Feeding Low-Quality Forages

Due to drought conditions that have impacted this area since last fall, many livestock producers have limited forage supplies available for this coming winter and in some cases quality of the forage may cause additional challenges.

If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to inventory feeds, estimate winter feed needs, get forages tested so you can compare hay quality to animal nutrient requirements, and plan supplement programs if needed. That was one of the key messages in the series of Western Beef Summit meetings held across the area 2 weeks ago by the NDSU Extension Service.

While ruminants like cattle can utilize some lower-quality forages in their diet, trying to overwinter cattle on low-quality forages that don’t meet their nutritional needs can lead to problems. In general, dry-matter intake is typically reduced with low-quality forages and the potential for nutrient deficiencies is increased.

Issues with feeding low-quality forages to overwintering cattle, which in this area are generally pregnant females, can include impaction, weight and body condition losses, lowered immune function, calving difficulty, calf health issues, reduced milk production, and decreased conception rates.

Characteristics of low-quality forages include high fiber content, low crude protein (CP) and energy (total digestible nutrients or TDN) content, and reduced fiber digestibility.

In cattle, nutrient intake must be adequate to support microbial fermentation in the rumen. Adequate dietary protein and energy are critical for microbial growth and production, which supplies the majority of energy used by the cow. Forages are generally considered low-quality if they have less than 7-8% crude protein as microbial fermentation in the rumen is reduced when crude protein levels are less than those values. This results in lowered digestibility and passage rates, both of which impact intake.

Feeding supplemental protein with these types of forages will help considerably in improving forage intake and nutrient utilization. Commonly used supplements include high-quality grass or legume hay, oilseed meals, or byproduct feeds such as corn gluten feed and distillers grains. Self-fed supplements such as protein tubs and blocks may also be used, but producers need to ensure that these products will contribute adequate additional protein to the diet.

While protein is often the focus, forages also may be deficient in energy. If TDN content is less than 50%, it would be inadequate in energy for most classes of livestock.

Energy supplement options include cereal grains, byproduct feeds high in digestible fiber (soybean hulls, wheat midds or beet pulp) or high-quality forage such as alfalfa.  Forage intake and digestion can be reduced when feeding high levels of starch-containing grain due to a shift in the rumen microbial population that favors starch-digesting microbes as opposed to fiber-digesting microbes. However, this can still be beneficial if the forage supply is limited by allowing producers to feed higher amounts of grain and reducing the amount of forage in the diet.

In addition to potential protein and energy deficiencies, drought-stress forages may be deficient in minerals and vitamins. These components of feeds are often overlooked; however, they are critical for growth, immune function and reproduction.

The best way to utilize any forage is through proper sampling and laboratory analysis so that the correct supplement can be used if needed.

The best sources for more information or advice would include your local agent with the NDSU Extension Service or feed representative. For more information on feed sampling and analysis, download the NDSU Extension publication “Sampling Feed for Analysis,” which is available at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/livestock/sampling-feed-for-analysis

Winter Cereals for Haying or Grazing

Producers should consider taking advantage of any rains we may receive in the next month to establish a winter cereal for grazing or haying next spring.

Based on the results from this study conducted at the NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center in 2020, winter rye was the superior winter cereal for grazing cattle during May and early June. Winter triticale appears to be the best option for producing good-quality hay if the planned harvest is early June. Willow Creek winter wheat would not be recommended as a spring grazing winter cereal, but it is the best option if producing hay in mid to late June.

For more information on options, see the following research report on this study at the NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center website –  CGRECAR2021Sedivecetal.WinterCerealTrial.pdf (ndsu.edu)

Soil Health and Habitat Program

Pheasants Forever has created a new Soil Health and Habitat Program. This program is focused in the prairie pothole region with the goal to rebuild soil organic matter, sequester carbon, increase water infiltration and provide quality wildlife habitat on the least productive cropland acres while simultaneously improving profitability and sustainability.

Application sign-up began August 23, 2021 and will be accepted on a continuous basis. Online applications can be completed at: www.pheasantsforever.org/soilhealthandhabitat .

