Cattle ranchers could free up hay, says expert

Baled corn stover - the leaves and stalks of maize. Stover makes up about half of the crop's yield.
Baled corn stover – the leaves and stalks of maize. Stover makes up about half of the crop’s yield. © Michigan State University

A grazing specialist in Michigan suggests cattle farmers could profit from feeding cornstalks to their cattle and selling some of their hay to horse owners.

Drought conditions in many parts of the United States have seen hay production fall and prices soar.

The situation has placed farm families and other owners of hay-consuming animals in difficult situations with winter approaching.

Hay yields for the year were down 20 per cent to 50 percent across many states because of drought and reduced hay acreage.

Hay prices are two to four times higher than a year ago.

Livestock operations can cull their herds to match feed resources, with good demand remaining for meat, but horse owners do not have that option.

“We are getting calls weekly from families that thought they had a hay supply lined up or that thought this hay shortage was being exaggerated, and now they are entering winter realizing they do not have enough hay to feed their horses,” says Karen Waite, Michigan State University 4-H/youth equine specialist.

“Economically and emotionally it will be devastating for them.”

There are alternatives for horse families that may help get horses through the winter.

“Feeding straw as a substitute for a portion of the hay in a horse’s diet is one alternative,” says Tom Guthrie, Michigan State University Extension equine education specialist.

“Straw is less than half the price of hay across Michigan, and if it’s fed carefully with some quality hay still being fed along with a complete horse grain feed, up to 25 per cent of the diet can be straw.”

Jerry Lindquist, MSU Extension grazing and crop management educator, provides another option.

“Another creative idea is to ask the local beef farmer to come to the rescue,” he says.

“We have an abundant supply of cornstalks in the state that the gestating beef cow will readily consume and do well on it for the first two trimesters of her pregnancy as long as one-third of the ration is still hay.

“There is still time to bale or graze a lot of cornstalks, and if that feed supply is fed, extra hay could be freed up and made available for sale.

“At the price margin of $US70 per ton for cornstalks and $US175 per ton for clean, nonweathered, first-cutting hay, the beef farm will profit even after baling, hauling and all loading costs are figured in — around $US25 to $US30 per round bale of hay sold,” he estimates.

His estimates factor in buying 25 per cent more stalk bales weighing the same as the hay bales that were sold because cows routinely utilize only 75 to 80 per cent of the fodder in a stalk bale.

Still, the beef farm is making some extra profit by shuffling its feed resources, and farmers are potentially making new friends or cementing old friendships by providing a hay resource to horse owners. In this example, the hay price would be $US4 per small square bale or $US80 per large round bale.

“These beef farms can charge more, the market is higher,” Lindquist notes, “but if they can sell locally for a decent profit and it maintains more of the animal industry and infrastructure in their community, maybe the decent profit is enough,” he concludes.

The reasons this works nutritionally is that most beef cows are routinely fed hay in the winter that is above their nutritional requirements.

Cornstalks with a little protein, which in this example is the protein in the hay, will grow the calf embryo and maintain the cow’s body condition.

Lindquist says cornstalks are still a good value in the local market, and the current price spread between them and the high demand for hay makes it work economically. It is a win/win for both parties, he says.

Cornstalks are not a suitable feed for horses. Consumption can lead to equine health problems such as colic and laminitis, which are caused by excess mold and grain consumption.

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