This summer many parts of the West are experiencing record high temperatures and very little rainfall. By early July these conditions had already taken a toll on pastures and hay crops and many stockmen are already looking at potential alternative feeds. There are a number of non-traditional crops and feeds that can be used, and the options will vary depending on where you live and what’s available in your area.
Jay Davison, Crop Specialist, Nevada Cooperative Extension (University of Nevada, Reno) is now retired, but still doing consulting. Regarding forage alternatives, he tells ranchers that ruminants can eat just about anything once they get used to eating it.
For instance, in central and south central Nevada, many cattle live on shrubs. “They eat some cheat grass in the spring and a little in the fall, and some perennial grasses if they are available, but in winter they often live on shrubs like four-wing, salt bush, and shadscale and do well,” he said. Cattle that don’t grow up eating these bushes, however, generally won’t try them. When rangeland grasses and home pastures get short, cattle start to lose weight unless they can be fed something else.
In the current drought, many producers are scrambling to find feed to augment dry, dwindling pastures. Each rancher must look at his/her situation and see what the options might be. “Some people will need to sell cows. Our rangelands here are very dry and short on grass, and cattle may be coming home early. The only folks in our area who have water for irrigation are those who have pivots; flood irrigation water is about gone.”
Some people who know they have to bring cattle off ranges early may try to plant summer annuals to provide a little pasture to come home to—if they have enough water to get those plants started. Other folks may simply have to sell cows, or buy a lot of hay. This can be a hard decision—whether to sell cows or buy expensive feed—especially when it’s taken years to build up a good herd of cattle with the genetics you want. It can be difficult to replace them later because the new cows won’t be as adapted to the conditions on your ranch.
“Some ranchers can’t afford to import expensive hay, especially if they have to start feeding hay by August. Ranchers in our area usually turn out on BLM in late April or early May, but these allotments are all being cut,” he said.
Typically those cows would come off the range in late summer and then graze regrowth from hay meadows, especially on the higher elevation ranches that irrigate some grass hay to put up for winter feed. “This year, however, much of this country didn’t have much snow pack for irrigation, so we’ll be short on hay production. And once it dries up, there’s no regrowth,” Davison said.
This year has been unusually warm, and the plants dried out sooner. “This means yields will be less than normal, and the grass you don’t cut for hay will be lower in quality as grazing forage because it’s already too dry,” he said.
Some people are looking at things they haven’t used for a long time, like annual kochia. “In most areas, this is considered a weed. During the Depression, people in the
Midwest grew kochia because it was something that would grow. If you graze or harvest it early enough in the season, it’s a fairly good feed. Today we also have forage kochia which is very different; it’s a perennial and typically planted in the fall, for grazing the next year. It is an excellent feed source if you already have it planted, but it’s too late to plant it for use this year,” Davidson said.
David Bohnert, Beef Extension Specialist and Ruminant Nutritionist, Oregon State University (Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, Burns, Oregon) says many people in the Northwest are looking for alternatives, since hay is already becoming scarce and very expensive.
“Ranchers need to look at what else might be available locally, with freight costs that won’t be too high. In Idaho, Oregon, and Washington we have a lot of things that could be used. Some of the non-traditional forages coming into more common use include teff and triticale—both of which can be cut for hay or grazed. Teff is a warm season annual grass, similar in some ways to coastal Bermuda grass,” Bohnert said.
On some farms it may be feasible to graze wheat or some other grain crop that didn’t produce well enough to combine for grain, or use triticale or turnips. Anything the cows can harvest themselves will save money. They are the most efficient harvesters, if a person can let them graze and not have to feed them with a truck or tractor.
Probably the most under-utilized resource in farming areas is crop residues—either out in the field to graze, or baled so it can be portable. Some people are baling cornstalks after they’ve been combined. It costs a lot to bale and haul cornstalks, however, and there is a lot of waste, but this enables the stalks to be transported to cattle somewhere. In some situations, producers might consider feeding the cows in confinement during the rest of the summer—in a drylot rather than at pasture--and then have them go out and graze crop residues in the fall/winter after local crops are harvested.
“Some of the common alternative feeds in certain regions include grass seed straw, and distillers grains, depending on where you live. Cull onions, turnips, potatoes, carrots, dry beans and other vegetables are available in some areas,” Bohnert said.
The hardest part is trying to stretch forage supplies when there is no hay or pasture available. Without some kind of forage (grass, hay, straw, etc.) it’s hard to feed cattle a proper ration because they need some roughage in the diet. There are no pellets or concentrate feeds that can completely replace the forages. Unless a person can buy waste products from a vegetable processing plant, it’s very difficult, but vegetable wastes can be a good substitute.
Grass seed straw is the aftermath from growing grass seed, and can work as a forage base for the diet (supplemented with a protein source), but depending on the type of grass it is, you might want to have it tested. “Fescue or perennial ryegrass may contain endophyte fungi, which produce toxins. People who graze pastures or put up hay using these forages sometimes have problems--which can also occur with any plants that might have ergot alkaloids,” Bohnert explains. These can cause potential problems with reproduction or interfere with circulation to the extremities. In winter this may result in frozen ears, tails, or even feet.
“Awhile back, one producer lost nearly 600 cows. He was feeding fescue grass seed straw and didn’t have it tested. When weather got cold, many of his cows froze their feet. When using alternative feeds, be aware of nutrient content, moisture content (if it’s mostly water the cattle won’t get much good from it) and potential toxins or contaminates
like mold,” Bohnert said. Producers considering a feed source they’re unfamiliar with should always get it tested. Some may have high nitrate levels, which can be deadly.
SIDEBAR: PLAN AHEAD — Some ranchers make a habit of carrying over a significant amount of forage (hay or silage), and this can really pay off during a time of shortage. This gives them much more peace of mind going through a dry fall and into winter—much better than when a person only has enough forage to get to October. Carrying over enough hay, straw or silage to get through a tough time keeps you from being at the mercy of the market when feed supplies are limited and very expensive. It’s nice to have enough extra forage to get through the fall and winter if the current year’s crop is short.