February 05, 2023

Testing forage vital for formulating rations

MACOMB, Ill. — Forages are the base component of cattle rations.

“When you’re trying to maximize animal performance or keep the animal’s health in tip-top shape, it starts with the animal’s diet,” said Travis Meteer, University of Illinois Extension commercial agriculture educator.

“If we’re not testing our forages, it’s hard to manage and to get the diets correct and a forage analysis is not very expensive,” said Meteer during a presentation at the 2022 Illinois Beef Association Summer Conference and Illinois Forage and Grassland Council Forage Expo.

When taking a forage sample for testing, Meteer said, it is important to identify the lot of hay accurately including the cutting, the field and how it is stored.

“Some of the fields in low-lying areas have different grass species than the upland areas which may have a different nutrient quality of hay,” he said.

Taking a core sample is superior to a grab sample, Meteer said.

“Grab samples are better than nothing, but they are less reliable than a core sample,” he said.

For a square bale, Meteer recommends taking the core sample going in from the end of the bale to get hay from each of the flakes and for a big round bale to go in from the side to get hay from each layer.

“That helps us get a more representative value of that bale and 10 to 20 cores per lot is probably the right number,” he said.

When taking a core sample, it is important to avoid separation.

“When you core a bale, you have a lot of fines and bigger pieces, and if you let all the fines fall out on the ground and send in the big pieces, your hay test will not look very good,” Meteer said. “Make sure you’re collecting the entire sample.”

Utilizing a forage probe has a lot of value for hay producers.

“If you don’t have a forage probe, many Extension offices around the state have free access for probes,” Meteer said. “Or, have your nutritionist sample your forages.”

After taking a sample, Meteer recommends using spray paint to mark the front of the bale for identification.

“When you get the results back, you can match them with the bale lot,” he said.

A forage analysis test costs about $25.

“The return on investment is huge, especially with the cost of supplements and commodities,” Meteer said. “This is valuable information, so don’t hesitate to reach out and get an understanding of what you’ve got.”

Under Wraps

To protect hay after it is baled, producers should consider the different quality of net wraps.

“Think about the quality and how many times you will move the hay,” said Gregg Zurliene, forage and livestock product specialist for Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners. “A lot of things upfront can save you time on the backside in hay production.”

For dry hay, Zurliene recommends at least 2.5 wraps.

“For a wet bale, I don’t recommend anything below three wraps because of the number times you handle the bales,” he said. “You want a smooth bale, and when you get blemishes by decreasing the number of wraps, material sticks through and that’s what pops the plastic.”

When making cornstalk bales, Zurliene wraps them eight times.

“A cornstalk bale to me is only as good as how much dry material is inside,” the forage specialist said.

“If I’m trying to bed calves with a wet bale, I’m incubating my problem,” he said.

Chew On This

“Putting that extra dollar or two on that bale will save you a live calf in March or April.”

Mark Wells purchased his first TMR mixer in the late ‘90s.

“A TMR mixer is one tool we can put on our farm to do any kind of ration,” he said. “We had some drought years and I had to buy hay, so I went to using a TMR where I could make rations without the waste.”

Wells stopped using hay rings to feed his cattle.

“I windrow the ration right out of the mixer in the field,” he said. “When you mix the ration to the proper 2.5- to 3-inch chew size, the cattle do really well.”

Before the cattleman started using a TMR mixer, sometimes the rations were irregular.

“The strong cows came to the bunk line first and pushed the weaker cows away,” he said. “But with a TMR, I’m putting the exact same ration at the beginning to the end so the weak calves at the end are getting the same ration as the strong cows.”

In addition to making rations more uniform, Wells said, a TMR mixer also helps to improve cattle performance while reducing feed waste.

“It gives me the ability to use different feeds including cornstalks, long-stemmed hay, wheatlage, baleage or rye,” he said.

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor