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.

What should cattlemen do now?

  • Sample and test your hay and know the ingredient inventory and pricing schedule of your local feed provider.
  • Understand the body condition score, or BCS.  Cows should be maintained at a BCS of 5 or greater. If the BCS drops below this level, it will drastically reduce conception/calving rates (BCS 5 = conception rates of >85%) and stretch the calving interval (BCS 5 = calving interval every 360 to 370 days, whereas BCS 4 or lower = calving intervals > 380 days). Given the difficulty of this winter season and the poor quality forage serving as the basis of the diet, producers who have consistently maintained their brood cows at a BCS of 5 or greater will be better able to withstand extreme weather shifts or short-term nutritional deficits. Keep in mind that it requires a ration that is 9% higher in TDN above requirement for about 70 days to recover a cow’s BCS from a 4 to a 5.
  • Avoid additives that are applied to poor quality hay designed to increase intake.  Cattle can starve to death with a full belly. As forage digestibility decreases, cows are forced to consume more to sustain sufficient energy. When forage quality is exceptionally low, increased intake of hay that is largely indigestible will increase the risk of impaction within the digestive tract. 
  • Although more labor intensive, supplemental feeds instead of liquid feeds or protein blocks may help alleviate some of the performance and health issues associated with feeding low-quality forages.  From the standpoint of trying to maintain a healthy rumen environment, fiber based energy supplements such as soybean hulls, corn gluten feed, distillers grains, citrus pulp and whole cottonseed are recommended over those that contain high levels of starch and simple sugars. In most cases, two or more of these fiber based energy sources may be the most economical way of meeting nutrient requirements. See table here for more information.
  • If winter grazing is available, use it, but use it carefully.  Winter forage production has been extraordinarily slow this winter because of the cold weather and dry conditions at planting. So, if you have some winter grazing available but not enough to sustain the herd consider limit grazing the winter annuals for only a few hours per day.  While you may not be able to completely meet nutrient requirements, the addition of winter grazing to the diet should help to prevent impaction issues and will improve ruminal fermentation of both annuals and hay.
  • Do NOT attempt to background calves on low-quality hay.

See also Cattle Rations Short on Energy this Winter.

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