As pasture and hay sources dry up because of continued drought, livestock producers are turning to temporary feed fixes.

One possible option is the ammoniating of wheat straw or hay cut after fescue seed harvest. Despite rising nitrogen costs and reduced availability, this method makes a low-quality product more nutritious.

The process: Fescue-stubble hay or wheat-straw bales are weighed, stacked, covered and sealed in black 6-mil plastic and treated with anhydrous ammonia.

Treated wheat straw will show a 15-20% increase in digestibility when fed to beef cows. Crude protein content will double and intake will improve, according to Kansas State University (KSU) research.

Anhydrous melts the lignin-cellulose bonds in wheat straw, increasing microbial activity, says Dale Blasi, KSU Extension beef specialist. “It will take the protein anywhere from 3% or 4% in native straw to 8% or 9%. At the end of the day, it basically brings wheat straw up to a level comparable to prairie hay.”

Bales are weighed to help determine how much anhydrous should be added. Although the application rate has been around 2.5-3% of the actual weight of the straw or hay, Blasi says lower rates have been successful.

“One of my colleagues actually did a very simple demo last year, and he received comparable results with the 1.5% rate,” he says. KSU professor emeritus Keith Bolsen, in previous research, came up with the same conclusion.

That could cut anhydrous costs by a possible $7/ton out of total treatment costs, including product, plastic and labor, of $40-50/ton, he estimates.

Curtis and Ralph Schallert, Purdy, MO, ammoniate fescue-stubble hay for their yearling cattle and run a custom-ammoniation business.

“There are more people treating hay this year than last year,” says Curtis Schallert. “I’d say in the last 10 days, I’ve had at least a phone call a day from people wanting to go out to Kansas to try to pick up some wheat straw and treat it for a backup forage.”

Their fescue-hay treatment business counts dairy producers as customers, depending on the year, he says.

“They will treat the stubble and supplement their alfalfa hay to get their fiber up in the diet. One dairyman will tell you it actually increases the butterfat by a couple tenths of a point. He probably treats 400-500 bales a year, has a TMR wagon, puts a limited amount in there, and stretches his qood-quality forage.”

One point the Schallerts’ customers forget, however, is that animals will consume about 20% more of the treated product than untreated hay and producers are surprised when it doesn’t stretch as far as they originally thought.

The main downside to ammoniation, other than anhydrous cost and availability, is possible toxicity problems, says Tim Schnakenberg, University of Missouri Extension agronomist.

Too much anhydrous, or if the hay quality is higher than average, can cause “crazy-cow syndrome,” a nervous, excitable condition in cattle that can result in deaths, he warns.

Ammoniated feed “is a very good option” for cow-calf operations, Schnakenberg says. “We may be a little short on energy if that’s all they feed them and depending on what stage the cows are in. There may be a point where they’re close to calving time and they’ll need supplementation. But for a dry cow, this will take care of her for awhile.

“One good thing about this is, by the time you buy your black plastic, you’ve already bought your barn for the year. It’s your storage,” he points out. But the treated feed needs to stay covered as much as possible, because it will deteriorate much quicker after ammoniation than untreated.

Schallert suggests baling wheat straw in the evening and letting it stand to take on as much moisture as it can. “The way the anhydrous is distributed through the pile is through moisture. It takes some moisture to make this work.”

Time is of the essence, according to Blasi. Treating wheat straw in hot weather, with adequate moisture, takes about four to five days vs. four to six weeks at colder temperatures.

“We’re really on the bandwagon for people to get on this,” he says. “As severe and extensive as this drought is, we’re going to be short hay. It’s going to be a lifesaver for a lot of people.”