Tips for Interpreting Forage Analysis

montana forage analysisBy Dr. Megan Van Emon, MSU Extension Beef Cattle Specialist

Having your hay and pasture quality analyzed prior to feeding or turnout is one of the most important and effective tools for cattle feeding management. Forage analysis allows for more precise feeding of supplements and other feedstuffs to meet requirements throughout the year. Forage analysis becomes especially important during drought and the possibility of limited forage intake while on grass. Therefore, accurately interpreting that forage analysis is crucial.

As Received Basis

These values represent the content of nutrients with the moisture included. Due to dilution, these values are lower than those in the dry matter basis column. These values can be converted to a dry matter basis by dividing the as received values by the percentage dry matter.

Dry Matter Basis

The values in this column give the nutrient profile after the water is removed. These values will be greater than those in the “as received” column. The removal of water allows for direct comparisons to be made between feed ingredients. The dry matter basis gives the best indication of the nutritive value of the feedstuff because we report animal requirements on a dry matter basis. Dry matter values can be converted to an as received basis by multiplying the dry matter value by the percentage dry matter.

Crude Protein (CP)

Labs measure the Nitrogen (N) content of the forage in order to estimate CP (% CP = % N × 6.25). Crude protein will include non-protein nitrogen and true protein. Crude protein provides the total protein within the forage and does not indicate if any heat damage has occurred, which could alter the availability of the protein.

Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF)

The acid detergent fiber encompasses the cellulose and lignin portions of the cell wall. This number is crucial in determining the ability of the animal to digest the forage. As ADF increases, forage digestibility decreases.

Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF)

The NDF includes the ADF portion plus hemicellulose. The NDF value is important for determining forage dry matter intake. As NDF increases in the forage, dry matter intake decreases.

Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN)

This is the sum of the digestible fiber, protein, lipid, and carbohydrate components of the forage. In most laboratory analyses, TDN is usually calculated based on ADF and NDF and can vary by region and diet type. Typically, high quality forages range from 50 to 60% TDN and low quality forages range from 40 to 50% TDN. Using TDN in ration calculations is best for rations that are primarily forage. The net energy system should be used in diets that include high concentrations of grain because TDN tends to underestimate the feeding value of concentrate relative to forage.

Net Energy of Lactation (NEl), Net Energy of Maintenance (NEm), and Net Energy of Gain (NEg)

The Net Energy system accounts for the energy losses from digestion of feeds and forages. Net energy estimates the portion of energy in a forage that is useable to the animal to meet the needs of body maintenance and production. Net energy is partitioned into the net energy of maintenance (no body weight gain or loss), net energy of lactation (milk production), and net energy of gain (body weight gain). The net energy system should be used for diets containing high concentrations of concentrates. Net energy values are usually calculated from TDN values, which are calculated from ADF. Therefore, as ADF increases in the forage, net energy values will decrease.


This represents the total mineral content of the forage and typically ranges from 3 to 12% on a dry matter basis. Grains and concentrations usually contain range from 1 to 4% ash. Excessive amounts of ash indicate soil contamination.

Other analyses can also be conducted, such as nitrates, molds, yeasts, and mycotoxins, and individual minerals. These analyses are not typically included in a standard test and must be requested at an additional cost.

Forage Considerations For Fall Grazing

From “Pastures for Profit: A guide to rotational grazing”. University of Wisconsin Extension. 2014.

From “Pastures for Profit: A guide to rotational grazing”. University of Wisconsin
Extension. 2014.

By Dr. Emily Glunk, MSU Extension Forage Specialist and Assistant Professor

There are a lot of questions regarding whether or not it is safe to graze your fall pasture, and to what extent. Fall is a tricky time to manage grazing on pastures, as there is a lot going on with the plants below-ground, which we can’t always see. Grazing too hard in the fall has the potential to be very detrimental to forages, and should be managed accordingly.