The Soil Health and Habitat Program includes perennial wildlife habitat consisting of grasses and wildflowers designed by PF biologists. For the perennial wildlife habitat, the program will provide seed and establishment cost not to exceed $150/acre based off actual receipts along with a $250 per acre one-time sign-up incentive. For cover crops, the program will provide $20 per acre for cover crop seed.

For more information and details on the program, contact Joey Rasco, North Dakota Precision Ag & Conservation Specialist with Pheasants Forever at 636-295-1398 or email: jrasco@pheasantsforever.org

Test Annual Forages Before Grazing or Feeding

Feed produced during a drought may have higher levels of nitrate than would be safe for livestock consumption. Ruminant animals, such as cattle and sheep, are susceptible to nitrate poisoning because of their digestive process. Nitrate is converted to nitrite in the rumen. When nitrite moves into the blood stream it prevents the blood cells from carrying oxygen, resulting in suffocation. Abortions can also occur in cows where lower levels of nitrates are fed.

Drought-stressed forages from oats, barley, and corn account for most of the nitrate poisoning cases in North Dakota. However, a number of other crops can also accumulate nitrate, including wheat, sudan grass, sorghum sudan hybrids, turnips, and pearl millet along with certain weeds, especially kochia.  

Extension agents in this area have reported that many annual forage samples are coming back above acceptable levels for nitrates so testing for nitrates should be strongly considered before fields are grazed or before harvested feeds are fed.  Testing is cheaper than losing livestock.

Nitrate levels can sometimes be reduced by ensiling annual forages, but, unfortunately, they generally remain constant in forages cut and cured for hay and don’t dissipate over time.

Hay with higher than acceptable levels of nitrates can often still be utilized as feed but must be blended with other low-nitrate feeds. Blending is best accomplished by feeding a total mixed ration using a feed wagon. Hay grinding can also be an option by grinding high and low nitrate hays together in the proper proportions. However, don’t just set bales out or roll out bales expecting cattle to blend the hays on their own.

In addition to nitrates, drought stressed conditions can also increase the risk of prussic acid poisoning with sorghum or sorghum sudan hybrids. Prussic acid is similar-to nitrates in that it binds to the hemoglobin in the bloodstream which hinders oxygen transfer and can result in asphyxiation. Symptoms of prussic acid poisoning appear rapidly, within minutes of the livestock consuming forage. Immediate symptoms include staggering, labored breathing, spasms, and foaming at the mouth. Affected animals will often lie down and begin thrashing and if treatment isn’t administered quickly it will result in death.

Prussic acid poisoning is more of a concern if you plan to graze sorghum or sorghum sudan crosses and testing should be strongly considered before turning livestock out on sorghum sudan stands or mixtures containing sorghum sudan.

If samples come back marginal or unsafe, you can probably still utilize the forage but in a different fashion. Unlike nitrates that generally remain constant when cut for hay, prussic acid is volatile, and levels will drop as the plants die and dry down. As such, swathing the sorghum sudan and putting it up for hay would be one option. A couple other options would be to swath and then swath graze following a 7 to 10 day waiting period to allow the prussic acid to volatilize or wait to graze until 7 to 10 days after a hard, killing frost.

The best source of information on sampling, testing, and interpreting results on nitrates or prussic acid is the NDSU Extension Service. Contact your local extension agent for more information.

July 22nd Soil Health Tour

More and more farmers and ranchers are taking action to improve the health of their soil. Producers who use soil health building systems that include practices such as no-till, cover crops, and diverse species rotations have been reporting greater productivity, profitability, and resiliency to weather extremes. Healthy soil also helps protect our soil and water resources, and can lower input costs, which can lead to a healthier bottom line for your business.

If you would like to learn more about what some producers in the area have been doing to improve their soil health, make plans to join the Soil Conservation Districts, NDSU Extension Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Ag Improvement Associations in Williams and Divide counties for a soil health tour on Thursday, July 22.

The tour will start at the Williams County Soil Conservation District Building located on the grounds of the Williston Research Extension Center at 1:30 pm with a review of a cover crop and annual forage trial being conducted by the Soil Conservation District.

From there the tour will head north, ending up in the Noonan area, with stops at several farm operations along the way to hear about actions they are taking or planning to improve their soil health. The tour will conclude with a supper at Wildrose around 6:30 pm.

