Hay costs vary significantly this year, with prices in some areas with short supplies nearly double those in areas with adequate supplies.
On the other hand, there could be numerous options for alternate winter feeds this year as some crops originally intended for grain are being harvested as feed. Alberta feed barley prices have dropped 13 per cent from the June peak at $205 per tonne to $179 per tonne in September.
With the increased availability and falling prices of alternative winter feeds in some areas, there could be a good opportunity to reduce wintering costs by using alternative feed sources this year.
Producers can use BCRC’s decision-making tool Winter Feeding Rations and Estimated Costs to calculate and compare the costs of main feed ingredients in different rations.
Based on feed ration examples available on provincial government websites, the cost of main feed ingredients in different rations is estimated for beef cows at 1,400 pounds in mid-pregnancy with a body condition score of three.
Two price scenarios are considered: Scenario one assumes that hay and alternative feed prices are steady with the most current published prices; Scenario two assumes steady hay prices and declines in alternative feed prices based on Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s grain price projections for the 2019-20 crop year.
For example, at current price levels, a ration of alfalfa hay and cereal straw is estimated to cost $1.74 per cow per day compared to a ration of cereal straw and greenfeed at $1.47 per cow per day. For a 150-day winter feeding period for 100 cows, this represents a $4,000 difference in total feeding costs.
While this example shows the potential cost savings by using alternative winter feeds, there are still a lot of uncertainties in terms of regional supplies and prices of forage and feed grains, depending on where you are and how harvest turns out this year.
When considering alternative feed sources, feed testing is important to test for nutritive value to ensure a balanced ration that meets the nutritional needs of the herd. Testing can also identify quality or toxin issues such as nitrates, sulphur, or mycotoxins.
Any new feed should be introduced gradually to allow cattle to adjust to the different texture and taste. Feed rations should be adjusted according to the cows’ body condition and weather conditions.
While the above analysis focuses on alternative winter feeds, extended grazing, such as stockpiled perennial forages, use of annual forages, crop residues, and bales left in the field, have considerable economic and environmental benefits over traditional winter feeding systems. For example, research indicates that swath grazing can reduce total daily feeding cost per cow by 41 to 48 per cent compared to drylot feeding.
The full version of this article, including a table with estimated costs for eight rations, can be found at beefresearch.ca (click on the BCRC Blog tab). The article also has a link to the feed ration cost calculator.