So what all is happening right now in our forages? Cool-season grasses are trying to grow more new roots to replenish those that had been shed earlier in the summer. Right around June 21, the summer solstice, a lot of our introduced cool-season grasses shed their roots and begin to grow new ones, contributing to what is known as the “summer slump”. If you trek out to your pasture and dig up a couple plants, you should see quite a few new white roots and tillers forming, indicating a healthy plant and a healthy stand. Our legumes don’t shed their roots, as they have one well-defined taproot, but they are trying to store up enough carbohydrates to serve as any energy source for regrowth in the spring.

It is important that we don’t graze our pastures too heavily in the fall, as we can significantly impair the plants ability to store carbohydrates, or energy, which will help in the regrowth and recovery process. Plants go through a process called photosynthesis, which transforms sunlight into a usable energy source. The plants ultimately convert the sunlight (in the form of photons) to carbohydrates, which are stored in the roots or lower parts of the stem in some grasses. By grazing heavily, and removing most of the leaf area which is required for photosynthesis, we are limiting the plants ability to capture sunlight, and therefore create and store energy. This will be evidenced by slow growth in the spring, creating an opening for weed invasion, or if bad enough, winter kill over the winter.

So what can we do to manage these plants and prevent this from happening? Number one is to not graze very heavily in the fall. Allow those plants enough leaf area to continue photosynthesis, while not trying to use too much of their carbohydrate reserves for regrowth prior to winter. That is not to say don’t graze at all, but try to maintain an adequate stubble height for those forage species. You can contact myself or your local county agent to get species-specific recommendations. Number two, you can wait until after the plant has gone dormant to graze it down lower, because at this point the plant is no longer going through photosynthesis and accumulating carbohydrates, and it will no longer be using its energy reserves for regrowth before spring. You still should take care and be mindful of the impacts of hoof traffic on plant roots, especially in muddy conditions. While the plant may be healthy and have plenty of carbohydrates, if the animal physically injures the plant or its roots, this too can have a negative impact on regrowth ability and plant survival.

From the figure below, we see that carbohydrate reserves are at their lowest around internode elongation phase, a time when we have to be very careful in our management. This is when reserves are being used for primarily for plant regrowth and leaf production. Once there are enough leaves present, and the plant has begun the stem elongation phase, we see an accumulation of carbohydrates. The plant will be able to start storing carbohydrates at this point for regrowth in the spring. We want to make sure that the plant has the ability to store enough carbohydrates before a killing frost, so that we don’t see a problem in the spring.

Another thing that we see happening in the fall is the development of growing points for next spring’s growth. Those are the tillers that we can hopefully see when we dig up some plants. Old tillers may appear brown and dead, but they still serve an important role to the plant. They are a form of stored nutrients, as well as provide protection to the new, developing tillers. We also want to avoid allowing animals the ability to graze off these new tillers, which will be helped by leaving adequate stubble height. Another benefit of leaving some stubble in the field is that it increases the amount of snow that is caught, insulating the soil, and decreases the potential for ice sheeting. This too will help increase plant survivability over the winter.

For any questions or forage recommendations, contact Dr. Emily Glunk at or 406-994-5688. or contact your local county extension agent.

Range Ruminations: Is “Take Half, Leave Half” a Good Way to Calculate Stocking Rate?

Jeff Mosley MSU ExtensionBy Dr. Jeff Mosley, MSU Extension Range Management Specialist

Former eastern Montana rancher and Past President of the Society for Range Management Dan Fulton once wrote, “Range, and particularly Great Plains range, cannot be rationally managed on the basis of range carrying capacity surveys. The only way to know for sure how many cows can run on it is by grazing cows on it.” Fulton’s statement reminds us that grazing management is a circle. We begin by observing the land and animals, and then make a plan based on what we have observed. Next we implement the plan and observe how well the plan is working. Based on what we observe, we make adjustments, observe again, make more adjustments, and so on. Grazing capacity surveys and stocking rate calculations can provide helpful estimates of an area’s sustainable stocking rate, and these ballpark estimates can be used to develop a plan, but they are not the final answer.

