Better management urged for forage inventory

Animal inventory based on their weight can come up with a true requirement for feed, but producers often don’t know the real weight of their animals.  |  File photo

An Ontario forage specialist says it’s difficult for producers to plan for a shortfall if they don’t know how much they have

MONCTON, N.B. — Most forage grown in Canada is used on the farm where it is grown but many farmers do not have a good handle on their inventory or yields.

“If you don’t know what you have in inventory, how can you manage the shortfall?” asked Ontario forage and grazing specialist Christine O’Reilly.

Bad weather can shrink the supply or waste on the farm can lead to shortages, so doing an inventory is important, said Les Halliday, beef development officer with the Prince Edward Island department of agriculture.

“There is nothing worse than hitting next April or May and you’ve got no feed left. That has happened for the last two years,” he said, referring to conditions in the Atlantic provinces.

They both emphasized during the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association’s annual meeting held recently in Moncton that producers must understand quality and yield to avoid shortfalls and to achieve proper livestock nutrition.

Spoilage and waste in the Maritimes is a growing problem, especially in recent years with inclement weather.

“There is upwards of 50 percent of spoilage and waste on some of our farms. So you have to put up twice as much forage to get through the winter,” Halliday said.

All producers need to know how much forage is needed for the feeding period.

Animal inventory based on the weight of the animals can come up with a true requirement for feed. People often do not know the real weight of their animals. Beef cows can range from 1,200 to 1,500 pounds.

“We have some cows around P.E.I. that weigh 1,800 lb. An 1,800 lb. cow eats a lot of feed,” he said.

In the past, there was no emphasis on yield because there were enough supplies. That has not been happening in the last decade. Most people in P.E.I. have very little carryover from last year and this season Halliday is already hearing reports of shortages.

“We are not paying attention to forage yield and we are starting to get into trouble,” he said.

There are several reasons for shortages in the East.

More barley, wheat and canola have taken over forage acres in the last 20 years. Crop rotations have been shortened because farmers need to pay bills so they grow more cash crops.

Winterkill has been an issue recently in legume stands due to freeze-thaw cycles. Losses have been reported between 15 and 80 percent.

However there has been more interest in annuals crops like peas and oats to fill in the forage void.

Potato growers have planted more sorghum and Sudan grass as part of their rotation to get some root mass. It is then plowed down for fibre in the soil.

Corn silage, cob meal and high moisture corn have helped supplement forage deficiencies in the last five to 10 years.

Wireworms have also taken a toll on forage crops. Farmers have removed forage on 15,000 to 20,000 acres and substituted buckwheat or brown mustard to get rid of wireworms in P.E.I.

Avoiding waste is another factor.

More people in the East are moving to silage pits but they need to remember to pack properly to avoid waste due to spoilage.

Losses can be both visible and invisible.

Mould in the bales or silage could contain mycotoxins and this should not be fed. Mycotoxins can affect intake and digestibility, lead to sub-acute ruminal acidosis and cause abortions.

“Whenever you see mould, you see listeria. Sheep are very susceptible to listeria but cattle can go down too,” he said.

If heating is going on in the bales there will be fermentation losses.

Halliday also recommends soil and feed testing. Read the analysis and keep field records from past years to compare results.

Know what field the feed came from. If there are problems they can be dealt with.

“Plan early and plan often,” he said.

“It is the little things that make a difference. If you improve your efficiency your margins should be on your side, not the other side.”

Producers should also know their forage yields because it helps to calculate cost of production. Many do not know that.

“Farms are businesses and if you were a small business owner in any other sector you would be out of business. You have to know yield to know cost of production,” O’Reilly said.

Producers know how many bales were produced per acre but it is important to know the weight and moisture to figure out the actual yield per acre.

Knowing yield helps define carrying capacity of animals on a field.

Yield information is also important to improve farm programs.

Farmers have asked for yield based forage insurance program but the government cannot offer it if no one knows average yield on a farm.

Yield monitors have been adopted in grain production and come standard on combines. Some products are available on some self-propelled forage equipment but O’Reilly argued the monitors should be standard equipment for forage implements.

However, if producers do not ask for it, implement dealers will not include it.

Eastern Canada has seen a trend where pasture yields are going down but no one is measuring it so the data is anecdotal.

There are tools to measure forage yield but people do not often use them. They need to be calibrated for local conditions and are sometimes cumbersome to use.

Satellites to monitor yields are available in Canada and other countries. They have shown reasonable success but more data is needed.

Rotational grazing adoption is one way to get more out of pastures.

“We have got the science that says it can be great for soil health, animal production, grass production but adoption rates are low,” she said.

“Some of it is because grazing is part art and part science.”

Art is aptitude and experience and understanding of the farm while science can be taught. It can be a difficult concept to adopt for those just starting.

“Instructions work well for people who have aptitude and experience and who already are artists on the grazing side,” she said.

Grazing recommendations have been developed on the Prairies because they need to conserve soil moisture and they have access to native range that needs a longer rest period.

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