Southeast cattle producers report an unusual number of cows getting diarrhea, dying soon after calving or dying unexpectedly. Low-quality forage is the likely culprit, say University of Georgia cattle specialists who issued a special alert to producers.

“This past growing season’s near daily rainfall caused a lot of delays in our hay and silage fields. The consequence is that a lot of very poor quality forage was put up this year. … Hay that is this low in quality can have lingering effects for months to come. When the weather is as cold as it has been the last month or more, the lack of energy in our poor quality hay is not enough to meet the animal’s maintenance requirements. This is causing a lot of stress on our livestock, and it has caused an alarming number of animal deaths,” said Dennis Hancock, forage specialist with UGA Cooperative Extension.

Hay samples submitted through UGA labs show the Average Relative Forage Quality, or RFQ, was “substantially down,” in Georgia, Hancock says. For example, the 7-year average RFQ for bermudagrass is a score of 95. The average RFQ for bermudagrass for 2013 was 80.

That is nearly a 16 percent decrease compared to normal. And that’s a big difference. Another way of looking at the scope of the problem: “We can see that 95 percent of this year’s bermudagrass and bahiagrass hay won’t even come close to meeting the energy needs of a lactating beef cow,” he says.

Producers report a higher-than-normal number of cows dying soon after birth or giving birth to weak or stillborn calves, says the Feb. 7 UGA report “Poor Quality Forages Pose Life-Threatening Risk to GA Cow Herds.”

“This issue has been exacerbated by the feeding of supplemental feed sources that do not provide adequate energy, protein, or other nutrients and/or poorly-chosen supplements that contain high concentrations of starch or simple sugars ... that cause the bacteria to become less efficient at digesting the forage that is provided.  This insufficient diet combined with the exceptionally cold winter has resulted in malnutrition or impacted gastrointestinal tracts that have resulted in death,” the report says.