Stocking rate calculations include an estimate of proper utilization, and historically in Montana, the concept of “take half, leave half” (i.e., 50% utilization) has often been used. This approach recognizes that to remain healthy, grass plants must replace about 1/3 of their roots each year, and grass plants stop growing roots when more than 50% of their current year’s foliage is removed during the growing season. I believe 50% utilization is an appropriate threshold for growing-season grazing wherever most forage plants have similar palatability that results in relatively homogeneous levels of grazing among plants. However, I believe stocking rate calculations using 50% utilization provide stocking rates that are unnecessarily conservative in some situations and stocking rates that are unsustainable in other circumstances.

Situation #1. Grass plant response to grazing definitely depends on how much foliage is removed during the growing season, but plant response also depends on when the grazing occurs. Plants grazed later in the growing season can sustain 60-70% utilization if they have already had sufficient time earlier in the growing season to grow foliage, grow roots, and replenish energy reserves. Plants can sustain 80% utilization if grazing occurs when foliage and roots are not growing during winter plant dormancy.

Situation #2. Late spring/early summer is generally the time when grasses are most vulnerable to defoliation, but plant response to grazing also depends on how often grazing occurs. Grass plant health declines when 50% defoliation during late spring/early summer occurs for more than two successive years. Two years in a row is okay, but more than two consecutive years of moderate grazing during late spring/early summer is not sustainable. Some form of rotational grazing is necessary when moderate use occurs during late spring/early summer. A moderately stocked rotational grazing system that provides rest during late spring/early summer once every three years averages 33% utilization across the three years (50% use in Year 1 + 50% in Year 2 + 0% in Year 3 / 3 years = 33%). In this situation, stocking rate calculations should be based on 33% rather than 50% utilization.

Situation #3. Typically when utilization averages 50% on bunchgrass rangeland, many or most bunchgrasses have received heavy use (e.g., 70% utilization), a few bunchgrasses have received light use (e.g., 30% utilization), and a few bunchgrasses have remained ungrazed. Preferred bunchgrasses grazed during the growing season at 70% utilization are unable to grow roots and replenish energy reserves. Thus, some form of rotational grazing is necessary on bunchgrass rangeland grazed moderately during the growing season.

A 2-pasture rotational grazing system that provides growing season rest every other year averages 35% utilization for the preferred bunchgrasses over the 2-year period (70% use in Year 1 + 0% use in Year 2 = 35% utilization), which is safely below the 50% threshold. In this 2-pasture system, stocking rate calculations should be based on 25% utilization rather than 50% utilization (i.e., 50% in Year 1 + 0% in Year 2 / 2 years = 25% utilization).

Similarly, a 3-pasture rotational grazing system that provides growing season rest one year out of every three averages 47% utilization during the growing season for the preferred bunchgrasses over the 3-year period (70% use in Year 1 + 70% use in Year 2 + 0% utilization in Year 3 / 3 years = 47% utilization), again safely below the 50% utilization threshold. In this 3-pasture system, stocking rate calculations should be based on 33% rather than 50% utilization (i.e., 50% in Years 1 and 2 and 0% in Year 3, averaging 33% across the three years). This example also illustrates the incentive for 3-pasture versus 2-pasture rotational grazing systems. The 3-pasture system can be sustainably stocked 32% heavier than the 2-pasture system (i.e., 33% utilization – 25% utilization / 25% utilization = 32% increase).

In summary, stocking rate calculations can help inform grazing management planning and decision-making, but an area’s sustainable stocking rate can only be determined by making your best guess, implementing your plan, and then making adjustments as needed based on how the land and animals respond. Going forward, I suggest that initial stocking rate estimates will be more accurate and helpful when stocking rate calculations adjust the take half, leave half approach (i.e., 50% utilization) when needed, accounting for the time of year that grazing occurs, how often grazing occurs among years, and how much utilization levels vary among individual forage plants. Happy ruminating.

Department of Agriculture’s Hay Hotline Source for Producers Short on Hay

With severe and extreme drought expanding throughout the state this growing season, some cuttings of hay and pasture haven’t been as productive as years past. The Montana Department of Agriculture’s Hay Hotline is available to producers as an online tool to connect buyers and sellers of hay and pasture.

