers should seed earlier, plant a spring and winter annual, as well as grow varieties that are more drought resistant, said Barry Yaremcio, a beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture.

As well, he said potentially using canola for feed is an option if growing conditions are poor and if prices and feed supplies from neighbours are low.

“I’m not wishing a drought on anybody and I hate to see this happen because it creates hardship for everybody, but if you can see that a canola crop is not going to make it … you’re better off to take it for silage or greenfeed,” he said.

Producers should look for discolouration when the crop has flowered to see if it’s worth using for feed, he explained, adding that canola cut at the full flower to early-pod stage can be as good as a favourable cut of alfalfa.

He said canola cut at that stage could have 15 to 16 percent protein, and 62 to 65 percent total digestible nutrients. Tonnage is also promising.

“It may become a point in time where you have to look at some of these options to maybe buy a crop from a neighbour as a salvage, and still get some good feed value out of it this year,” he said.

As for planting annuals, he recommended oats and triticale instead of barley for their better resistance to drought. Seeding them as soon as possible could mean better yields because the crop would be able to lock in more spring moisture.

He said rye would be a favourable winter annual, noting that it would start growing in May or June and provide additional forage once the spring crop is cut for silage or green feed.

“If you’re taking an oat crop off for silage, the winter annual will still be below the cutting bar and won’t be damaged,” he said.

“Come August and September, there’s generally a really good flush of growth producing very high quality feed at a good tonnage per acre, which could give you 30 to 60 days of grazing in the fall.”

As well, he added some producers are also mixing cover crops, like clovers and brassicas, with cereals to get higher quality and more tonnage per acre. But if producers go that route, he said it’s important they figure out how much that could cost them.

“That could work, but some of these blends can get a bit expensive,” he said.

When it comes to growing crops for swath grazing, he said producers could apply glyphosate in August at the early- to mid-dough stage for barley and milk to early-dough stage for oats and triticale to stop growth and preserve nutrients.

Once applied, he said the stalks shouldn’t break before it’s time to swath in September.

“The other side of it is, if you have some of those weeds that are hard to kill, then you’ve got a good shot of cleaning up that field and saving the quality of your forage.”

Other options to consider include giving the pasture a break from cattle and creep feeding calves, said Leah Clark, a livestock and forage specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture.

She said feeding five pounds of barley per cow per day would mean having 20 percent more pasture. As well, one pound of creep feed consumed by a calf would save about half a pound of forage or more.

Weaning early is also an option, she added, pointing to research that shows once a calf becomes 120 days old, more than half of its nutrients come from feed or forage.

“The answer is going to be different for every producer. It could be as drastic as getting rid of some animals if the feed is not there, but these are some ideas that can alleviate some of those pressures,” she said. “It’s really dry, and we’re all hoping for more rain. If we can get it, I think we’ll be OK.”

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