Poor Forage Quality

Starving To Death On A Full Stomach

Poor-quality hay and appetite-stimulating supplements have spelled disaster for some cattle operations in the past. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Becky Mills)

It was the perfect storm. Actually, it was a series of storms. In the summer of 2013, it rained incessantly, Phil Moshell recalled. It left the cattleman baling 10- and 12-week-old grass, instead of 4- and 5-week-old grass. The Morris, Ga., producer put up 2,000 round bales of bermudagrass mixed with a little bahiagrass.

"It was next to worthless. The Relative Forage Quality [RFQ] averaged 70," he recalled.

Moshell had plenty of company that year. By mid-July, many producers in the area had received their entire average annual rainfall. University of Georgia (UGA) Extension forage specialist Dennis Hancock said the constant rain kept producers out of fields and left them baling overly mature forage.

"The rule of thumb on bermudagrass hay is every day past four weeks at harvest, it loses a half a percent of total digestible nutrients [TDN], or the energy component," he explained.

Year in and year out, the bermudagrass hay samples that come into the Georgia forage lab average 56.5% TDN, or an RFQ of around 95, Hancock explained. That would be considered average for the area.

"In 2013 and the winter of 2014, I was monitoring samples, and they were averaging 47% TDN, or an RFQ of around 80. That isn't much different from straw," Hancock notes. "Many samples were in the mid-30s, with an RFQ of 40 to 50."

It got worse. The winter was unusually cold. Moshell said his Angus-cross commercial herd was in the worst shape it had ever been.

"When I'd check them, I'd see one low 5.0 Body Condition Score [BCS] after another, with some in the 4.0s -- more than I've ever had. I like my cows to be at a BCS of 6.0," he said. (BCS is rated 1.0 to 9.0, with 1.0 being emaciated and 9.0 being obese.)

To try to meet the animals' nutritional needs, Moshell fed them eight trailer loads of whole cottonseed that winter. He didn't lose any cows, but other producers were not as fortunate. Lee Jones, a veterinarian at the UGA Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories Tifton Lab, said cows were dying from an impacted omasum, the third of four chambers in a ruminant's stomach. The four chambers are the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum.

"The digestibility of the hay was so bad, it was leaving the rumen without being broken down," Jones explains. "The hay was just packing up the omasum."

In cattle, the omasum should be the size of a basketball. In some cases, Jones recalls seeing omasums so distended they were the size of the animal's rumen. The rumen, similar to a giant fermentation vat, can hold up to 50 gallons and takes up roughly half of a cow's abdomen. When omasums become as enlarged as these were, hay just can't go any farther through the digestive process.

"Cows were eating as much as they could, but they were literally starving to death with full bellies," he said.


There was another common factor in the cow deaths besides poor-quality hay. Producers were relying on molasses lick tanks to supplement the animals.

"If you have good-quality forage, I don't have a problem with lick tanks," said UGA beef cattle Extension specialist Jacob Segers. However, he said there are downsides to using lick tanks to supplement poor hay.

"They are sold as a protein supplement, and many are urea based. Urea provides nitrogen for the rumen microbes to use as building blocks for crude protein," Segers said. Urea stays in the rumen for two or three hours, whereas hay can stay there for a day or longer. That means the urea isn't available to the rumen microbes to help digest forage. Another drawback with molasses in a situation where hay is very poor is that the lick tanks increase an animal's appetite. If cows only have poor-quality hay, they will gorge on that, leading to impactions.

Moshell said supplementing with whole cottonseed made all the difference in his operation. The byproduct gets high marks for its nutritional value and is convenient to feed.

"We can meter out the feed with buckets and hand-feed it without troughs," Moshell said. "When you have a big bunch of cows, you can spread it out, so the timid cows get their share." The convenience factor is important, as Moshell has cattle on four farms over a 13-mile radius. That makes hauling a tub feeder around time-consuming.

About the only drawback to whole cottonseed, other than its price ($350 per ton), is its high fat content. That contributes to its high-energy value, but at high levels, it can cause diarrhea and decrease fiber digestibility.

"If your ration formulation shows you need more than 5 to 6 pounds per 1,000-pound cow per day to meet their needs, you need to add in another supplement," Segers said. He explained soy hulls, citrus pulp or distillers grains can also work in a ration, adding that corn may not be the best answer for cows on a forage-based diet.

"Corn is a great energy supplement," Segers said. "However, hay digests most efficiently with a more neutral rumen pH. A lot of starch lowers the pH. We want that in a feedlot animal, but with cows, we try to maintain a rumen environment that is pasture-friendly."

If you need help choosing a supplement or building a ration, your county Extension agent or feed salesman should be able to help. But Segers stressed it's important to tell them you want a supplement that will not hinder fiber digestion.


When choosing a supplement, it's important to be sure you're armed with the facts. Get a forage analysis done on any hay you plan to feed the herd. "Without knowing what is in the hay, you're just guessing," Segers emphasized. He adds no one can tell what's in a handful of hay without an analysis.

"I have seen hay that is stemmy and looks too mature. Tifton 85 bermudagrass is a prime example of that. Yet, it is one of the most digestible varieties," he explained. "On the other hand, Alicia bermudagrass hay is beautiful, fine-stemmed. And it is one of the least digestible varieties."

Your state or independent forage testing laboratory should provide the RFQ value, as well as the TDN and crude protein on every analysis. While TDN and crude protein percentages will help with supplement and ration decisions, RFQ gauges whether a hay is worth feeding.

While Moshell would prefer not to supplement at all, letting his cows graze on lush winter annuals and clover, that isn't practical, especially during a harsh winter. To prepare for tough times, he bought an in-line bale wrapper before the 2014 hay season. This allows him to increase the odds of putting up high-quality forage, even during a wet summer.

"In 2014, my baleage averaged an RFQ of 128; and in the winter of 2014--2015, I fed one trailer load of whole cottonseed. The cows came through the winter in better condition."

Hancock, the UGA forage specialist, gives a thumbs-up to hay-wrappers, which offer producers the option of putting up high-moisture hay.

"Baleage is a tool to harvest forage in a more timely fashion. All you have to do when you're making baleage is wilt the forage a little before baling and wrapping it. Producers who were able to make baleage in the summer of 2013 did quite well. Their hay had much more normal TDN and RFQ values because they were able to harvest during more normal four- to five-week windows."

With his baleage equipment, Moshell said he's baled during light showers and never slowed down. He starts cutting at 8 a.m. and bales right after lunch, when the hay is at 65% moisture.

Hancock added that over the long haul, a wrapper probably won't pay for itself on bermudagrass baleage alone. But use it on a high-quality forage like ryegrass or alfalfa, as well as your bermudagrass, and spreading the cost makes it more viable.

Although he was thrilled with the ryegrass baleage he put up this spring, which had an average RFQ of 163, Moshell feels the hay wrapper has been a sound investment for bermudagrass hay.

"Baleage can be an excellent feed. If I could have increased the value of half my 2013 hay crop, or 1,000 bales, by $30 a bale, a wrapper would have been a good investment based on that year alone. For me, it is a game changer."