“We started the Hay Hotline during the droughts that impacted the state in nineties. Ever since it went online, it has been a popular and useful tool for producers when they are in need or looking to sell. Even in a good year parts of our state can be dry or unproductive and the hotline is an easy tool to find the resources needed,” said Director Ron de Yong.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions cover nearly three-fourths of the state. With the relatively mild winter and low snow pack, many areas reported that grass and grazing pasture was not in good shape. The most recent crop progress report by National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) rated pasture and rangeland as 26 percent either poor or very poor, 42 percent as fair, 28 percent as good, and only 4 percent as excellent. The 5-year average for pasture and rangeland in Montana is 19 percent poor or very poor, 24 percent fair, 38 percent good, and 19 percent excellent.

“We didn’t get off to a great start this year and it’s really showed up in the dryland grass and summer rangeland. Most people have gotten their first cut of hay done but they are worried about getting a second cut this year,” explained de Yong.

The latest NASS report also showed that 91 percent of the first alfalfa hay and 88 percent of other hay cutting was complete, “that is about 20 percent ahead of our typical five-year average,” according to de Yong. “If we continue to get some moisture, maybe we can get another cutting or two to carry producers through the winter.”

The department maintains the Hay Hotline as a service to the agricultural industry, making it available with the expectation that all buyers and sellers will treat each other in an equitable and lawful manner. Visit the online tool at

The Montana Department of Agriculture’s mission is to protect producers and consumers, and to enhance and develop agriculture and allied industries. For more information on the department, visit

How Much Seed Should I Plant?

Emily Glunk Montana State Forage ExtensionDr. Emily Glunk, Extension Forage Specialist and Dr. Jessica Torrion, Crop Physiologist

Depending on who you ask, you may get a wide range in how much seed you should be planting per acre. There are a lot of factors to consider, but in my experience, there are many producers throughout the nation that are spending more money, and putting more seed in the ground, than is necessary. There are some situations where it may be desirable to increase your seeding rate, say in an irrigated field versus a dryland field, if the seedbed is less than optimal, or where the seeding depth is hard to get completely accurate due to rough terrain.

It is important to remember that not every seed that is dropped will result in a plant. This is where your seed tag can be helpful. On the seed tag, it should list a germination percentage. This is an estimate of how many of the seeds in that bag are actually viable and able to germinate. Also important on the tag is the list of other potential “contaminants”, such as weed seeds (which will be listed as a percentage), other seed, and inert matter. The percentage of each of these should be minimal.

Another factor that can decrease germination rates is the seeding rate itself. Research from other states has found an estimated 45% mortality rate in the first year for alfalfa planted at 10 pounds per acre, and a 60-70% mortality rate for seeding rates over 20 pounds/ acre. So having a high seeding rate can actually be detrimental to your seed!

The important thing to start with is how many plants do you need per square foot? This will then help you to calculate how many pounds of seed you will need per acre. There are many tables available which provide estimates of desired number of plants per square foot. Alfalfa, for example, 30 plants per square foot is an optimal target plant population. Now, that does not mean that every year thereafter we are expecting to have 30 plants per square foot. Competition amongst plants for nutrients, canopy space, and water will decrease that number to less than 20 plants per square foot just after the stand’s first winter.

There are approximately 199,000 alfalfa seeds in one pound of seed, which equates to about 5 seeds per square foot if that pound were spread evenly over an entire acre. So, to figure out how many seeds you are planting an acre for alfalfa, take your seeding rate (in pounds per acre), and multiply by 5. If you were planting at 8 pounds of Pure Live Seed (PLS, we’ll cover that later), that means that you are putting approximately 40 seeds per square foot. Will you see 40 plants per square foot? Likely not. Seeds will also compete with one another, just like germinated plants, for light, moisture, and nutrients, and the most competitive plants will survive.

How can we figure out then how many pounds of seed we need to put in the ground? Let’s first get back to that thing I mentioned before, pure live seed or PLS. This is the amount of seed that has the ability to germinate, and is what we should be using when we are considering how much to plant. To figure this out, we simply use the information provided on the seed tag.

seed tag how much to plant

Step 1. We first want to figure out the purity of the seed in the bag. To determine this, we simply subtract the percent other crop, percent innert matter, and percent weed seed from 100.

