On the Blog

Late summer forage challenges

In his latest CRYSTALYX® blog, Jon Albro discussed how recent weather patterns in the central U.S. have been quite different than what might normally be anticipated at this time of year. Unexpected and abundant rainfall has been the norm in many parts of the country. In the Southeast, however, some significant areas have been designated “abnormally dry” or “moderate drought,” leading to concerns about managing hay and pasture land for livestock. During a recent visit to North Carolina, a customer pointed out that you could travel 20–30 miles in opposite directions and find both very dry and very wet conditions.

As we are all aware, conditions can vary greatly even within fairly small regions. One of the constants in managing grazing livestock is that the manager must always be vigilant in assessing the forage quality and quantity to match the needs of the animal. As Jon pointed out, the biggest concern is generally the deterioration of forage quality during abnormally dry periods. 

RELATED: Whatever the weather, CRYSTALYX has a supplement program that fits

Why do plants lose nutritional value during a summer drought? 

Physiologically, when plants are exposed to limited moisture for an extended time — coupled with high summer temperatures — they will mature more quickly. This can lead to increased lignification —an increased level of undigestible fiber in the plant — as growth slows or stops altogether. If overall growth slows significantly, the quantity of available forage will obviously decline, and, in such cases, it often becomes necessary to supplement the cattle or take other management steps to ensure that production levels are maintained. Cool-season and warm-season grasses may react somewhat differently, but they will all be impacted by temperature extremes as plant nutrients move more slowly within the plant. For example, tall fescue — which is the predominant cool-season forage in many southern and mid-south states — typically has its highest nutrient value in the fall, when protein, soluble carbohydrates (including sugars) and digestibility increase; these nutrients are at their lowest in the summer. The lower sugar content during the summer reduces palatability, and if the fescue is not one of the “improved” varieties — i.e., if it contains toxic compounds from the endophyte inherent in KY-31 —livestock productivity will decline, along with intakes and quality.

For more than 25 years, I balanced rations for dairy cattle that almost always featured corn silage as the foundation forage. In that time, I noticed that high-moisture years often resulted in a large harvest of silage, but it was not always silage of the best quality. Over the years, many dairymen told me that cows milked best on “drought” silage. A great deal of recent research has analyzed corn silage, and we have learned that both the timing of the rain (or lack of it) and the summer temperatures can affect the fiber content in different ways during the stages of development. Generally, the worst-case scenario is when heavy rains hit close to the time of plant maturity, which results in a delayed harvest that features increased neutral detergent fiber, a more undigestible part of the plant. Higher fiber equals less energy. As such, to meet production needs, supplemental energy is often required. 

Such a scenario was recently described to me by a cattleman with finishing cattle who was using corn silage as his primary energy source. He observed that his cattle were eating much more than anticipated but were failing to achieve the expected weight gains. I recommended that he include more energy in the diet and consider using additives designed to improve digestibility. We also discussed the addition of a CRYSTALYX block to possibly stimulate rumen microbial activity.

Planning for potential forage shortcomings

A recent article, entitled “Plan for potentially short hay supplies” and written by Nebraska extension educators Aaron Berger and Troy Walz, outlined how too much water can impact forage quality and quantity. Standing water can limit growth and waiting for the ground to recover enough to make hay can delay harvesting. The authors made recommendations similar to those in Jon Albro’s blog, including considering forage testing, weaning calves earlier and using an ionophore to stretch (i.e., get more energy from) the forages. 

We always encourage forage-testing the hay, as doing so can help you select the right forage for the nutritional needs of your livestock. This is especially critical when hay quantities are limited, as first- and second-lactation cows have higher requirements for protein and energy than older cows and, as such, should receive the best hay. Similarly, younger, growing calves have higher nutrient needs than gestating cows, so they should receive higher-quality hay. I am certainly not suggesting that you should short gestating cows of their nutritional requirements, as recent fetal development research has confirmed that proper nutrition is vital for the developing fetus. Gestating cows can, however, utilize a lower-energy hay better than the two aforementioned groups. High-fiber hay will limit intakes and the available energy for growth when consumed by young cows and growing calves, while a mature cow has   greater gut capacity and the ability to adjust her hay intake to meet her energy requirements.

If either too much or too little rain has made forage quality or quantity an issue at your farm or ranch this summer, consider including a CRYSTALYX supplementation program as part of the solution. In pastures with limited grazing, a protein supplement, such as BGF-20™ or BGF-30™, can fill some nutritional gaps (e.g., protein, minerals and vitamins) and will help keep cattle milking or growing. By aiding in improving the digestibility of poor-quality forage, a CRYSTALYX protein supplement allows rumen microbes to extract more energy from the forage. When early weaning becomes an option for the better allocation of forage for the cow herd, CRYSTALYX Brigade® or Blueprint® Battalion® can support young calves as they deal with the stress of weaning. Calves on a stocker or backgrounding program could also benefit from one of the protein block options — or, if forage is limited, take advantage of the improved feed efficiency provided by Bovatec®, offered in CRYSTALYX Ionolyx® B300.

For more information on any of our other great CRYSTALYX products for summer, such as those with fly control or Breed Up®, contact your local CRYSTALYX dealer.