If you want to get the most value from your winter-feeding program, knowing what you’re feeding is the first place to start, says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist.

Take corn-stalk bales and hay, for instance.

Anderson often encourages corn growers to bale excess corn stalks to help supply feed for cattle during winter, a great pinch-hitting feed if winter forage runs short. But before those bales are fed, he suggests finding out what they offer nutritionally.

He suggests sampling and testing bales as soon as possible so that when snow gets deep or other feeds run out you’ll already know how to best feed your corn-stalk bales.

Anderson says he’s seen protein in corn-stalk bales range from 2-7%. “Since dry pregnant cows need 7-8% protein in their diet, those high-protein bales need only a little protein to adequately care for the cows. But those 2% bales will need quite a bit of supplement to keep cows in good condition,” he says.

He suggests choosing a protein supplement that’s nearly all natural and mostly rumen degradable, as maintenance-level forage diets need degradable protein for the rumen microbes. “But remember that urea and other non-protein nitrogen sources aren’t used quite as well,” he adds.

He says most bales often contain 60% total digestible nutrients (TDN). Thus, cows fed such bales should do very well up until calving with just corn stalk bales and adequate protein supplement.

However, he has seen some stalks rained on before baling test below 50% TDN. Cows fed these lower quality bales will need some extra energy, too.

Where hay is concerned, Anderson says correct sampling techniques, followed by lab tests of forage quality, are necessary for cattle producers who want to get the most value from their hay and profit from their animals.

The most important step in sampling hay, and sometimes the most difficult, is deciding which bales and stacks should be included in each sample. Ideally, each sample should include only bales produced under nearly identical conditions.

Obviously, the place to start grouping is to separate different types of hay, like alfalfa or cane or meadow hay. But each cutting probably is different from other cuttings also, so there’s another separation. And no two fields or meadows are ever exactly the same, especially if they were cut more than two days apart, so that makes another grouping. And what if part of the field was rained on before it was baled? It’s very likely that hay made without rain damage will be different from hay with rain damage.

After you’ve made all these separations, which could result in quite a few groups of similar bales, then you are ready to sample, Anderson says.

From each group, gather 12-20 cores from different bales or stacks and combine them into one sample. Be sure to use a good hay probe that can core at least 1 ft. into the bale.

Finally, send these samples to a certified lab for tests of protein and energy content and any other nutrients of interest to you. “Then use this info to feed your cattle as profitably as possible,” he says.
-- Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist