Low-quality forage means extra work ahead

Ranchers can expect extra challenges this winter and into spring because many forages in the drought-ravaged parts of the Prairies lack enough protein content to feed to cattle without adding nutrients from other sources.

Barry Yaremcio, a beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture, said this summer’s drought caused protein levels to significantly drop in native and improved pastures so much so that nutrient content is short of what pregnant cows require.

“Instead of having normal pasture at eight to 10 percent protein, the protein contents are down in that five to six percent range, which is no better than straw,” he said.

“A cow in mid-pregnancy needs a minimum seven per cent protein. Most of the cows now are in late pregnancy, so they’re going to need roughly nine percent.”

He said when cows don’t get enough protein, their rumen won’t properly function. When that happens, cows eat less and become thin.

“That’s what we’re seeing now,” he said. “A lot of these cows on these dry-condition grasses are short of energy and short of condition. They’re going to be in rough shape going into winter.”

Thin cows weigh about 200 pounds less than they should, going into winter, said Yaremcio. Their short ribs, tail bones and pin bones will be prominent.

As well, an underweight cow needs about an additional 1,400 lb. of hay just to stay warm, he added.

“If (producers) want to go ahead and increase the condition of the cow, the best time to do it is now before the cows hit winter.”

To improve their condition, he recommends producers wean calves early.

This could result in a win-win scenario, he said, because the calves will likely get more nutrients from feed rather than the limited amount of milk produced by their underweight mothers, and the cows will recoup healthy weights more quickly by not having to eat a lot to support the calves.

But if they need to keep cows out on pasture, producers must provide the animals with additional protein supplements. Sources could come from pea screenings, or pellets or sprouts from grain distillers.

For example, Yaremcio suggested producers mix in one-third peas with two-third oats or barley to get cows on a healthy weight, feeding them four to five lb. every second day.

“That’ll help get the rumen functioning properly so they can eat more forage,” he said. “And the extra energy from the barley will help put on some weight.”

But before they start rationing, producers must get their feed tested so they know how much they’ll need to buy going into winter, he added.

“If you need to buy feed, buy it now so you’re not fighting snow in February.”

Stacey Meunier, who has a cow-calf operation near Barrhead, Alta., said she and her partner put their cattle out for winter grazing a lot during a dry year in 2015, as well as bale and swath grazing. They also put pellets on the pasture.

“It definitely added to our costs,” said Meunier, who’s also with the West-Central Forage Association.

“But we had to be creative, looking for sources and talking to other producers to see what they’re doing.”

Meunier didn’t experience any health issues with her newborns the following spring, but it is critical that cows are a healthy weight then so they can produce colostrum.

“Those cows, if they can’t produce the colostrum, the immunity of the calf is compromised,” Yaremcio said. “You might have more trouble with scours, pneumonias, navel or joint ill, you name it. There’s a whole bunch of things that can go wrong.”

Though it might be a little late for some, Meunier recommended some producers de-stock.

“Even going into next year to have a date in mind of when, if things don’t improve, to look at de-stocking,” she said.

“In dry years, we’ve taken yearlings that were allocated for grass and put them back in the feedlot or sold them to give more grass for our main cow herd.”

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