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Limit Feeding Corn With Forage an Option to Get Through Drought

This is the August 25, 2020 Drought Map for the U.S. Click for a larger version and to see other drought maps. For our Canadian readers, here’s a link to conditions in your area.

OK, I know I’m going to get smacked around just for mentioning feeding corn. But hear me out. Drought has hit a lot of places this summer resulting in poorer pastures heading into winter, and as usual, the cost of hay goes up when precipitation goes down. Alternatives for folks in this situation are to destock, and/or find another way to feed livestock through the winter. The solution must be cost-effective and ensure pregnant cows stay healthy until spring calving. What you decide to do will be based on your goals and resources.

Corn could be one of those resources. According to Erin Laborie, Nebraska Extension Educator, current prices make corn a competitive option to feeding hay. “Considering corn has a higher energy content than hay, the cost of feeding hay is often higher than corn on a price per pound of energy basis,” Laborie says. “For example, corn priced at $3.30/bushel ($118/ton) equates to approximately $0.08 per pound of total digestible nutrients (TDN) while hay priced at $100/ton is nearly $0.11 per pound of TDN.”

Cows Maintain Condition

Photo by Troy Walz

A November to April feeding trial at Ohio State University looked at the cost of limit-feeding corn as an alternative to hay for mature cows in gestation and early lactation. One group was fed 11 pounds of shelled corn, 2.5 pounds of pelleted supplement, and 2 pounds of hay (dry matter basis). The other was given free choice hay and a salt/mineral mix. The free choice hay group ate twice as much feed, doubling the feed costs of the cows limit fed corn.

There was no impact on performance, conception rate or calf weaning weight of the limit fed group, making this technique potentially viable for producers.

But it’s not as simple as just buying some corn and putting it out for your herd. Corn is a high energy feed, so to prevent cows eating too much and getting over-fat, it has to be limit fed. In addition, corn is low in protein, so they’ll need a 30-40% protein supplement. Finally, to maintain rumen function and prevent digestive upsets, you’ll still need to give them some forage – about .25-.5% of body weight on a dry matter basis.

Sounds complicated, right?

Understanding Your Cow’s Feed-Mixing Abilities Could Make it Easier

In this August 2015 article, we looked at research and practical experience that showed that animals can do a great job of choosing what they need to maintain themselves, and , as in the OSU study, they can do it at a lower cost than when we do the mixing for them. Read the article for more detail, but the main take away comes to us from a bison rancher in Wyoming. He put corn and dry brewers grain from the local Budweiser plant and a round bale of alfalfa hay in his bulk hay feeder. His on-going acidosis problem was solved, weight gains went up, and feed costs and labor went down. d

Cattle and Bison are Better Than You At Feed Mixing

This means that if you choose to do something like limit-feeding corn to get through a rough patch, you can work with your animals to make it as cost effective and easy as possible.

How to Do This at Home

Erin Laborie shares these tips for success. You might adjust some of them based on how you work with your animals as they mix their own diets.

1. Adjust cows to the limit fed diet over a week to ten-day period by gradually increasing the corn and reducing the hay to desired levels. This will help cows transition to the new ration and minimize digestive upsets.

2. Provide at least 24 to 30 inches of bunk space per cow. Adequate space is needed to ensure that all cows have an opportunity to eat the limited feed that will be provided.

3. Utilize an ionophore to improve feed efficiency and help minimize digestive upsets.

4. Divide cows into groups based on age and pecking order, if possible, so that boss cows do not keep younger and more timid cows from getting their share of the ration.

5. Realize that cows will act hungry when receiving a limit fed diet, even though the ration is meeting the nutrient needs of the cow.

6. Feed cows at a consistent time each day to help minimize cows displaying discontented behavior.

7. Adjust the ration for changes in the cow’s nutrient requirements as needed. The nutrient needs of the cow are highest during late gestation and early lactation. Additionally, cold weather events can increase the energy requirements of the cow.

As for quantities, here’s what Steven Loerch suggests in the Ohio BEEF Cattle letter:

1. Feed 5 lbs first cutting hay, supplement and 12 lbs whole shelled corn (per cow basis). The protein and mineral supplement should be similar to that used for feedlot cattle fed a high-grain diet. An example is given below.

2. Feed corn whole. Ohio State research shows that whole corn works better than ground corn when daily hay intake is limited to less than five pounds.

3. Adjust corn intake to achieve desired weight and/or body condition score. Cows will need about 1% of their body weight during cold winter months and as they enter lactation.

4. When starting the program, take 7-10 days adjusting up the corn and decreasing hay to the 5 lb level. Make sure bunk space is adequate so all cows get their share and that cows are in a securely fenced area.

5. Example supplement (feed at 2 lb/cow/day):

Ground corn 32.1
Soybean meal 45.6
Urea 4.1
Limestone 7.8
Dicalcium phosphate 4.3
Trace mineral salt 3.2
Dyna K 2.3
Selenium premix (200 ppm) .4
Vitamin premix (Vit A, 15,000
IU/gram; Vitamin D, 1,500 IU/gram)
Rumensin 80 (192 mg Rumensin/hd/d) .12

NOTE: This supplement contains the following nutrients: Crude protein, 36%; Calcium, 3.76%; Phosphorus, 1.00%. If using a commercial supplement, feed according to bag instructions.

6. Example Start up:

Day 1 and 2 Feed 4 lbs whole shelled corn + 1 lb supplement + 12 lbs hay
Day 3 and 4 Feed 6 lbs corn + 1 lb supplement + 8 lbs hay
Day 5 and 6 Feed 8 lbs corn + 1 lb supplement + 5 lbs hay
Day 7 and 8 Feed 10 lbs corn + 1 lb supplement + 5 lbs hay
After Day 8 Feed 12 lbs corn + 1 lb supplement + 5 lbs hay; adjust corn based on cow condition(cold weather; pre- and post-calving). Adjust up or down 2 lbs if cows are getting too thin or too fat.

Supplement should be 30-40% protein (protein source doesn’t matter; NPN is ok)., 4-5% Calcium, and should contain Rumensin or Bovatec. Hay quality is not important; straw, stalks, or poor quality first cutting hay is fine.

Final Thoughts

Click here for a list of articles on drought and managing through it.

Yes, I know for many people corn is a 4-letter word. (Well it’s always a 4-letter word, but you know what I mean.) My point in sharing this information is that I know there are some folks out there struggling with what to do this winter thanks to the drought that visited them. Here at On Pasture, we’ve covered all kinds of ways to manage through drought, but sometimes folks get caught in a bad spot. If that’s you, I know you’ll make good choices based on your goals. This is just one more resource for you to consider.

Be safe out there!

Thanks to Erin Laborie’s article in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s BEEF Watch newsletter for inspiring and contributing to this piece.

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Vothhttps://onpasture.com
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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