Producers should evaluate forage length and type 

When it comes to the right time to start feeding livestock hay, there are a number of factors to consider. Here in the Ozarks, however, there are some guidelines that producers can follow to stay on top of things.

Four-Inch Rule

One guideline for feeding hay, according to Dr. Eric Bailey, Beef Cattle Nutrition Extension Specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, is to begin when forage gets below 4 inches across the pasture.

“At that point, available forage for consumption becomes limiting and the cattle do not get enough to eat,” he said. Every acre-inch of tall fescue is about 400 pounds of feed for cattle. When feed availability gets much below 2,000 pounds per head, intake starts to decline.”

He strongly encourages producers to follow the 4-inch guideline to avoid overgrazing and damaging their pastures.

Consider the Growing Stage

“Too often cattle are allowed to graze winter annuals too soon after planting. These plants often need 8 to 10 inches of height established before turning in cattle,” Dr. Shane Gadberry, ruminant nutrition specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, said.

He advised that producers isolate cattle to a pasture or pen to feed hay. This will allow extra time for winter grasses to develop and avoid injuring the forage stand by grazing too early.

Be Aware of Forage Varieties in the Stand

While cattle can benefit from a multitude of forages, not all forages are created equal and when the lower quality ones are all that are there, it’s time to supplement.

“Feeding hay may become less obvious but needed when pasture grasses appear abundant but their quality and palatability is very low,” Gadberry said. “Examples may include fields with a high percentage of mature bromesedge, purpletop or foxtail.”

Think About the Nutritional Needs

Cattle’s dietary needs change throughout the year, so producers should be thoughtful as to the quality of the forage they are feeding.

“As animal nutrient requirement increases, switching to a higher quality hay instead of supplementing low quality pasture may be needed,” Gadberry said.

He explained an example is stockpiled Bermudagrass. The quality is usually adequate for dry cows but not lactating cows.

“One can either continue to try to use the stockpile Bermudagrass along with supplemental energy feeds to make up the energy shortage or switch to a hay if the hay is more in line with the energy requirement for lactation,” he said.


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