Margins are precariously thin for cow-calf and stocker operations. As the time has come to hunker down for winter feeding and grazing, harvested forage quality may very well be the determining factor between profit or loss.

Though it’s too late to change the quality of stored feeds, knowing what it is will aid in making some important feed supplementation decisions as we wait for a spring pasture rebirth.

“Step 1 in developing a winter supplementation plan is to evaluate your forage base,” said Brandi Karisch, beef extension specialist for Mississippi State University, during a recent Southeast Cattle Advisor webinar. “That entails determining how much you have, how much you’ll need, and what the forage quality is for your various hay types.”

Karisch suggested being conservative when estimating hay needs. This involves planning for a longer than average supplemental feeding season and making realistic estimates of storage and feeding losses. “For large round bales stored outside without any protection, storage losses can be in excess of 30 percent,” Karisch noted. “In contrast, those same losses will be less than 5 percent for hay stored in an enclosed barn.”

To calculate per-cow daily hay needs, Karisch used the example of a 1,200-pound lactating cow with average milk production eating 2.5 percent of body weight. Multiplying 1,200 pounds by 2.5 percent, she noted the cow would consume about 30 pounds of dry matter, or 34 pounds of “as-fed” hay (assuming 12 percent moisture).

Next, she multiplied 34 pounds times 120 days to determine the total amount of hay needed per cow for four months — about 4,100 pounds.

Finally, a realistic estimate of storage and feeding loss is needed. For example, if those losses are estimated at 20 percent (hay stored uncovered and on the ground), then the actual amount of hay needed per cow would be 5,125 pounds per cow, or six 850-pound bales per cow.

It’s also important to recognize that forage quality will dictate not just supplement needs but also how much forage a cow will eat. A low-quality forage may only be consumed at 1.5 percent of body weight (if no supplement is fed) compared to a high-quality forage at 2.5 percent. That’s a difference of 18 pounds of hay per head per day for a 1,200-pound cow. Intake will also be dictated by whether a cow is in lactation and by how much milk it is producing.

Focus on protein

Applying nitrogen fertilizer or incorporating legume species into grass pastures or hayfields pays off with improved summer productivity and forage quality. These strategies also pay big dividends during winter in the form of stored forage or stockpiled pastures with higher protein concentrations.

“If fed forage is below 7 to 8 percent protein, we’re not giving the rumen bacteria enough nitrogen to do their job. Everything slows down and forage is not digested as quickly,” Karisch said.

Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University emeritus extension animal scientist, agrees. “Higher quality forages are more readily digested in the rumen and have higher rates of passage through the digestive tract of the cow than do lower quality forages,” he said in OSU’s Cow/Calf Corner newsletter.

Selk went on to write, “Producers may be surprised to know the large differences in protein supplement needed to meet the cow’s requirement depending on the quality of forage that makes up the majority of the diet.” To be sure, the cost of that supplement may dictate black or red on the bottom line.

If you hang your hat in an area where cool-season annuals don’t provide quality pasture forage through the winter, it’s likely that some protein supplement source such as soy hulls or distillers grains will need to be fed. Karisch recommends pricing your supplement based on the cost per pound of protein in the supplement to find the most economical source. “Sometimes the lowest total cost supplement on a per-ton basis is not the best deal on a cost per pound of protein basis,” she said.

Don’t forget energy

Both Karisch and Selk remind cattle producers to also consider energy in the feed supplement decision. Once again, forage quality and intake, along with the cows’ production status, will dictate if additional total digestible nutrients (TDN) are needed.

“Attempt to find a supplement that will most closely match both protein and energy needs,” Karisch said. “It’s not economical to overfeed energy just to meet protein needs unless cows need to improve body condition.” Even so, she noted that the most economical time to put body condition on cows is right after weaning when their energy requirements are lowest.

Quality counts

Though forage quality may not carry quite the level of importance in a beef herd as a dairy herd, there are still some bottom end limits that need to be set. It’s clear that low forage quality coupled with high storage and feeding losses can severely cut into to the bottom line. Lower production, reduced reproductive performance, and/or higher purchased feed costs caused by low-quality forage will just add to the misery of tanking beef prices.

In the end, it always seems to come down to harvesting and preserving forage quality.