For this tag, it would look like:

100-.11-.69-.18= 99.02% purity.

As you will notice, this number is already on the seed tag, however, not all seed tags will list this.

Step 2. Next, we need to determine PLS by multiplying that percent purity by the percent germination, and then by 100 as a conversion factor. Also remember to convert your percent’s to decimals, so 99.02% would be .9902.

.9902 (% purity) * .93 (% germination) * 100= 92.08% PLS

You will notice the percent germination was not actually listed on the bag, but we were able to figure it out by dividing the PLS weight (2.79 pounds) by the bulk weight (3 pounds).

Step 3. To figure out how many pounds of PLS we would need to get our desired establishment rates with this bag, we would then divide the recommended seeding rate (usually listed on the tag, for this we’ll use 10 pounds).

10/ .9208 (PLS in decimal form)= 10.9 pounds required at seeding

For this particular bag, there was very high germination rates and low levels of foreign seed, so we didn’t have to increase our seeding rate that much to get the desired number of seeds in the ground. This may not always be the case, which is why knowing how to figure out your PLS rate is extremely important to attain adequate stand establishment.

One final note, just like any other crops, seed size can influence the number of seeds per pound. Bigger seeds means less seeds per pound, and smaller seeds mean more seeds per pound. This is something to be mindful of, and to ask of your seed dealer, when purchasing seed.

For a list of recommended seeding rates, contact myself, Dr. Jessica Torrion, or your local county extension agent. There are also numerous publications available with seeding rate recommendations, such as the “Dryland Pastures in Montana and Wyoming”.

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact Dr. Emily Glunk at 406-994-5688 or, or Dr. Jessica Torrion at

Livestock Forage Disaster Program Triggered in 15 Montana Counties

(BOZEMAN) – Montana Farm Service Agency (FSA) State Executive Director Bruce Nelson announced on Tuesday, July 14, that the 2015 Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) triggered eligibility in 15 Montana counties based on the U.S. Drought Monitor report released on July 9, 2015.

LFP provides compensation to eligible livestock producers who suffered grazing losses due to a qualifying drought or fire on federally managed land. Eligible producers must own or lease grazing land physically located in a county affected by a qualifying drought during the normal grazing period for the county.

The following counties met the extreme drought (D3) criteria; qualifying producers with land in these counties will be eligible for three monthly payments: Beaverhead, Deer Lodge, Flathead, Glacier, Granite, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Mineral, Missoula, Pondera, Powell, Ravalli, Sanders and Silver Bow.

“Montana livestock producers who own or lease grazing land or pastureland physically located in these 15 counties should contact their local FSA office to schedule an appointment to begin the enrollment process,” said Nelson. “This is an important program for livestock producers affected by the drought. LFP provided almost $60 million in disaster relief to more than 4,100 Montana livestock producers for the 2012 and 2013 crop years.”

Producers must complete an application and provide supporting documentation for 2015 losses by Jan. 30, 2016.

For more information, contact your local FSA office and visit Montana FSA online at

Range Ruminations: How Much Grass Will I Have This Summer?

Jeff Mosley MSU ExtensionDr. Jeff Mosley, MSU Extension Range Management Specialist

Range forage growth this spring has been slow out of the chute in many parts of Montana.  My optimistic nature assures me, however, that plenty of rainfall and warmer temperatures will soon combine to ease my worries.  Those less optimistic souls among us might prefer to plan ahead using estimates of summer grass production.

Reliable estimates of summer grass production can be made by comparing this year’s amount of precipitation to the long-term average.  One method compares the amount of precipitation received in a “crop year”, while another method compares the combined total precipitation received in April, May, and June.