As most people will probably just want to head home following the supper in Wildrose rather than riding back to Williston to retrieve their vehicle, we are just planning to caravan to the various tour stops so carpooling will be encouraged.

Several farm operations will be featured on the tour. One will be Andrew Sylte near the 13 mile corner. Andrew is in the beginning phases of a sustainability plan that will use full season cover crops and livestock integration working with a neighbor along with fall seeded cover crops to add crop diversity and improve soil health.

Another will be the Wheeler Ranch north of Ray where Tom and Blake are using cover crops and regenerative ag practices to expand their livestock operation.

From there we’ll move up into Divide County to see how several producers including Harlan and Phil Johnson, the Jacobs Ranch and Greg Bush are using cover crops and intercropping to increase diversity and build soil health.

The long-term goal for many of these producers is to rebuild the soil closer to what it was under prairie conditions. Prairies and prairie soils flourished with a diversity of plants that grew from early spring to late fall. Unfortunately, farming has taken its toll on our soil with most agricultural land having at best only about half the organic matter and topsoil compared to what it had before it was first cultivated.

If you would like to join the tour at some point outside of the beginning stop at the Williston Research Extension Center, please contact Keith Brown, soil health and cropping systems specialist with the Williams County SCD at 701-648-9841 and he can give you an approximate time and general location for the various tour stops. 

Those planning to attend are asked to pre-register for the tour by July 19 so we have a fairly accurate count for the supper at Wildrose. To pre-register you can contact Kelly Leo, NDSU Extension agent in Williams County at 701-577-4595 or e-mail Kelly.leo@ndsu.edu;  Travis Binde, NDSU Extension agent in Divide County at 701-965-6501 or e-mail travis.binde@ndsu.edu; or Keith Brown at the Williams County SCD at 701-648-9841 or e-mail williams.scd.soilhealth@gmail.com

Annual Forages and Cover Crops for Supplemental Forage Production in 2021

It was already known earlier this spring that we were probably going to see around a 25 percent reduction in forage production this year due to the dry conditions that occurred last fall and if spring moisture remained below normal that there could be significant reductions in forage production for 2021.

While recent rains were very welcome and have improved the outlook for the time being, lack of moisture during April and much of May has likely already caused further impacts on the forage production potential for the year.

While recent rains may be too late to mitigate any reduction in perennial forage production, it has improved the prospect for annual forages or cover crops that could be used for supplement hay or grazing.

Annual forage options for hay that are “more” drought tolerant and cost effective would include forage barley or spring triticale, which can be planted from early May to early June and Siberian millet that can be seeded from late May to early July.

Forage oats would be another option although it is not as drought tolerant as forage barley and will tend to show higher nitrate levels sooner with stress. That’s not saying that nitrate toxicity can’t be a problem in other forage crops such as barley or triticale as they certainly can accumulate nitrates as well under extended stress conditions.

In terms of warm season grasses, the sorghum-sudan hybrids would be another option but they are not as drought tolerant as Siberian millet. Plus, they can be more difficult to cure for hay than the millets. Another of the foxtail millets, German millet, tends to be intermediate, not as drought tolerant as Siberian millet, but more drought tolerant than the sorghum-sudans.

While any of the above could be grazed as well as being put up for hay, a cover crop may be the best option if you are looking for something strictly to graze. Planting a mixture of cool and warm-season grasses, broadleaf crops and legume species will create diversity, help minimize risk due to weather conditions, extend the grazing period due to different growth stages, and increase soil health benefits.

The diversity created by the cover crop mix can help minimize risk due to weather as the different species included in the mix have different rooting structures and different times of peak moisture and nutrient uptake as compared to single species which are all competing for the same resources at the same time. Thus, multi-species often out-produce single species.

In a demonstration conducted in Burleigh County under dry condition back in 2006, 6 different cover crop species were seeded individually and then in a diverse mix containing all 6 of the species. In July, with only 1.8” of growing season precipitation, many of the individual species were showing obvious moisture stress while the diverse mix remained green and produced over twice as much biomass as any of the single species.

With these thoughts in mind, staff with the Williams County Soil Conservation District and Natural Resources Conservation Service have been collaborating since earlier this spring to see if we could come up with a cost effective cover crop mix for drier conditions.

