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Short on feed? You need a multi-pronged plan, says expert

Get your winter feed in place now, fatten up light cows, save your pastures, and talk to your neighbours

Faced with tight hay supplies and high feed prices, producers are naturally focused on how to feed their livestock over the winter — but they need a comprehensive plan, says a forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

Barry Yaremcio

Barry Yaremcio

“If you don’t do a good job feeding these cows properly this winter it’s going to affect your calf crop next year; it’s going to affect calf growth rate and the overall winter feeding costs next year,” said Barry Yaremcio. “So it’s not just now until Christmas where you’ll see this impact — it will be a year, two years down the road until everything straightens itself out. The prep going into winter this year is key.”

Fortunately, there are options available, but they require keeping your eyes open for bargains and your mind open to alternative feeds.

“It’s a hunt-and-see game right now — whatever you can buy for the right price and use as a feedstuff,” said Yaremcio.

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calves in a holding pen

“There are some grain brokers that are dealing in a number of different commodities that may not be traditional feeds. Some counties are allowing people to cut extra ditches this year to get extra hay, the public lands are trying to open up more land to provide additional grazing for animals. Basically, talk to your neighbours.”

And get out your wallet, too.

Feed prices are up almost across the board, Yaremcio said in a mid-August interview.

“Last year, hay was selling for anywhere between four and six cents per pound. This year, people are asking eight to 12 cents per pound. In the last month and a half, barley has increased in price from about $4 a bushel to just over $5. For feed wheat in the central area, the current price (as of Aug. 11) is $179 per tonne. Last year at this time it was $149 per tonne.”

Don’t run short

For those and other reasons, having a fall feeding strategy is crucial, he said.

“Say you have a cow that is 200 pounds light going into winter. It’s going to require an extra 1,400 pounds of hay to get that cow through winter just to keep her warm, not to gain weight. So if you have 1,400 pounds at 12 cents a pound that’s an extra $168 to feed that cow compared to last year.

“Fall management is critical right now to prepare for winter. Make sure you have the feed supplies in place so you don’t run out in February or March. Most years you can get away with going to the neighbours and buying their surplus. There’s not going to be any surplus this year. By the first of November it will be next to impossible to find anything.”

Taking a hard look at the herd is also required.

“Are there some that are getting old? Are there some with bad temperament? Are the open cows all candidates to go to the farmers’ market?”

And if you’ve got grass, don’t be too quick to use it.

“It’s tempting to throw cows out into the pasture when you see six or 10 inches of growth,” he said. “Don’t turn the cows onto it immediately because all you’re going to do is deplete the root food reserves in these plants and you’ll have more problems with possible low production next year because the plants are stressed or may not survive the winter.

“If you want to use pastures that are growing now, wait until the middle of September or after a couple of frosts. When the plants go dormant, turn the cows in. That way you don’t damage the pastures for next year.”

Be creative

But now is the time to strike if you can find a bargain for feed — and they are out there, said Yaremcio.

“Harvest is coming on. If you look at some of these areas where the drought has hit, some of the farms will be harvesting barley that is a light bushel rate — 35 to 40 pounds per bushel barley instead of 48 pounds per bushel barley,” he said.

But both have the same efficiency when feeding cows or backgrounding steers or replacement heifers, he said.

“If you can get a discount on that light bushel weight, you may save yourself 50 or 75 cents a bushel for grain that is just as efficient for animal performance as heavyweight barley.”

Social media and neighbours are other potential sources of feed, especially at this time of year.

“If they’re looking at crops that will only yield 10 to 30 bushels per acre of barley or wheat, those producers are likely asking themselves if those crops are going to be of more value by selling it to the neighbours or running a combine through them and marketing the grain later. Those decisions are being made as we speak.”

And producers are getting creative, he added.

“Farmers are being very frugal and thorough; trying to cut hay in ditches, using slough hay. A lot of people have been talking to me about using pea straw, barley straw, oat straw, rye and triticale. Flax straw as a feed portion works very, very well.”

Farmers are also asking about supplements versus full rations of feed.

“A lot of guys are looking at the economics and asking if it’s going to be cheaper to feed a straw ration with a high calcium magnesium supplement or spend those eight to 12 cents per pound on hay. To me the barley straw rations with the supplement are definitely cheaper.”

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