Limited forage supply adds to beef feeding woes

Limited forage and high corn prices make profitable cattle feeding challenging.

Heavy spring rains and late summer drought were the perfect storm for the forage issues that now plague beef producers.

Forages are in short supply in some areas and of low quality in others, leaving beef producers to deal with the high prices of alternative feeds to meet the energy and protein needs of their herds, said Ron Lemenager, Purdue Extension beef specialist.

“We’re getting a number of calls from producers who are asking questions about a short forage supply, either because they had to start feeding hay earlier than normal, or because they didn’t get a second or third cutting in during the growing season,” Lemenager said. “Some producers have a carryover of hay from the previous year, but that hay is more weathered and lower quality.”

Many of the producers who started to feed hay early had to do so because the drought wreaked havoc on the pastures where cows were grazing. Many pastures were overgrazed, leaving plants weak and, ultimately this can lead to delayed early spring growth. To help pastures recover, producers may need to keep cattle off pastures a little longer than normal this next spring, creating more need for forages and alternative feeds.

Another problem Lemenager mentioned is the high price of corn. Many alternative feeds are closely tied to the price of corn, and at $5 a bushel producers are looking for other ways to supplement low quality hay.

“In terms of alternative feeds, I think we’re talking about distillers grains, corn gluten feed and soybean hulls,” Lemenager said. “Then, there are some commercially available supplements like tubs, blocks and cubes that producers might want to think about. The bottom line is that they need to compare these different products on a cost-per-unit energy or protein basis, depending on what the forage analysis tells them.”

Commercial feeds often offer more complete nutrition, but they come at a price. Analyzing forages to find out what they’re lacking allows producers to choose supplements based on cost per unit of energy or protein — not just the cost per ton.

Regardless of the nutritional decisions producers make, there will be costs – now or in the long run.

“A lot of times a drought will have a three-year economic impact,” Lemenager said. “Some producers need to provide supplemental feeds, so there’s a cost associated with this calendar year. If cows aren’t managed correctly and they go into the calving or breeding season in 2011 in a thinner body condition, they’re going to have longer postpartum intervals and lower pregnancy rates. If pregnancy rates are down in 2011, it’s going to translate into a smaller calf crop in 2012.

“Producers need to decide when they want to spend the extra money to overcome some of these problems and what kind of economic impact they want to have on losses later down the road.”

To help beef producers answer these questions, Lemenager and Purdue Extension forage specialist Keith Johnson will present a webinar Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. (EST). The program will be broadcast to host sites at local Purdue Extension offices. Those interested in attending should contact their county Extension office.

The webinar will be archived for later viewing at

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