Spring Breeding on Fescue Pastures

Roughing cows through the winter with the hope of getting them fitter through the summer is a sure way to delay breeding or result in open cows, writes Dr Roy Burris, Beef Extension Specialist, University of Kentucky.
calendar icon 28 May 2013
clock icon 10 minute read

Mother Nature has not been very cooperative with farmers thus far this spring as rainfall has slowed field activities in many portions of the state. Corn and soybean planting are running behind schedule and it appears that first cutting hay harvest is going to lag behind schedule as well. Even with the relatively cool temperatures seen around the state, forage growth is advancing and in southern Ohio grasses can be commonly seen heading out.

Beef producers should recognize the value of forages in their operations. Beef animals are ruminants and are designed to function on adequate supplies of good quality forage. While all feedstuffs are relatively expensive these days, forages provide us our best opportunity for reasonable production costs. Forages are certainly more cost-effective when they are grazed when compared to mechanical harvest. However, Ohio winters necessitate a certain amount of harvested forages to maintain beef animals through challenging conditions.

I am sure that hay harvest will begin soon if the weather permits. Hay making can be a delicate art of balancing quality and quantity. We certainly want to achieve high yields from every acre we harvest, but the forage plant itself gives us the best indication as to when to harvest. When a forage plant exhibits a seed head or bloom, it is time to harvest. From the time the heads begin to emerge in the grasses, digestibility decreases approximately one-half percentage unit per day. In the case of legumes, digestibility is also reduced by one-third to one-half percentage unit each day following the development of flower buds.

There is a great deal of management that goes into a successful hay crop. Much thought goes into variety selection, the fertility program, weed control, and harvest. However, I would contend that we typically do a less than adequate job of planning on how we are going to store the hay crop.

The invention of the large round baler provided producers an efficient method to harvest large numbers of acres in a short time with a minimal amount of labor. Large round bales certainly reduced the amount of time required to feed hay in the winter. However, with this added convenience associated with large round bales, I believe we have seen a reduction in the amount of attention paid to storage of the crop.

A fact sheet from the University of Kentucky outlines the potential losses associated from a variety of storage systems. "Round Bale Hay Storage in Kentucky" can be found at the following link: http://www.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/agr/agr171/agr171.pdf. The dry matter losses associated with a variety of storage systems listed in the publication area as follows: Conventional shed: 4-7 per cent ; Pole structure with plastic roof on pad : 4-7 per cent ; Reusable tarp on pad: 4-7 per cent ; Bale sleeve on ground: 4-7 per cent ; Plastic wrap on ground: 4-7 per cent ; Elevated stack on pad (rock plus filter fabric): 13-17 per cent ; Net wrap on ground: 15-25 per cent ; Stacked on ground: 25-35 per cent .

Hay is simply too valuable of a commodity to waste as much of it as we do. I am sure that if we surveyed every hay producer, we would come up with a wide range of figures as to the cost of producing a ton of hay. The OSU Extension Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics recently published their 2013 hay enterprise budgets that showed the cost of production for grass hay at $67.86/ton and alfalfa hay at $92.96/ton.

The beef producer that raises his own hay should at least value the hay at the cost of production. However, the value of hay sold in the market would more accurately represent the costs in a beef enterprise. Regardless of how you value the hay, can you afford 10-35 per cent storage losses commonly seen with typical round bale hay storage? A 20 per cent loss of $100/ton hay adds up fairly quickly.

The amount you can invest in your hay storage systems will certainly depend on the amount and type of hay that is being stored. The larger the amount of hay being stored and the more valuable the hay, the more you can justify spending to reduce storage losses. Aside from constructing buildings for hay storage, there are some key points to remember to help reduce storage losses. Consider the following:

  1. Hay/soil contact is typically the primary source of losses associated with hay stored outdoors. Cover your storage area with rocks 1-3 inches in diameter piled 4-8 inches deep. Using geotextile cloth below the rocks will increase the life of the pad.
  2. If placing bales on the ground cannot be avoided, make sure a well-drained area is selected.
  3. Hay should be stored in an open area that can receive maximum sunlight. Hay should never be stored under trees. It is also preferable to orient bale rows to run north and south to allow for maximum daily sun exposure.
  4. Bales should be placed so the sides of the bales do not touch. Allow at least three feet of space between rows to allow for air circulation. An exception to this would be if you are stacking bales in a pyramid fashion for covering with a tarp or other material.
  5. The flat ends of bales should be firmly butted against one another as this can protect the ends almost as well as if they were one continuous bale.

The USDA Crop Production Report that was released on May 10, 2013 also provides some compelling information that should motivate producers to save more of their hay crop. The report stated that all hay stored on U.S. farms as of May 1, 2013 was down 34 per cent from a year ago and is the lowest May 1 stocks level on record. Record-low May 1 hay stocks levels were established in Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

The bottom line is that producers need to do a better job of preserving hay in order to insure adequate supplies of quality feeds for our herds and help improve profitability. I suspect the days of producing or purchasing "cheap" hay are a thing of the past for the foreseeable future. Hay is a valuable commodity and it is about time that we treat it like one.

Spring Breeding on Fescue Pastures

Most Kentucky beef producers have spring-calving cow herds that graze fescue pastures which have high endophyte levels. Getting a high percentage of cows bred in May, June, and July to calve in March, April, and May can be a challenge. I personally prefer fall-calving for that reason, but I also believe that we can have successful breeding performance in the spring.

