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Short Supply of Hay May Make Grain an Economical Choice for Beef Cow Feed


When there is a shortage of hay, grain may be an economical choice for feeding stock cows through the winter.

Grain has the advantage of being easier and cheaper to ship in than hay and is generally available. In a typical winter, producers rely on hay and other harvested roughage to feed their cows through the winter, but in winters when there is a shortage of hay producers may consider feeding alternatives to stretch hay supplies and maintain cow condition.

Producers usually have one of two reasons for feeding grain to stock cows: to maintain cow condition and meet their nutritional needs or to extend hay supplies.

If a producer is trying to extend hay supplies, grain can be fed at fairly high levels to provide most of the cows' need for energy. However some roughage is needed to maintain digestive function and provide rumen fill. Generally, in cold conditions cows should receive at least .75 percent of their body weight or roughly 10 pounds of hay daily.

When substituting grain for hay, look at the energy or total digestible nutrient level of the two feeds. As an example, a pound of corn will replace 1.7 pounds of average-quality mixed hay. A pound of barley would replace 1.6 pounds of hay and oats would replace 1.5 pounds of hay.

An added benefit of feeding grains such as barley and oats is that their high protein level minimizes the need for supplemental protein. The high fiber level of those grains also adds some a roughage to the diet and reduces feeding problems.

Producers with plenty of lower-quality hay may need to feed grain to meet the nutritional needs of cows in late gestation and maintain body condition. In that case,  feeding small amounts of grain may supplement energy available from the forage and minimize negative effects of starch digestion on fiber digestion. Protein deficiencies in the forage should be corrected first with supplements or in concert with grain supplementation to stimulate maximum forage intake and digestibility.

When feeding to meet nutrient needs, it's important not to feed too much grain to make sure there are plenty of healthy forage-digesting microbes in the rumen. Grain supplementation in that situation should be limited to a few pounds per day or about a quarter of one percent of body weight.

When feeding a limited amount of a highly concentrated ration, make sure feed is delivered so that each animal has an equal opportunity to eat and get its share. Sorting the herd into smaller groups by nutritional need will minimize feed waste and give timid animals a better opportunity to make the best use of limited feed in bunks.

If cows are on a diet of old or poor hay and grain they may be deficient in vitamin A and several other minerals. If grain is being processed it's a good idea to include vitamin-mineral supplements in the grain. Another option is to provide free choice vitamin-mineral-salt mixture, particularly if consumption is monitored and can be adjusted.

Assistance in analyzing and balancing cow rations is available through the NDSU Extension. Contact your county Extension office or the North Central Research Extension Center for more information.