A crop year beginning 1 September and ending 30 June is appropriate for assessing precipitation effects on rangeland plant productivity in Montana.  For example, if precipitation during the crop year from 1 September 2014 to 30 June 2015 were to equal 80% of the 30-year average, then range forage production would likely be about 80% of normal in summer 2015.  Similarly, if the combined total precipitation received in April, May, and June 2015 were to equal 80% of the 30-year average for April + May + June precipitation, then range forage production would likely be about 80% of normal in summer 2015.

Either the crop-year precipitation method or the April + May + June precipitation method can also be used to help manage risk.  For example, if your area normally receives 4 inches of precipitation in April + May + June, and no moisture was received in April, you can examine long-term weather records to find how often your area received 4 inches in May + June alone.  The percentage of times this occurred in the past 30 years indicates the chances of it happening this year and the likelihood that summer forage production will be normal following a dry April.  Continuing the example, let’s say you receive 2 inches of precipitation in May.  You can then examine the long-term weather records to find how often your area received 2 inches in June alone.  The percentage of times this occurred in the past 30 years indicates the odds that your area will receive its normal 4 inches by the end of April + May + June and the likelihood that summer forage production will be normal.

Over the years I have used one or the other of these two precipitation methods to estimate summer grass production, and both methods have proven reasonably accurate.  These methods do not provide perfect estimates, of course, because they do not account for the many other factors that also affect range forage growth such as air temperature, humidity, and wind.  Both methods, however, provide useful ballpark estimates that can help you adjust livestock stocking rates, adapt pasture rotations, or make other management decisions.

Recently I encountered a situation that has convinced me to use both of these precipitation methods in tandem when making future estimates of range forage production.  I was reviewing the range forage growing conditions in summer 2014 on some foothill rangeland in west-central Montana.  Precipitation received in the 1 September to 30 June crop year of 2013-2014 was 17.3 inches, which was 25% more than the prior 30-year mean of 13.8 inches.  This figure alone might have led me to conclude that there was about 25% more range forage last year than normal.  But the combined total precipitation in April, May, and June 2014 was 6.2 inches compared with the prior 30-year mean of 7.1 inches, or 13% below average in 2014.

Overall, forage production in summer 2014 was not as great as the 25% above average crop-year precipitation indicated, but forage production was not as poor as indicated by the 13% below average April + May + June precipitation.  What happened?  Much of the above average precipitation in the 2013-2014 crop year was received in September 2013 and February and March 2014, and this stored soil moisture from fall, winter, and early spring helped offset the lack of rainfall during the prime late spring-early summer growing season.  Taken together the two estimates averaged 12% above normal, which matched very well with the actual amount of forage available in summer 2014.

If you don’t have precipitation records for your ranch, the Western Regional Climate Center has long-term data from hundreds of weather stations across Montana:  For assistance accessing these data, contact the Western Regional Climate Center, your local office of MSU Extension, or send me an email:  Happy ruminating.

Livestock Producers Need Stocking Rate Reduction Plan

moving cattle montana pastureLivestock producers should have a drought management plan in place prior to pasture turnout in case drought persists into the growing season this year, North Dakota State University Extension Service livestock and rangeland specialists say.

Producers need to have a good idea how to assess available forage, feed and water supplies to determine if they need to reduce their stocking rates or modify grazing plans before they turn their cattle out onto pasture this spring, according to beef cattle specialist Carl Dahlen. The stocking rate is the number of specific kinds of animals grazing a unit of land for a specified time.

Developing a plan early is important because 80 percent of the grass growth on rangeland is dictated by May and June precipitation. Drought conditions during that time will reduce the amount of grass available on pasture and rangeland for the duration of the grazing season, rangeland management specialist Kevin Sedivec says.

If producers don’t reduce the stocking rate to compensate for the loss of grass, overgrazing can result. Overgrazing affects the entire rangeland plant community, leading to a loss of plant species diversity and biomass, soil erosion, weed growth and a reduction in the soil’s ability to hold water, livestock environmental stewardship specialist Miranda Meehan explains. Drought conditions also can lead to increased risk of toxicity from selenium and nitrates in plants.

“It takes a lot longer for the entire ecosystem (plants, soils, water, etc.) to recover if you don’t prepare and take active steps to change management in response to drought,” she says.

