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A road map to beef cattle winter supplementation

In my opinion, one of the most underutilized tools in the cow-calf sector is taking forage samples. Having these samples is one of the most useful assets when putting together a strategy for winter-feeding, which can account for up to 30% of a cattle operation’s yearly costs. And while taking forage samples is something that everyone talks about doing, many times, the practice seems to fall between the cracks.

I am as guilty of this as anyone. It is easy to make assumptions about how your hay or harvested forage will perform this year based off of past experience, particularly if you put it up yourself or have been buying from the same person for years. But as we all know, this year’s growing conditions weren’t the same as last year’s, and when the fertilizer blend you have bought for $450 a ton in the past goes up to $700 a ton or more, this may be reason enough to cut back on the application rate. Before you know it, this year’s hay crop is nothing like it’s been in the past.

With margins as slim as they are in the cattle business, eliminating the guesswork out of the most expensive cost for cattle producers is crucial. A $15 forage sample acts as a roadmap that points you in the right direction: toward maximizing the value of your hay and your supplements.

The first step to getting the most out of a forage sample is to collect it properly. Outlined below are a few rules that I try to follow when I take samples:

  1. Test in “lots,” which are described by the article “Sampling Feeds for Analyses" as being “harvested from the same field consisting of similar types of plants, cutting dates, maturity, variety, weed contamination, type of harvest equipment, curing methods and storage conditions.”
  2. In each hay “lot,” take samples from approximately 10% of the harvested forage to get an accurate average. It is best to test a few weeks prior to feeding the hay — and not immediately after baling.
  3. When testing round bales or big squares, a hay probe should be used to core 12 to 18 inches into the side of the bale to get the most consistent samples. If a hay probe is not available or you are testing stacks, stockpiled forages, etc., samples can be taken by hand. Simply take two or three handfuls from as far within the bale or stack as possible. However, be careful not to strip the leaves off.
  4. Once you have taken an appropriate number of samples out of each lot, carefully mix the samples together in a bucket or other mixing container.
  5. Put the combined sample into a 1-gallon zip-lock bag and remove the air. I try to fill a 1-gallon bag at least halfway full.
  6. Label the bag with the lot ID and sample date.
  7. Work with your local CRYSTALYX® dealer to find the best place to send your samples for testing and analysis.

Once you have had all of your hay lots sampled and tested, putting the results into a table similar to the one below will make it easy to identify the differences between the various lots.

Organizing the results also allows us to break our available forages into different levels of quality, which are determined by the criteria below.

  1. Low-quality forage: Forages at or below 7% crude protein (CP), with a neutral detergent fiber (NDF) level at or above approximately 63%.
  2. Medium-quality forage: Forages between 7–11% CP, with an NDF level at or below approximately 63%.
  3. High-quality forage: Forages that do not require any supplemental CP to meet the needs of late-gestation or lactating beef cows. Typically, above 11% CP.

With these determinations in place, we can strategically feed certain hay lots to specific sets of cows and provide supplements that best match the forage quality of that hay lot. For example, with fall-calving cows at peak lactation or first-calf heifers, it may be best to utilize your highest-quality hay, as these cattle typically have the highest nutritional needs, and to supplement that hay with a mineral block, like CRYSTALYX® Blueprint® 6% Phos. On the other side of the coin, it would make sense to feed the lowest-quality hay to mid-gestation cows without a calf at their side and to supplement that hay with a higher-protein supplement, like CRYSTALYX® BGF 20 or 30, to improve microbial function and forage digestibility. Neither hay nor supplements come in a one-size-fits-all package.

Taking forage samples requires some extra time and effort, but the results provide a ton of useful information. A new resource that can help cow-calf producers get the most value out of their forage samples is the CRYSTALYX supplementation app. Users should select the “Cow-Calf” tab on the homepage of the app, which will take them to a set of questions about their forage quality. Depending on which forage quality level is selected, a list of appropriate CRYSTALYX products is provided. Our traditional CRYSTALYX Supplementation Guide is structured in the same way. As I mentioned earlier in the blog, taking the guesswork out of our winter feeding is a must, and both the app and the supplementation guide are designed to help producers do just that.

Without testing your forage, you are guessing at the quality of your hay and, as a result, are either overpaying for excess feed or aren’t providing your cows with the nutrition they need to perform — and both of these issues cut into your bottom line. By taking forage samples and by matching your hay to your cows and your CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements to your hay, you can plan for a winter-feeding program that will maximize the profitability of your operation.