Controlling feed loss and spoilage in beef cattle production

Feed spoilage and waste certainly cost cattle farmers money, but they may have bigger impacts on cattle health, as well. Denise Schwab, beef specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, offers these reminders of feed loss types, causes and effects and how to address possible challenges.

The effect of mud on energy requirements of cattle is obvious, but muddy conditions also have a direct impact on feed loss from both the feed storage area and the animal feeding area. Mud often includes manure, leading to a vector for diseases such as Clostridium perfringens (Clostridium). Contamination will lead to immediate feed refusal. Soiled feed also creates a
concern for curious calves.

Storage location is important for multiple reasons: ease of storing, ease of feeding, and reducing mud and soil contamination. The best silage and hay storage option is on concrete to reduce problems at harvest as well as at feedout.

When concrete pads are not an option, choose a site that is high and dry, and consider adding rock or limestone to make a more solid base that also has good drainage. Avoid low areas that result in muddy messes when feeding out the silage or forage.

Feed in contact with wet or muddy conditions deteriorates, resulting in loss of feed quality and quantity. Mud also increases the ash content of the forage, and particularly the iron content, of soil-contaminated feed.

Carefully consider feeding locations to reduce feed waste and contamination. While winter feeding of hay or silage on frozen ground may work for many producers, an alternative is needed when ground is not frozen.

Bunks or tires work well, but a solid base beneath is needed for both the equipment to deliver the feed as well as for the cows to access the feeder. In frozen conditions, some of the dropped feed can still be consumed by the cow, but in muddy conditions any dropped feed is wasted. Adequate bunk space for all cows also is important to reduce the amount of feed waste due to aggression for access to feed.

Soil-contaminated feed, either from harvesting or at feedout, results in increased ash content. While ash level alone is not critical, it is an indicator of increased levels of iron and other minerals. The average ash content in forages is normally 4-5% in corn silage, 6-7% in corn stover, 6-8% in grasses and 8-10% in legumes.

Weather-damaged forages are typically higher in ash from soil contact at harvest. Drought, floods and the recent derecho all can increase the ash content of the 2020 forages. Harvest practices such as low cutting height, low rake setting and mergers also can increase the soil contamination on forages. Hay stored on wet or muddy ground, silage piled directly on the ground and muddy conditions at feedout also increase soil contamination.

When high levels of ash content are found in forages, minerals begin to compete with other minerals for absorption within the cow. Soil is often high in iron which causes a decrease in manganese absorption.

Because manganese is important in bone and cartilage development in a fetus, manganese deficiency can lead to increased risk for the birth defect chondrodysplasia. In many Iowa herds, potential high-iron feeds such as soil-contaminated corn silage are fed at greatest concentrations during the third trimester of gestation in spring calving cows.

The bottom line is that every little bit helps, and anything a producer can do to keep cattle feed sources clean and dry will assist in growing healthier and heavier cattle for the market.

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