"If you're not paying attention to every bite of food your cattle take in," according to Lance Kirkpatrick, "it's costing you money."
Even though feed prices have dropped sharply in the last six months, Kirkpatrick, who's with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, said he won't say managing feed is any less important. Much of the task revolves around soil fertility, which Kirkpatrick tells producers is like a savings account — if you keep withdrawing from it, he said, "you're eventually going to wind up with zero."
Fertilizer prices were high last year, and in some cases poultry litter was unavailable. Was the cost of fertilizer worth the improvement in forage quality? Kirkpatrick admitted it's hard to say, but added, "You've got to have forage. If you can produce quality forage, then you can actually get by with a limited amount of supplemental feeding." Not that producers have to go right out and apply $50,000 worth of fertilizer but, he said, "an inferior bale of hay versus a quality bale of hay, your production cost as far as labor, equipment and stuff like that is going to be the same."
Kirkpatrick said, "You really need about a 5.9 pH, somewhere in through there, and in order to do that you've got to get lime on it." But since a producer won't see the results for 4-5 months, he added, "I always say that right now is a good time to take your soil test."
Another mistake producers make, he said, is letting their hay stand too long. "A lot of people bought into the mentality that instead of cutting at 30-40 days, you get more volume or more tonnage or more round bales if you wait 50 days. What they're doing is letting their forages get overmature, and they're losing that energy value. Whereas if you cut at 32-40 days — they say 32 is the optimum — and if you fertilized it, then you're getting kind of where you need energy, around 58-62 percent TDM (total dry matter)."  Dry cows, he said, can get hay with a TDM of 54-55 percent; more than that, and they'd be getting too much energy.
None of that can be determined, he stressed, without a forage test. "A lot of people think that the $18 that you have to spend for a forage test is pretty spendy," he conceded, "but it basically gives you a map." You can determine, he said, which of your cuttings produced the best hay, and supply that to cows when they need their best nutrition, two to four months post calving.
In addition to TDM close to 62 percent, Kirkpatrick recommends working cows receive forage with 11-12 percent protein. And cows need to be eating the equivalent of 2 percent of their body weight a day. "You need to try to keep them right around a body condition score of 5," he said, adding he doesn't believe cows need hay in front of them all the time. "I don't think you need to go 24 hours with them being empty," Kirkpatrick said, "but if you have bales of hay out there in the morning, and it's kind of getting thin and getting low, you can always just make them clean that up, and come back and feed them that afternoon."
Unlike feeders, who "live and die by dry matter intake and the conversion rate," University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Eldon Cole says it's been difficult for cow/calf operators to calculate feed efficiency.  But that may be changing. Cole said they've got a new unit that utilizes space-age technology to evaluate breeding animals for their conversion ability; it's called Residual Feed Intake, or RFI.
Although the unit is still too costly for most producers, the data being accumulated will be available to them when they're selecting for herd genetics. "There are some test stations," Cole said, "and some individual breeding operations in the country, that now can provide the RFI, and that is a trait that we consider moderately heritable in cattle." One of the test stations at Nevada, Mo., is running the numbers on a very large scale. "When those bulls appear in a sale," he said, "you can look at those numbers and pick out those animals that have tested very good on their RFI… Some AI studs, if you're doing artificial insemination, will have RFI data on their bulls."
But he stressed the program is still in its infancy. His unit will be weaning the first calves this spring off parents that have gone through RFI, and monitoring how well the progeny perform in the field.  "What we're trying to find out here at the research center," said Cole, "is if you tested this animal on a grain diet for 60-70 days, and he was found to have a favorable RFI index — does that mean when he is out grazing fescue, are they also going to have a favorable RFI index?"
But despite the promise of this tool, there are simpler things cattle producers can do to measure the efficiency of their animals.  For instance, Cole said, they can put cattle in a defined area and let them graze it down.  "After you get that grazed down to a maybe 3" height, move them to another area and let them graze it all down.  We lose some efficiency in cattle grazing; we just turn them out there and let them have all they want, and they will stay on that same pasture maybe all year."


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