There are some keys to getting a high percentage of cows pregnant for a spring calving season. The most general problem, in my opinion, is that the winter feeding program isn't adequate to support required body condition for early rebreeding. Cows should enter the breeding season in good body condition (Body Condition Score 5) which doesn't always follow our winter feeding programs. It seems that we sometimes try to "rough 'em" through the winter and hope that spring grass will "straighten them out".

That is a sure formula for delayed breeding or open cows. Spring-calving cows need to conceive early in the breeding season (before late June) for best results. We conducted a trial at the UKREC (Western Kentucky) several years ago in which similar cows were separated into three breeding periods of 45-days each on high-endophyte fescue - see Table 1. Cows which were exposed to bulls from June 19 to August 4 had a pregnancy rate of only 59 per cent . At this location, the average maximum daily temperature reaches 90?F by about June 20. This elevated temperature, coupled with the endophyte that is present in most fescue pastures, likely contributed to that decreased performance.

Table 1. Effect of Time of Breeding on Beef Cows Grazing HIgh-Endophyte Fescue 1992,1993,(UKREC)

a,b Means on the same line with superscripts are different (P<.0.5).

We have also measured the alkaloid levels in high-endophyte fescue at this location. Since the primary culprit in toxicity of high endophyte pastures seems to be ergovaline, let's look at ergovaline levels (Figure 1) across the growing season. After our July (about July 10) measurement, the ergovaline levels increased dramatically. So this toxicity, coupled with high temperatures, appears to mean that breeding will not occur at acceptable rates in July, August and September. Therefore, cows need to be pregnant by the end of June for best results.

Figure 1. Ergovaline Levels by Months (UKREC 2011)

Ergovaline levels differed greatly by pasture, too (see figure 2). That information could make it possible to avoid the "hot" pastures during the summer months. The trial in Table 1 was conducted in the "hot" pasture (unbeknown to us). The two yellow pastures are high endophyte but always gave better than expected results in past years. The ergovaline levels can explain a lot. Armed with this information, we would prefer to be in the yellow areas during heat stress and breeding.

Figure 2. Average Ergovaline Levels by Pasture (UKREC) 2011

There are several other keys to a successful breeding season. Obviously, fertile bulls are extremely important and breeding soundness evaluations (BSE) are essential. Think fertile bulls and cycling cows! A complete mineral supplement needs to be available on a year-round basis. If artificial insemination (AI) is used, that brings on the need for managing the details of AI and estrous synchronization protocols.

In the short run, don't let cows lose condition as the breeding season nears. Lush, watery grass might not support regaining condition after calving, peak milk production and rapid re-breeding. Do whatever it takes to get 'em bred and bred early!

USDA Announces Conservation Reserve Program Sign-Up

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2013 - Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack today reminded farmers and ranchers that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will conduct a four-week Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general sign-up beginning May 20 and ending on June 14. Vilsack also announced the restart of sign-up for continuous CRP, including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement Initiative, the Highly Erodible Land Initiative, the Grassland Restoration Initiative, the Pollinator Habitat Initiative and other related initiatives. Sign-up for continuous CRP began on May 13 and will continue through Sept. 30, 2013.

"As always, we expect strong competition to enroll acres into CRP, and we urge interested producers to maximize their environmental benefits and to make cost-effective offers," said Vilsack. "CRP is an important program for protecting environmentally sensitive lands from erosion and sedimentation, and for ensuring the sustainability of our groundwater, lakes, rivers, ponds and streams. Through the voluntary participation of our farmers and ranchers, CRP helps us to protect our natural resources, preserve wildlife habitat and bring good paying jobs to rural America related to hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation.

Vilsack encouraged producers to look into CRP's other enrollment opportunities offered on a continuous, non-competitive, sign-up basis.

CRP has a 27-year legacy of successfully protecting the nation's natural resources through voluntary participation, while providing significant economic and environmental benefits to rural communities across the United States. Producers enrolled in CRP plant long-term, resource-conserving covers to improve the quality of water, control soil erosion and develop wildlife habitat. In return, USDA provides participants with rental payments and cost-share assistance.

Contract duration is between 10 and 15 years. Currently, 27 million acres are enrolled in CRP through 700,000 contracts on 390,000 farms throughout the U.S., with enrollment in 49 states and Puerto Rico. Contracts on an estimated 3.3 million acres will expire on Sept. 30, 2013. Enrollment authority for all types of CRP, which had expired Sept. 30, 2012, was extended through 2013 by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.

Offers for general sign-up CRP contracts are ranked according to an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) collects data for each of the EBI factors based on the relative environmental benefits for the land offered. FSA uses the following factors to assess the environmental benefits for the land offered:

  • Wildlife habitat benefits resulting from covers on contract acreage;
  • Water quality benefits from reduced erosion, runoff and leaching;
  • On-farm benefits from reduced erosion;
  • Benefits that will likely endure beyond the contract period;
  • Air quality benefits from reduced wind erosion; and
  • Cost.

CRP soil rental rates for non-irrigated cropland were updated this year to better reflect location and market conditions. A nationwide cap was placed on the maximum amount that may be paid per acre for the general sign-up. Taken together these steps help ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent in a fiscally responsible manner while producing the maximum environmental benefits for each dollar spent.

May 2013

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