Travis Meteer, University of Illinois Extension beef specialist, explains how utilizing cornstalks can extend the grazing season. The feed value of corn residue, though, varies.
Travis Meteer, University of Illinois Extension beef specialist, explains how utilizing cornstalks can extend the grazing season. The feed value of corn residue, though, varies.
UTICA, Ill. — There is a lot of forage that is underutilized.

“Cornstalks are that No. 1 forage that is underutilized,” said Travis Meteer, University of Illinois Extension beef specialist. “A lot of those cornstalks get tilled under, and there is a lot of value there.”

Grazing cornstalks is one way to extend the grazing season.

“We’re not going to fight corn production because Illinois is a row-crop state,” said Meteer at the Keys to Profitability and Sustainability in a Changing Beef Industry meeting sponsored by the U of I Extension.

“If you are a row-crop farmer and you have cattle, there’s synergy right there, and grazing cornstalks makes that work,” he noted.

The feed value of corn residue varies.

“Cows can gain weight on cornstalks during the first 30 days with two to three cows per acre,” Meteer said. “After the first month, the nutrition goes down because they have consumed the higher feed value portions of the plant.”

For a U of I trial, researchers strip grazed cattle on cornstalks and supplemented them with distillers grains. The trial included three treatments — 1 cow per acre, 1.5 cows per acre with the fence moved every two weeks and 1.5 cows per acre with the fence moved every week.

“All cows were fed 4 pounds of distillers grains, and the cows gained weight and had an increase in body condition score,” the beef specialist reported. “And the cows were fed for under $1 per day.”

Meteer stressed the importance of testing feeds.

“We’ve had corn gluten test from 18 to 22 percent protein and distillers grains from 22 to 28 percent protein,” he said.

If a cattleman doesn’t have the opportunity for the herd to graze cornstalks, another option is the bale them.

For a trial at the Orr Center, 164 head of Angus and Simmental cows were put on one of four diets while they were lactating. The control diet was ad lib access to mixed alfalfa hay, and three other groups were fed distillers grains together with ad lib access to cornstalk residue bales, a high level of ground cornstalk residue or a low level of ground cornstalk residue.

“For dry matter disappearance, the cows wasted the most with the hay and they dropped 60 pounds so they could not eat enough hay to maintain themselves,” the specialist said. “There was no statistical difference between the diets in milk production, calf average daily gain or first AI conception rate.”

When comparing the four diets, he said, for the hay diet, the cows lost the most weight, had the poorest reproduction rate and the diet cost the most at $3.25 per head per day.

“There’s value in feeding cornstalks and supplementing with a co-product,” he added.

“We work really hard getting hay up without any rain, but we don’t think about what costs come with feeding hay,” Meteer noted. “There’s a lot of cost in preparing that hay, and the biggest cost is waste because we waste a lot of hay.”

When round bales of hay are stored outside unprotected, at least the outer 6 inches of that bale will spoil, he reported.

“That’s one-third of the bale in the outer 6 inches,” he said.

“The current hay price for good quality alfalfa hay is $210 per ton, and utility grass hay is $120 per ton in big round bales,” he noted. “This stuff is not cheap.”

A U of I research trial included 72 Simmental cows in their second to third trimester. These cows were given 24-hour access to hay or they were limit fed hay for nine, six or three hours.

“The big key if you’re going to limit-feed hay is you have to use good-quality hay,” Meteer stressed. “If you limit-feed poor quality hay, that will cause your cows to loose weight because as hay quality decreases, consumption decreases.”

All cows in the trial gained weight, which means the hay met or exceeded their needs and the manure production increase linearly with increased access time to hay.

“The three-hour period is not very feasible,” the specialist noted. “But for the six- and nine-hour access, the cow intake levels off and the waste decreased quite a bit compared to ad lib.”

The cows wasted about 50 percent less hay by limiting their access time to the feeder.

“The cost savings were 50 to 60 cents per cow, per day,” Meteer reported. “That’s real money.”

Not all hay feeders were created equal when it comes to how much hay cows waste.

At Michigan State University, researchers evaluated several bale feeders including a trailer, a cone insert in a ring feeder, a ring feeder and a cradle.

“Those trailer feeders aren’t cheap, and they waste a lot of hay — 11.4 percent,” Meteer said.

“The cone inserts can pay for themselves pretty fast. The waste was 3.5 percent, and it was double that for a ring feeder.”

A similar bale feeder research study at Oklahoma State University reported a 5 percent waste with a cone feeder and a regular ring feeder resulted in a 13 percent waste.

“It’s not hard to figure out you can invest a little bit and buy the right kind of hay feeder,” Meteer said.