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When facing a forage shortage, feeding strategies and a TMR Mixer can help

April 17, 2023

A few years ago the combination of unusually warm and dry conditions in the summer left areas of the Northern Plains in the US and Canadian Prairie with reduced and more costly forage supplies.  In some cases, this will made feeding the beef herd more challenging and expensive during the winter.  In such situations, the challenge is often exacerbated by a reduction of forage resources available for grazing, and the need to start feeding earlier, and for a longer period, than when forage availability is more normal.  During times of decreased forage availability, changing feeding strategies, including using a TMR mixer, can help decrease feeding cost and maintain profitability.

It’s hard, and expensive, to buy forage during a shortage:

When forage supplies are tight, the usual response is to try to purchase additional supplies elsewhere.  But, the resulting increase in demand can alter the amount of forage available for purchase and quickly raises prices. This is exactly what happened this year as demand from the drought in the Northern Prairies caused an increase in the price of hay and a flow of supplies from the Canadian Plains into the Northern Prairies, largely due to the favorable exchange rate for the U.S. dollar.

Focus on nutritional requirements, not pounds of hay or straw:

When on-farm forage supplies are inadequate, the traditional tendency is to buy the cheapest forage available by weight, or per bale, as opposed to basing purchases on the cost per unit of energy, or other required nutrient(s).  This, at times, can be a costly approach.

Table: Selected North Dakota feed prices1

CP2 TDN3 Cost Cost
(% DM) (% DM) $/Ton ¢/lb. TDN
Hay:  Premium 16-22 61 200 16.4
         Good 14-20 59 150 12.7
         Fair 10-18 55 120 10.9
         Utility 6-12 50 100 10.0
Straw 3-5 42 80 9.5
Corn 8-10 90 98 5.4
Barley 12-14 84 85 5.1
Corn distillers (DDGS) 26-28 86 105 6.1
Corn gluten feed 18-21 83 100 6.0
Malt sprouts 14-16 74 115 7.8
Soybean hulls 8-10 80 100 6.3
Wheat midds 15-18 83 80 4.8

As the table shows, prices for hay in North Dakota this fall were considerably higher than normal, with a considerable premium being paid for better quality forage.  However, due to abundant supplies, low prices for corn meant that cost of both grains and grain co-products (by-products) were substantially less based on cost per pound of TDN. This means that there may be considerable opportunity for lowering winter feeding costs by supplementing on-farm forage supplies with purchased off-farm ingredients.

Alternative Ingredients:

On-farm production of forages is generally cost-effective due to its low cost of production, relative to purchasing feed elsewhere.  When on-farm yields are adversely affected, the first option may be to harvest failed crops or crop residues in the surrounding area.  However, this is not always possible, or the asking price may be excessive due to the aggregate demand from others similarly affected.  One of the challenges with harvesting salvaged crops or crop residue is generally low nutritional and poor physical quality.  This often leads to high levels of wastage from animal selection and spoilage.  As a rule of thumb, if the cost of purchasing grain is less than 1.7 times higher than the cost of salvaging forage (e.g. per DM ton, net of wastage), it may be easier and economical to supplement with grain and/or a co-product.

Alternative feeding methods:

Supplemental feeding can be used to extend grazing capacity, as well as the on-farm forage supplies.

Grazing supplementation: Adverse weather conditions can not only decrease winter feed supplies, but also forage available for grazing, leading either to over-grazing, or the need to start winter feeding earlier.  An alternative is to supply a portion of the nutritional requirements through supplemental feeding on pasture, enabling one to continue grazing for the normal amount of time without negatively impacting animal performance or future pasture productivity.  Supplemental feeding can also be used to successfully grazing alternative forage sources such as crop residues.

Consider limit feeding: The traditional method of feeding beef cattle is to let the animals eat a given quality of forage more-or-less to appetite.  An alternative, it to formulate a more concentrated ration based on a reduced amount forage plus concentrates, and then feed a limited amount per head on a daily basis, ensuring that all animals can eat at the same time to get their respective share.  This is often a more cost-effective way of feeding when the nutritional cost of concentrates is less than that of forages.

The value of a TMR mixer:

The ability to take advantage of alternative feeding opportunities when forage availability is decreased is often limited by the feeding method(s) used.  When forages and concentrates are fed separately, waste increases dramatically as forage quality declines and unfamiliar sources are introduced, whereas manual grain feeding may be laborious and uniform intake is hard to achieve.

It is at times like this that owning a vertical TMR mixer is particularly appreciated and cost-effective.  An appropriately sized TMR mixer permits one to blend forages of differing quality and palatability, along with the desired types and amounts of concentrates, to make rations that are appropriate for feeding any type of situation, from supplementation on pasture to limit feeding during winter, while minimizing waste.

In the past, the size and cost of vertical TMR mixers tended to be beyond the needs of cow-calf producers with smaller herds.  Recently, one company, Jaylor, has introduced two “mid-size” models that should be ideal for smaller cow-calf producers: the Jaylor 5150 and the Jaylor 5275 (see Figure).

The Jaylor 5150 is a single auger, vertical mixer, with 155ft³ cubic foot (4.4m³) capacity (200 cu. ft. with extension) that is capable of processing 4×4 round bales (up to about 500 lbs.) and mixing up to 5,000 lbs. of feed, with only a 35 horsepower tractor.  The Jaylor 5275 is a single auger, vertical mixer, with 300 cubic foot (8.5m³) capacity (350 cu. ft. with extension) that is capable of processing up to 4×5 round bales (up to about 1000 lbs.) and mixing up to 8,500 lbs. of feed, with only a 45 horsepower tractor.  If producers have larger bales than the mixers can handle whole, a portion of the bale can be added to the mixer.  This can be done using a bale shear, or facilitated by partially pre-cutting the forage during baling.

It is during times of drought and forage shortages that many beef producers try a TMR mixer for the first time. Most are amazed at the cost savings and improvements in performance that are realized; I do not know of any that returned to their previous ways …“Because Nutrition Matters®”.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of American Cattlemen. It has been updated for completeness and accuracy.