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How is the quality of the forage you are feeding?

Dan Undersander for Progressive Forage Published on 27 February 2018
Hay in the stack

When you can see the quality of the hay, haylage or baleage that you harvested last year, and how the animals eating it are doing, now is a good time to evaluate how well you did with forage harvesting last year.

Then, think about how improvements can be made in 2018.

First, look at the leaf content of your forage – is it close to 50 percent leaves? Leaves have 400 to 500 relative feed quality (RFQ) and 20 to 30 percent crude protein, while stems have about 80 RFQ and 6 to 8 percent crude protein. Milking cows need about 16 percent crude protein and all the energy they can get.

Growing animals require 10 to 14 percent crude protein, depending on physiological stage and all the associated energy they can get from forage. Pregnant beef cows have often been neglected, but many now recognize that those animals on a higher plane of nutrition and body score of 5 or 6 will tend to have healthier and growthier calves; thus, pregnant dry cows will benefit from high-quality forage.

In addition, the cold weather we have had means that cattle outdoors needed 10 to 15 percent more energy to stay in good condition. Thus, many farmers save the best hay for feeding beef in January and February.

The best way to determine the energy, fiber and protein of any forage is to take a sample and have it tested. Forage tests are cheap compared to the loss in animal production from guessing wrong. However, several visual determinations can help you evaluate your forage and plan improvements in 2018.

All legumes, first-cutting cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses should be about 50 percent leaves when they were mowed (second and later cuttings of cool-season grasses should be close to 100 percent leaves). Less than 50 percent leaves in your harvested hay, haylage or baleage means you have lost yield, protein and energy.

Ten percent yield losses during harvesting seems to be about average. However, if the final forage is one-third leaves and two-thirds stems (which is common), you have lost about 20 percent of the yield and much greater percentage of the quality that was available in the standing forage. What leaf percentage do you have in your hay, haylage or baleage?

Also consider that heating, while it makes for more palatable forage, is a loss of energy that could be producing milk or meat. Look for brown, sweet-smelling hay or baleage and warm-feeling haylage. If browned, hay should have been put up drier or wrapped in plastic. Heating haylage could have been packed more, and possibly one should use a combination inoculant of Lactobacillus planetarium and buchneri.

High-quality forage can be made with hay, haylage or baleage. However, all forms can also result in loss of dry matter and forage quality if not managed properly. Consider the following:

For hay

1. Are hay bales located for easy access over winter?

2. Are hay bales off the ground? If not, they absorb water like a sponge from the ground and rot. Two inches around the outside of a 4-foot-long round bale is 15 to 20 percent of the total bale dry matter (depending on bale diameter).

3. Is the hay moldy?

4. What are the feeding losses? Is a better feeder justified? Look at losses and consider it costs you something around $100 per ton to grow and harvest hay.

5. Consider that a pre-cutter on the front of the baler will generally increase bale density and animal performance.

For haylage

1. Was haylage harvested at the desired moisture content?

2. Is haylage chopped to the desired length?

3. Is the bunker, pile or tube packed well so that heating was minimized (both with ensiling and on feedout)?

4. Is the bunker or pile properly sized so that 1 foot is removed from the haylage face per day?

5. Is the tube monitored and holes quickly repaired to minimize air entry and mold growth in the haylage?

For baleage

1. Does baleage have white mold on the surface? If so, you need better plastic or more layers of plastic wrap.

2. Was the plastic monitored and holes repaired quickly to avoid spoilage inside?

3. If feeding from a wrapped tube, were two to three bales fed per day to stay ahead of heating and mold as oxygen moves into the tube?

4. Consider that pre-cutting at the baler will increase feed efficiency and animal performance.

Now is the time to look at the forage you harvested last year and think about what can be done to reduce harvesting and storage losses and to improve forage quality for animals being fed.  end mark

PHOTO: An assessment of your hay, haylage or baleage being fed this winter can give you hints as to how to improve your harvest in the coming year for a better product. Photo by Lynn Jaynes.

Dan Undersander
  • Dan Undersander

  • Forage Specialist
  • University of Wisconsin
  • Email Dan Undersander