She advises producers to use the National Drought Mitigation Center’s U.S. Drought Monitor to keep track of the conditions.

“Selective culling is a quick way to reduce the stocking rate,” Sedivec says.

It also could be profitable because cattle prices are high.

“It’s a seller’s market right now,” he notes.

Culling targets include cows that are old, have a poor disposition or physical structure, or had a difficult time giving birth this spring and have a low chance of rebreeding.

“The importance of records is magnified in times when tough culling decisions need to be made,” Dahlen says. “Good calving and production records can help producers pinpoint cows that could be culled.”

Locating sources of and feeding alternative feeds is another way to reduce the risk of overgrazing.

In cases when surplus wet distillers grains, a byproduct of ethanol production, are available as a result of dryer shutdown or reduced railcar availability, producers may have the opportunity to purchase those grains in early to midsummer at a relatively low cost, Dahlen says. The drawback is that the distillers grains are a wet product, but producers can use storage methods to preserve the nutrient quality until the feed is needed.

Producers also should evaluate hay and stockpiled forage remaining from last year that could be used to delay pasture turnout this year or supplement pasture grass later in the grazing season, Meehan says.

Other options the specialists suggest producers consider if warranted include weaning calves early, providing cattle with creep feed or feed supplements, and feeding cattle in drylots. Weaning early eliminates the cows’ energy demand for milk production, which may result in reduced intake of pasture grasses and improvements in body condition once the calves are removed, Dahlen says.

For more information on dealing with drought, contact the local county Extension office or visit NDSU Extension’s “Ranchers Guide to Grassland Management IV.”

–NDSU Extension Service

The Case for Relative Forage Quality When Feeding Cattle Hay

Emily Glunk Montana State Forage ExtensionBy Emily Glunk, MSU Extension Forage Specialist

Feeding represents a large portion of the production and maintenance cost of animals. Some estimate that feeding can represent over 70% of the annual costs of maintaining a livestock herd, with hay representing a significant portion of that cost. Making sure that we are buying quality feedstuffs, and feeding in appropriate amounts, is critical in ensuring that we are being as economical as possible. In recent years, the cost of hay has increased significantly, and so efficient purchasing is critical.

A hay analysis is key in knowing the quality of the hay, how much to feed our animals, as well as being helpful in the buying process. Tools such as Relative Feed Value (RFV), which can be found on a hay analysis, have traditionally been used to compare hay. RFV uses fiber estimates, the acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) portions of a hay analysis, to estimate the quality of the hay. This has been helpful in comparing between two types of similar hays, i.e. comparison of two alfalfa or two grass hays, however, it does not tell us everything about the availability of the fiber or other nutrients in that hay.

Several years ago, University of Wisconsin researchers developed a new method of comparison, called Relative Forage Quality, or RFQ. This value takes into account not only the fiber components of the plant, but the digestibility of those components as well. This tool is extremely helpful in telling us a little more about what may be available to the animal to use from that forage.

The ADF portion of a plant analysis is an estimate of the cellulose and lignin portion of the plants, cellulose being slowly fermented by the rumen or hindgut microbes before it can be converted into energy for the animal. Lignin is indigestible by both mammalian and microbial enzymes, and so is completely unavailable to the animal. Because it includes the parts of the plant that are relatively indigestible, ADF has been found to be negatively correlated to digestibility of plant material. This means that as ADF increases, digestibility of the plant decreases.

The NDF portion of a plant includes both cellulose and lignin, similar to ADF, but also includes hemicellulose, a fiber that is fermented more rapidly than cellulose by microbial enzymes in the hindgut or rumen. NDF has been found to be negatively correlated to intake, so as NDF increases, intake will decrease. This is largely a function of gut fill, so as an animal consumes a more fibrous feed, it will take less to fill up the gastrointestinal tract, thereby decreasing intake.

