July 25, 2007 | By: Laura Skillman

A late spring freeze followed by dry weather and high corn prices have left many Kentucky cattle producers in a quandary over how they will feed their animals. 

In recent weeks, Roy Burris, a University of Kentucky College of Agriculture beef cattle specialist, has been traveling the state visiting with producers to discuss feeding alternatives they might want to consider to stretch their hay supply. Burris cautioned producers not to panic and buy poor quality hay for high prices when better alternatives are available.

“Farmers need to decide what they are going to do, and they need to make some of those decisions now and have a plan for it,” Burris said. “The overriding thing you need to do is meet the nutritional needs of the cow. It’s going to come back to haunt you if you don’t.”

The first thing farmers need to do is inventory their hay to know how much they have in order to determine how much additional feed they will need. Burris said there are several strategies, and it is likely that a combination of them will be best for most operations. 

He told farmers not to give up on grazing just yet. With some timely rains such as those this past week in many areas of the state, pastures could rebound this fall. If they do, then adding some nitrogen to encourage growth may allow for some stockpiling of fescue pastures to carry cattle into late fall and winter. This could be one means of reducing the need for hay. Grazing corn stalks after harvest is also a good way to extend the grazing season. 

“Don’t give up on rotational grazing,” he said. “If you have to overgraze one field to spare others, that’s OK.”

Winter annuals such as ryegrass or cereal crops such as oats or rye can be an option. They may help with some grazing in late fall and again in early spring. But, Burris said he does not think they offer any real advantages over stockpiling fescue. 

Farmers who buy hay should have it tested to ensure they are getting good quality hay. Limit-feeding hay and supplementing the diet with concentrates like byproduct feeds can also work to meet the animal’s basic nutritional needs and stretch the hay supply.

Consider availability, cost, and transportability when deciding what feed alternatives to use. Alternatives include corn, soybean hulls, corn gluten and distillers grains. Corn is among the most popular but not necessarily the best for the cow. Other products are a better option, Burris said.

“The best approach is to blend these products and feed a balanced ration,” he said. “Balance it for protein and energy and in the least-cost way.” 

Culling old or open cows to reduce the herd size may be an option. But Burris said unless a farmer is retiring he would not consider selling the herd, because it can take years to again develop a quality herd. Early weaning spring calves may help as well because it takes some of the pressure off the cows especially if the cows are losing body condition. The calves can be creep fed on soybean hulls.

Burris outlined an example of a feeding plan mixing several feeding strategies during a recent meeting at the Breckinridge County extension office. He suggested grazing corn stalks for 40 days then moving cattle to strip graze stockpiled fescue for 80 to 90 days. This would mean going into mid-February before the need to feed hay, unless snow covers the fields.

“This is something we ought to be doing every year,” he said. “What we try to do at the UK Research and Education Center in Princeton is graze 10 months out of the year. That way you are less dependent on purchased feeds.”

A farmer is then left with about 60 days when he will need to feed hay. Limit-feeding hay at 6 to 10 pounds per cow along with a balanced feed concentrate will allow a farmer to stretch his hay while meeting the animals’ nutritional needs. The final step would be to get them grazing again in early spring either by using winter annuals or fertilizing fescue fields to get an early flush of growth.

Burris said while hay and pasture shortages exist, farmers should not panic and make bad decisions. Taking the time now to make a plan for winter feeding can prevent last minute searches for feeds that may be costly and may not be the best nutritional option for the cattle.


Roy Burris, 270-365-7541, ext. 208