As the livestock industry adjusts to higher feed costs, alternatives such as ammoniating low-quality forages may be worth considering this fall.

Treating wheat, barley or oat straw, cornstalks or very mature, low-quality grass hay with anhydrous ammonia can boost crude protein levels to 8-9%, increase digestibility 10-30% and improve livestock intake of those feeds by 15-20%.

The caveat in deciding whether or not to ammoniate low-quality forages this year hinges on anhydrous ammonia prices. “The dramatic run-up in prices for anhydrous ammonia over the past year makes the economics of ammoniation more challenging,” says North Dakota State University extension beef specialist Greg Lardy. “I think producers will really have to look at this on a case-by-case basis.”

But, given the high cost of most feeds this fall, Twig Marston, district director of the University of Nebras-ka's Northeast Research and Exten-sion Center at Norfolk, believes there are opportunities where ammoniating may be economical, even with the increased cost of anhydrous. How-ever, like Lardy, he says producers need to set up a budget to help determine if ammoniating forages pencils out.

Lardy gives this example for calculating costs:

Estimated costs to treat 1 ton of forage are $25.50-30 for anhydrous ammonia (based on $850-1,000/ton of ammonia), and $5.43-9.05 for plastic ($181 for 6-millimeter black and white plastic, 40 × 100'), for a total of $30.93-39.05/ton.

If wheat straw costs $45-50/ton, the total cost of ammoniated wheat straw in this example would be $75.93-89.05/ton.

To help make ammoniating more cost-effective, reduce the amount of anhydrous applied, Marston suggests. The process normally takes 3% anhydrous ammonia (about 60 lbs/ton of dry forage) to get the full chemical reaction on feed intake and digestibility. Producers might want to apply only 2-2.5% anhydrous to cut costs and still get 80-90% of the desired results on the forage, he says.

Lardy and Marston say producers should also consider:

Straw costs. Specifically, Lardy says, “You need to have a cost-effective source of straw or crop residue to make this work. If you are not in an area where these are available, it probably isn't going to make sense to pay somebody to truck in straw and anhydrous from long distance in order to ammoniate it. In that situation, it may be better to look at other alternatives, such as transporting higher-quality feeds, having somebody custom-feed your cows or haul your cows to cornstalks.”

Safety. “Safety has to come first with this chemical. It is extremely hazardous,” Lardy says. “Having the right safety equipment and taking the proper precautions will prevent accidents.”

Marston adds, “If you cannot handle the bale stacking, plastic covering, and/or the anhydrous ammonia application and storage, then consider some other alternative to improve forage quality.”

How you'll feed it. The experts agree that ammoniated forage works best for wintering gestating cows up to 50 days prior to calving. But, Marston says, “If you start a winter feeding program with ammoniated forage and switch midseason, cattle do not seem to want to go back to the ammoniated forages.”

He has also found that young cattle can be finicky and may not eat ammoniated forage. Mixing it with other forages can improve acceptance.

As a final tip, ammoniated feeds should be analyzed before they're fed to determine actual nutrient content. And phosphorus, trace minerals and vitamin A should be added to the diet whenever ammoniated residues are fed.

North Dakota State University has an updated extension bulletin detailing the process of ammoniating low-quality forages and calculating the economics. View it at niationoflowquality.html.