With pastures dried out and hay fields producing 25 percent of the normal number of bales, livestock producers across much of Western Canada are scrambling to put up feed this summer.
Some are cutting cereal crops for green feed.
Others are turning to more creative options, like canola.
“Poor canola stands may provide an alternate forage option for drought-stricken livestock producers,” said a North Dakota State University news release, from mid-July.
This summer, there’s no shortage of poor canola stands in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and parts of Alberta. Temperatures of 35 C in early July, combined with only a few millimetres of rain, scorched hundreds of canola fields across the Prairies.
If yields are low enough, it might make more sense to use that canola for livestock feed.
Canola can be a decent source of protein and energy for cattle, if livestock producers take the necessary precautions, such as:
Testing the canola hay or silage for levels of sulfur and nitrates.
Blending the canola forage with other feed sources, so canola is 50 percent or less of the ration.
Introducing the canola hay or silage slowly into the ration, until cattle get used to it.
“We’re getting questions on it,” said Tim Clarke, a livestock specialist with Manitoba Agriculture.
“When guys ask me about it, I tell them to blend it off and only feed maybe 25 percent (canola hay or silage) in the ration.”
Clarke used canola in a ration for his cattle several years ago.
He had a quarter section of canola that wasn’t worth harvesting and right next to it, a quarter of alfalfa.
“We chopped the whole mile. So, every windrow was half a mile of canola and a half a mile of alfalfa,” he said, explaining they produced silage that was 50 percent canola and 50 percent alfalfa-grass. “We put it the pile and used it that way…. The cattle did fine on it.”
Cattle can do well with canola hay or silage in a ration, but it’s something that producers must manage carefully.
“It can make feed if it’s put up at late bloom or early pod,” said Jenay Werle, a livestock and feed specialist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture in Yorkton. “Generally, we say no more than 50 percent of a ration should be made of canola hay or canola silage.”
Canola forage is palatable, but it can contain high levels of sulfur and nitrates. In growing seasons with drought, hail or extreme heat, nitrates can accumulate in the plant tissue. If those nitrates are there (at a sufficiently high level) when the forage is fed to cattle, the chemical compounds can reduce the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen and the livestock can asphyxiate.
That’s why, in a year of drought, forage should be tested before it’s fed to livestock. That’s all forage, not just canola hay or silage.
“We’re starting to see some feed test information… on oat green feed that’s showing very high levels of nitrates (because) of drought stress,” Werle said.
Clarke usually recommends canola silage because it’s an effective way to eliminate some of the nitrates in the feed. If canola is baled, the nitrates will remain in the forage.
The ensiling process reduces the nitrates in the canola by 40 to 50 percent, he added.
But that doesn’t happen overnight.
“It takes about eight weeks of ensiling… for the nitrates to gradually decline,” Clarke said.
As well, canola silage can be easily blended with other forages to achieve a safe and nutritious ration.
“By blending, I mean physically blending that product with another product,” he said.
“Physically mixing in a silage wagon works best…. You can dump in a bucket of canola silage and three buckets of something else, then they’re only getting 25 percent in the ration.”
With canola hay or silage, the other issue is sulfur.
Brassica crops have higher amounts of sulfur and producers need to know how much is in their water supply and other feed sources so cattle don’t consume an excessive amount.
That, again, is why testing is critical.
Producers should take samples of their feed and send them for testing before feeding it to livestock. In Saskatchewan, producers can contact their local provincial agriculture office for information about forage testing.
“We provide forage probes. As well, our crop insurance offices have forage probes that producers can borrow if forage is already cut and baled,” Werle said. “They can also take samples out of the field.”
Across the Prairies, provincial livestock and feed experts can provide information on how to take forage samples and where to send those samples for a test.
There is also a Saskatchewan government website with a list of labs and companies that offer feed testing.
For more content related to drought management visit The Dry Times, where you can find a collection of stories from our family of publications as well as links to external resources to support your decisions through these difficult times.