The problem with RFV is that it does not evaluate the availability of the nutrients. On average, a grass will typically have more fiber than a legume. However, the fibrous portion of grasses are  usually more digestible than the fibrous portion of a legume. Relative forage quality, RFQ, was developed to help account for that, using total digestible nutrients (TDN) in the calculations. This will be a better indicator of what is available to the animals and the microbes within that animal to use, and convert to energy. RFQ is typically going to be higher in grasses than the RFV value, while legumes may slightly decrease.

RFQ and RFV are also a great means of evaluating who got a “better deal”. Typically, if the RFQ ends up being higher than the RFV, then we say that the buyer got a better deal. This is because initially, with RFV, we may have thought that the forage was more indigestible than it actually it, which was shown in the RFQ. If the RFQ is lower than the RFV, we like to say that the seller got the better deal, as the forage was higher in indigestible fiber, so less is going to be available to the animal to use.

It must always be kept in mind that both RFV and RFQ are to be used only as a comparison between hays, its purpose is not to aid in ration balancing, but as an evaluation and buying tool. For any questions, please contact Emily Glunk, MSU Extension Forage Specialist, at 406.994.5688 or

Proper Winter Hay Storage

Emily Glunk Montana State Forage ExtensionBy Dr. Emily Glunk, MSU Extension Forage Specialist

There have been a lot of questions lately concerning how to properly store hay over the winter. The main goal with winter storage is to maintain quality and decrease any dry matter losses that we might incur. Minimizing exposure to the winter elements, especially precipitation which can decrease both hay quantity and quality, is our top priority.

Hay is the most common feeding option during winter, as it is less risky than other options such as stockpiling, and we know how much, or rather how long, our stores will last. However, not only is it important to have enough tonnage to support our herd, but also that we are maintaining the quality of our hay throughout the season.

The ideal storage for hay is inside, out of the elements, in a well-ventilated structure, whether this be a barn, shed, or a pole structure. Unfortunately, in Montana this is often not possible. So next we need to decide what are some other feasible methods of decreasing exposure to the elements. Leaving hay outside completely uncovered increases dry matter losses, ranging anywhere from 5-40% dry matter loss. Quality is also decreased, with some of the water soluble nutrients, like water-soluble carbohydrates, potentially leaching from the hay. This can decrease the overall energy available from the forage. Other components, such as nitrates, can move within the hay stack, and become concentrated in the lower bales, creating a potentially toxic feed for our animals.

Regardless of bale size and shape, it is advised to keep the forage off of the ground. Whether you stack it on pallets, fence posts, or even a well-drained gravel base, this will help to minimize loss. Storing bales on bare ground can cause an estimated 5-20% loss in dry matter, which can add up pretty quickly and account for over half of total dry matter losses. Even if the ground immediately below the hay is not receiving moisture, the surrounding soil is, which will leach into the soils directly underneath the hay stack. It is common to see molding occur on the lower bales due to direct contact with wet soils. The same sort of issues can occur even on concrete floors, as concrete is great at absorbing moisture, so make sure to keep this in mind even if your hay is being stored under a shelter.

Covering the tops of bales with something such as a large tarp or water-resistant canvas will help to divert moisture away from the stack. Make sure that there is some overhang of the tarp over the side of the stack, so that lower bales are not accumulating moisture. If bales are not going to be covered, it is advised to keep stacks small, as water from upper bales will penetrate directly into lower bales, increasing the number of damaged bales.

Ventilation is really important in continuing the drying process after bales become wet. For example, it is best to keep round bales in single layers placed end-to-end, with several feet in between rows to increase air flow and circulation around all bales. Bale density is also really important. The tighter the bale, the better it will be able to withstand winter precipitation and damage. Loosely-packed bales will “pick up” more moisture, and it will penetrate throughout more of a bale than a densely-packed bale.

Wrapping round bales will help to significantly decrease any quality and yield losses from winter storage if the equipment and resources are available. A study found that six layers of plastic wrap is ideal, as it is the optimal trade-off between money spent on wrapping and amount of hay lost to the elements.

Proper storage of your hay is really important in ensuring that your animals will have enough roughage to get through the cold winter months. Decreasing exposure to the elements is the most important factor, and minimizing the number of bales that are exposed to the winter elements will help to minimize total quality and yield losses.