Record rainfalls throughout the country have made some grazing systems almost impossible to implement. Despite the recent reprieve, many cattle have now been housed and the winter feeding season has already commenced.
Good reserves of forage carried over from last season have all but disappeared and, in some situations, this year's forage stocks have already been eaten into. Early forage analyses are presenting some worrying trends and challenges. Most farmers are now looking at their options where forage is scarce and, in some cases, very poor in quality. Supplies of alternative feeds, such as brewers grains, have tightened up. Added to this is the cost of energy and protein feeds, which are at an all-time high. There has never been a more important time to study alternative strategies.
Feeding straw to supplement grass silage is something that farmers should look seriously at this year, especially in the suckler herd and in intensive finishing systems. The recent welcome improvement in the weather means that most straw has been saved in good conditions. Depending on the size of the bale, straw is being delivered on farm at €80-130/t. A straw-based feeding system may be cheaper than purchasing expensive grass silage or alternatives, even after protein or energy balancers are factored in.
The addition of straw to the dry suckler cow over the winter will allow silage supplies to be stretched while also helping to maintain the body condition of the cow. Scarce silage should be prioritised for younger animals and lactating cows. If good quality silage is fed to dry cows ad-lib, energy intakes will exceed requirements and target body condition score will be exceeded. Straw can be used to adjust daily energy intakes. The amount of straw fed will depend on the quality of silage offered, but could range from 3-6kg per cow per day. The equivalent of three 4x4 round bales should be available for each dry cow for the winter months. A dry suckler cow has a daily requirement of 75MJ of metabolisable energy for maintenance. This only increases in the last six weeks before calving. At this point, it may be appropriate to supplement with something as simple as straight-rolled barley or oats, if available. Depending on the straw quantity used and silage quality, a maximum 1-2kg may be required. At all times, it is important to pay attention to cow body condition. Trying to maintain a body condition score of 2.5-2.75 is the goal. Wheaten straw is the most suitable and cheapest straw to use for beef cows. When using a mixer wagon, the addition of rapeseed straw is a viable option. At all times, an appropriate dry-cow mineral should be available to the cow.
The suckling or autumn-calved cow can maintain good health while utilising high levels of straw. Energy requirements exceeding 130MJ/day of metabolised energy will be needed to maintain sufficient milk output, hold body condition and ensure the heat cycles recommence. Where high levels of straw are used, simple mixes based on native cereals will be the best value for money this winter. Using molasses along with a cereal mix in a mixer wagon will help to improve palatability of lower quality forages and allow for more accurate rationing. As with the dry cow, an appropriate mineral supplement will be essential, especially this winter after the stressful summer most animals have encountered.
For youngstock and weanlings, a feeding system based on high levels of straw fed with a protein and energy balancer will sustain good growth rates and maintain health. Up to 75pc of the forage requirement can be offered in the form of straw. In some cases, ad-lib straw may be an option. On a 250kg weanling, up to 2.5kg of balancer will be required.
This balancer will need to contain 20pc protein and should be offered at the rate of 0.5kg/50kg liveweight plus an additional 0.5kg. Straw will ensure excellent rumen fermentation, meaning high levels of acetic acid are produced, which will help stimulate frame development.
This simple feeding system will ensure that target daily liveweight gains of 0.75kg on males and 0.65kg for females will be met. If used with a mixer wagon, again molasses will enhance intakes and reduce the amount of the energy balancer required. Molasses represents very good value for money this winter on a lot of fronts. Blended molasses is high in protein is even better value for money.
Straw can also be used as a forage base to finish cattle in most cases where silage is limited. Every effort should be made to fatten cattle as quickly as possible once they are housed. Holding animals in the hope of a higher price coming later in the season will not be financially viable given the high cost of all feeds. Set up rations to achieve maximum liveweight gain by ensuring the ration contains 11.8-12.0 MJ ME/day and 11.5-14.0pc crude protein per kilogram of dry-matter fed. The protein content will depend on the breed and sex of the animal. So bulls will require the highest level of protein, while steers require the lowest.
This ration specification can be easily met by feeding high levels of cereals. Straw will stimulate good cud chewing while reducing the risks of acidosis.
Balancing with a suitable protein is where the greatest cost will be incurred, so judicious use of protein is essential.
The use of alki-grain will have the dual benefit of supplying sufficient energy levels while also meeting the protein requirements in most cases.
As with the other categories of animals, the finishing animals will benefit greatly from the high inclusion of a sugar source in the ration.
In summary, straw on a dry matter basis may be one of the cheapest sources of forage available for use this winter. The improvement in the weather should make it readily available and is easy to store.
Farmers should ensure they have sufficient supplies before the winter feeding season begins.