Putting hay is a challenge, says Patrick Wall, a beef specialist at Iowa State University Extension.
“The hay stock is definitely less than ideal,” he says. “There’s still quite a bit of hay coming to market. But it’s $100 to $120 per bale for good quality stuff.”
Wall says farmers have an incentive to keep their livestock, and those who sell crops at high prices have some options.
“Some diversified farmers pay some of that corn dividend to maintain their cow herd,” he says.
Whether it’s optimism about the cattle market in 2023 or simply an unwillingness to get rid of their cows, he says, the logic varies for different farms.
“Some people are flat-footed and won’t let go of their cows,” he says.
Gene Schmitz, a livestock specialist at the University of Missouri Extension, says there is variation depending on where the producers are located.
“The feeding situation appears to be region-specific,” he says. “Sufficient rain fell in some areas of the state and some not so much.”
Schmitz, who is based in Bettis County, says the hay supply is generally low in Missouri.
“The amount of decrease was exactly where you were at,” he says.
In addition to the weather, Schmitz says hay supplies are down due to higher fertilizer costs in the spring and farmers making calculated decisions.
Wall, who is based in Marion County in south-central Iowa, says the first cut was decent for most producers, but then the second and third cuts were lacking. He says many farmers are looking to get rid of cornstalks.
“There were more bales of cornstalk wrapped in this area than ever before,” he says.
Wall says adding liquid protein to corn stalk bales can be beneficial, and the leaves absorb it.
“It makes the forage value better,” he says.
Bales of corn stalks can have a lot of waste, Schmitz says, as their main value lies in the leaves and husks. They are most beneficial if they can be ground, he says, and producers can supplement cornstalks to help meet nutritional needs. Another option is to turn the cattle into cornfields if at all possible, because then they can also eat stray ears of corn that didn’t make it to harvest.
“The most cost-effective way is to graze those stems,” he says.
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When it comes to managing the nutritional needs of livestock during times of short forage supplies, Wall says it’s important to remember that those animals’ needs remain the same whether hay is short or there is plenty. Also, if cows with spring calves experience forage shortages from the drought into fall and aren’t in good body condition, now is the time to try to add to their body condition, which he says won’t be possible once they’re born and start feeding their calf.
In areas where the corn crop has failed due to drought, Wall says much of it has been forked for fodder. He says silage can be a useful feed source even for corn that doesn’t produce an ear.
“It’s still really helpful,” he says.
When it comes to getting through times of hay supply shortages, Schmitz says, familiar strategies apply. Farmers should have their hay tested so they know what supplement they need, and sort cows by body condition and age to put them into groups based on their needs.
“It makes for more collections, more chores, but it can be cost-effective,” Schmitz says.
He says producers could also consider culling cows that are due to give birth at a later date. This will tighten the calving windows, and get the cattle into more similar running groups. Energy requirements vary widely once cows are born, and getting more cows on schedule with each other and calving times can make it easier to manage nutritional needs. Producers can also sort the cows into early and late breeding groups, Schmitz says.
He says reducing hay waste is another key strategy. For cows that are doing well with high-quality hay, restricting access to hay for 12 hours per day can reduce waste by 5 to 10%, Schmitz says.
“They need to make sure that every animal has room to eat,” he says.
Using a bale ring with sheets around the bottom can also reduce hay waste, as opposed to an open bottom feeder. Also, cone-shaped feeders can also reduce the amount of hay that goes to waste.
“These are savings that can be made depending on your methods,” says Schmitz.
To give producers an idea of what this could mean financially, Schmitz says that considering buying a 1,200-pound bale and a 1,200-pound cow, at $65 a bale, and reducing hay waste from 20% to 10% could save $52.80 in forage costs that exceeding 120 days. Looking at the 1,000-pound bales, the savings come out to $66 per cow over 120 days.
Schmitz says he also recommends that people buy and sell hay based on weight, not per bale.
“We don’t sell corn at half load,” he says.
Looking ahead, Wall says some farmers may need to make more culling decisions, though he says some don’t really want to get rid of any more cows.
“If you’re paying $120 for a round bale of hay, you’ve probably dumped all the cows you’re going to dump,” he says.
Wall also believes that early culling due to drought made the forage situation more manageable.
“There has been enough liquidation in the cow herd that the needed hay stocks are less than they used to be,” he says.
It’s a good idea to “push the pencil” and see if it makes sense to keep all the cows or cull some, Schmitz says. He says it could be a difficult winter for many farmers and their hay supplies.
“It’s very narrow in places,” Schmitz says.