The varying amounts of rain that fell across much of Alabama on June 17-18 brought hope to cattle producers who are running low on grass and hay to feed their cattle.

The spring drought has severely reduced pasture grass and hay yields and has made it very difficult to find any hay locally. Farmers are desperately looking for other feed options.

Although farmers will have to spend additional dollars to feed and keep their cattle through the rest of this year, it has become apparent that most of our local cattle producers want to try to avoid having to liquidate their herds.

More than 160 people attended the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s “Drought Survival” program at the Upper Coastal Plain Experiment Station near Winfield, Ala.

Farmers came from 10 counties to ask Extension Forage Specialist Don Ball and Cattle Nutrition Specialist Darrell Rankins what they could do to save their herds.

Ball discussed the possibility of substituting corn silage for hay, since much of the area’s corn crop has very low grain yield potential and could be cut for silage. Ball stressed it is extremely important that all corn silage or hay made from corn be tested for nitrates before feeding it to livestock.

Ensiling corn reduces potentially toxic nitrate levels, which is an advantage of using this approach. Dry weather can cause toxic levels of nitrate nitrogen to accumulate in many plants, including corn.

County Extension offices helped farmers test wheat hay for nitrates after the Easter freeze and now we can help you test silage for nitrates.

Ball says that if sufficient rainfall does come, farmers who choose to plant something immediately to provide feed for their cattle could consider planting a sorghum sudan hybrid or sudangrass.

Summer annual grasses like pearl millet and browntop millet also could be planted. However brown top millet is a one-cut crop with low yield potential.

Pearl millet needs to be planted earlier in the year for optimum performance.

Starting in September, farmers can plant winter annuals such as rye, wheat and/or ryegrass. These crops can also be planted in combination with a legume to supply nitrogen.

Nitrogen fertilizer has become very expensive. Most legumes, such as clovers, perform best when the soil pH is 6 to 6.5. It can cost around $100 per acre to establish winter annuals on a prepared seedbed, but winter annuals can be over-seeded into summer grass sod at much less cost.

Ball recommends farmers practice rotational grazing to improve utilization of available forage and also to get hay off the ground and protect hay from rainfall to reduce hay losses due to weathering. Hay rings can also help reduce hay losses.

Rankins recommends farmers wean calves as early as possible to reduce nutritional requirements for the mama cows.

Rankins states that cows need to eat the equivalent of a half percent of their body weight each day of a long stemmed roughage to maintain their normal body function. Cows should not go for more than 60 days without consuming roughage.

Corn silage and gin trash can serve as sources of roughage.

Crop residues, kudzu patches, and other areas not normally grazed, could also be used for roughage — but be careful about poisonous plants.

A 1,200-pound cow needs six pounds of hay and 10 to 11 pounds of corn, corn gluten or soy hulls or other good protein source each day to remain healthy. Farmers must manage the amount of feed their animals consume each day to stretch their feed supply.

Rankins notes that wheat and oat straw provide very low quality roughage and farmers need to add a high-protein supplement to stimulate digestion of these poor quality straws.