Feeding cattle throughout the fall and winter when feed is short can be a challenge for cattle producers. Forage prices have more than doubled in price, and the pastureland has failed to grow leaving producers with few options.
However, there are alternative feed sources that producers can utilize that will help to cut costs, and help them retain more cows. Corn stalks are a great asset in Nebraska, and one that producers should look to use in the upcoming months.
“I think with the drought we have been experiencing, sourcing feed has been a challenge for a lot of producers. Anytime you get into one that is as widespread as this one is, it’s a problem. I think corn stalks will be utilized more this year than ever in the past,” said Rick Rasby, Professor and Extension Beef Specialist, University of Nebraska.
He continued, “You may need to source more stalks this year because you are going onto those fields earlier. It will be a good feed resource since we don’t have enough hay. It’s a good feed alternative.”
Cattle can be grazed on corn stalks that have been taken for grain, as well as drought-stressed standing corn. The key to grazing cattle successfully this way, however, is in the preparation.
When grazing cattle on corn stalks, cattle must first be full when they go onto the stalks. “Feed some sort of old hay for a day or so before you turn them out. If you are going to have any problems it will be because they are hungry. If you fill them up they will graze like they typically graze,” said Rasby.
High nitrates in the stalk can be a concern, but only if cattle are left on the stalks so long that they are forced to eat the bottom 1/3 of the stalk.
“Cattle that are experienced grazers are selective. They will eat the husk and the leaves first. Until you force the cows to eat the stalk, especially the bottom third, they should be fine. They are going to adapt themselves to a certain extent,” he said.
Grazing cattle on damaged standing corn is also an option for producers. “Grazing standing corn eliminates the costs of harvesting, transporting, drying and storing grain. Expenses for cutting stalks for hay or chopping silage also are avoided. Plus, letting cattle do the harvest eliminates yardage expenses, manure hauling, and feed processing and handling,” said Dr. Bruce Anderson, Extension Forage Specialist, University of Nebraska.
Before cattle are moved onto standing corn feeds, they must first be transitioned to a higher grain diet to help the cattle adjust to the different diet.
“After a brief learning period, cattle will preferentially graze corn ears if any have developed. Drought-damaged corn may not have many ears, but if much grain has developed, the cattle first need to adapt to a higher grain diet before grazing corn begins. Otherwise, acidosis or other digestive disorders could develop,” Anderson said.
However, producers do need to be aware of the condition of their cattle, and graze the field in strips to help prevent the cattle from all of the the grain first.
“Dry cows may become fat and over-conditioned grazing standing corn, especially if grain is present. Even without grain, barren stalks can be surprisingly high in nutrient concentration because protein and energy that normally would have been transferred to the grain has instead been stored in the stalk and leaves,” said Anderson.
He suggests only giving cattle a two-days supply of feed at a time to start, and moving them around a field to prevent trampling. Younger calves may need to be moved every day, and older cows twice a week.
“As a starting guide, each acre of standing corn that is about 6-feet tall and tasseled should provide enough grazing for about 100 cows for one day. In other words, provide 435 square feet of standing corn for each cow for each day of grazing in the first strip,” he said.
In either situation, cattle must have access to clean, fresh water. If fences are not present, electric fence can be used to keep cows in an area, and to divide up fields.
“Electric fence is used most commonly for cross fences, but animals must be trained to respect these fences before entering the corn field,” Anderson said. “Driving over a strip of corn with a tractor, pickup, or four-wheeler before placing the fence in the strip makes it easier to set up the fence and visually alerts the cattle that the fence is nearby. Constructing multiple strips ahead of time provides a catch area if the original fence fails to keep animals in the desired smaller area.”
Rasby suggests weaning cows now, to give the cows the best chance to maintain weight and to put more gain on the calf. “As early as you can wean, the better. If you can get that calf off that cow and feed him directly, those cows will maintain weight on about any feed,” he said.
There are other options that can be used instead of corn stalks, or in conjunction with them. Low-quality forages are also a good option, if they can be found.
“Forage production has been cut in half to two-thirds. It will be a challenge to source feed. I think producers are going to have to be pretty innovational in how they utilize lower quality hay, CRP hay and residue hay. If you have grass hay you have to be inventive in how you put hay and supplements together,” said Rasby.
Any summer annuals or corn stalk bales that are purchased should be tested for nitrates and composition. “With any feed that you would buy this year, you need to take a probe test. You need to know what quality you have. If there are any gaps you need to fill, then you need to know those. If you have 20 bales, test 10-12 of those for a representative sample,” he suggests.
Once the composition is known, producers can then use other supplements to meet the needs of the cattle.
Some areas of the state may still have a little pasture left, but it will shortly run out.
Rasby reminds producers of the importance of this pastureland.
“Some of the grassland that we have are on pretty fragile soils. You have to be careful. Those producers that have been through drought know that. You need to manage it for the long term, not the short term. You can’t jeopardize that resource,” he said.
If feed resources cannot be found, producers may need to cull their herds. “That is a call that you need to make based on what you have. As you see what forage availability you have, then you move to cull cows,” he said.
Rasby suggests that producers talk to their tax consultants before culling cows, to find out the implications. “They will understand what kind of tools are available for producers who are culling in a drought. That’s important,” he said.
Even though this drought has been hard on the cattle, Rasby is confident that Nebraska beef producers will be OK. “This is not the first time we have been through this, and the idea is how do we get through this and still keep the majority of our cowherd intact. You may need to make some tough decisions, and having a plan in place will help you make those decisions,” said Rasby. ❖