As summer winds down, the production of hay and other ranch/farm-raised feeds is in its final days. Now that most of you know how much home-grown feed you have, you can think about what other feeds might need to be purchased. If you have taken care of this already, that’s good. If you haven’t, it is time to take care of it. The central question is, will the existing feed supply meet my livestock’s nutrient requirements? If not, then additional feeds need to be found to cover those needs.

An important step at this point is to sample all home-grown feed and send samples to a lab for nutrient analyses. Once the nutrient content is known, it is a lot more likely that dollars spent on supplemental feeds will be wisely spent. Core sampling of hay bales is the best way to get a representative hay sample. While not as easy to do, standing forage such as pasture saved for winter grazing or crop residues like corn stalks can also be sampled for lab analyses. Try to select the portions that the livestock are more likely to eat and leave the portions that they would leave. While this won’t be perfect, it still should provide an idea of what the nutritional value will be.

Once this is known, consider what kinds and classes of livestock you intend to feed. If you have lived in the areas that have received plentiful rain and have put up a lot of hay, you may be considering holding your calves over into next year to add some weight before selling them. The market signals are pretty clear that feeders want heavier calves. Adding that weight with farm/ranch-raised feeds may be an economical way to add value to your calves. If this is the case, additional feeds will probably need to be fed along with hay to attain adequate rates of gain.

If you are evaluating the needs of your cows, then the primary question is whether or not the forage meets their nutrient requirements or if they need a supplement to overcome a nutrient deficiency. Good quality hay should meet requirements of dry, pregnant cows. The scenarios that are more likely to require supplementation are when grazing dormant pasture or crop residue. Again, the lab analyses will be invaluable to know this. The most likely nutrient to be deficient is protein. If so, consider what feeds are available and calculate the cost per pound of protein to determine which feed is the best buy.

Local availability has become a critical issue in determining which might be the best buy. In past years, distiller’s grains have been popular as a protein supplement. However, because of their increasing popularity, they are not as readily available. Also, if you live very far from an ethanol plant, the delivery cost has become a major detriment to their use. Thus, other alternatives may make more sense. For those in areas that got good rain this summer, alfalfa hay supplies are adequate and a few pounds of alfalfa hay makes an excellent protein supplement for cows on dormant range or crop residue. For those in drought areas, such as western North Dakota, look around to see if field peas that are shrunk and/or too light-weight to market are available. When considering many of these alternatives, lab analyses become important again because variability from one lot to the next can be tremendous.

Once you know what alternatives are available, calculate the cost per pound or ton of protein (or whatever limiting nutrient is needed) to determine the best buy. Make sure to use prices that include delivery cost, especially if the feeds travel different distances to get to your place from their source. For example, if you can get dried distiller’s grains (DDG) laid in for $230 a ton and field peas for $175 per ton, assume the crude protein content is 30 percent for the DDG and the peas are 25 percent crude protein. This means the cost per ton of protein is $767 ($230 divided by .3) for DDG and $700 for the peas. Often the answer isn’t as obvious as this example. Large differences in protein content make it less straight forward. Differences in moisture content also need to be considered, such as wet or modified distiller’s grains. When considering higher moisture feeds, also factor in the effect on delivery cost. The delivery cost should be calculated on a dry matter basis if the feeds contain a substantial amount of water.

In these times of high feed costs, a little homework to find the best value in purchased feeds can go a long way toward ensuring that the livestock perform to the best level possible with the least-cost feed inputs.