One of the mixes we came up with includes forage barely and Siberian millet based on the above information. For a legume, we included field peas. Field pea may not be the best in terms of drought tolerance but they tend to be one of the more cost effective legumes. Cowpeas would be another option for a legume that is more drought tolerant than field peas but they also are generally more expensive and add to the cost. Also, included in the mix were collards and turnips. These Brassica species aren’t necessarily considered drought tolerant, but are very desirable in a cover crop mix due to their remarkable forage quality even after a killing frost. If we would get some moisture later in the season, the thought was these Brassicas may come on to provide some later season grazing. While designed primarily for grazing, we did try to keep inclusion rate for the Brassicas on the lower side so the cover crop could be potentially hayed as the Brassicas tend to be high in moisture and can be difficult to cure for a baled forage. Last, we included a small amount of sunflower as sunflower is a deep-rooted crop that tends to be fairly drought tolerant and is readily utilized by cattle.

The Soil Conservation District in conjunction with the Williston Research Extension Center does plan to seed a cover crop demonstration just south of the District’s Tree Shed on the Extension Center grounds. In addition to seeding the cover crop mix outlined above and a couple other variants of the mix, we also plan to seed individual species of some of the primary components in the mixes as a comparison. Watch for more information on the trial as the growing season progresses.

Water Quality Programs

Ranchers should start planning for what could be a difficult year if drought conditions persist through the growing season. There is likely going to be some reduction in forage production this year even if it does start raining due to the dry conditions last fall. If spring moisture remains below normal there could be significant reductions in forage production for 2021.

Another factor that will be of concern in many livestock operations for the coming year will be the availability and quality of water, especially in pastures and rangeland with primarily surface water for the water source.

Water is an important but often overlooked nutrient. Good water quality and cleanliness can increase water intake and improve livestock production while livestock that only have access to low-quality water will have reduced water and feed intake, resulting in reduced production. As the availability and quality of water declines further, reduced water consumption can result in dehydration, which can be fatal in livestock.

In addition, water always contains some dissolved minerals, which normally may not be of concern. However, as water levels dropped due to evaporation, such as they did last summer, the concentration of these minerals and other impurities in water increases and can become potentially toxic when they reach certain levels. Without any runoff to re-fill surface water sources this spring such as stock ponds, reservoirs and sloughs, water quality should be monitored closely.

Of potential concern are issues such as high levels of total dissolved solids or salinity and sulfates in the water. Other factors may include pH levels, nitrates and microbiological contaminants such as cyanobacteria, more commonly known as blue-green algae.

For more specific information, the NDSU Extension Service has a number of good resources available covering livestock water requirements, livestock water quality, cyanobacteria poisoning and a fact sheet on livestock water testing guidelines that outlines the steps to collect a water sample to conduct a livestock water screening and information on the testing labs in North Dakota that can analyze the samples. Copies of these resources are available at the Williams County Extension office, Williams County Soil Conservation District or can be found online at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/livestockextension/water .

Many county Extension offices across the state are also participating in a Livestock Water Quality Monitoring Program being conducted by the NDSU Extension Service in which extension agents will help monitor TDS and sulfate levels in livestock water sources during the growing season along with completing a visual assessment for cyanobacteria. Contact your local Extension office for more information and details.

If you do have water sources that would provide livestock with better quality water that may currently be available in a pasture or fresh water but currently don’t have any means of distributing the water, several of the Soil Conservation Districts in this area do have shallow pipeline plows available to rent. These plows can install poly pipe up to two feet in depth and can be used to develop livestock watering systems to provide better quality water and/or improve grazing distribution. Soil Conservation Districts in the area with pipeline plows include Williams, Divide, and Burke Counties.

Natural Resources Conservation Service staff are also available to help design pipelines to ensure the water system meets your objectives and functions properly. For more information, contact your respective NRCS office.

Site Prep – Machine Tree Plantings

Tree Season is Upon Us!

Please get your sites prepped as we will be doing site visits in the next week or 2!

  • If there is grass or alfalfa in the area where the trees are to be planted, it would be beneficial to spray and kill any vegetation before we plant. Ensure chemical is approved for new tree plantings.
  • If the ground is in existing cropland stubble, cultivate or harrow if the stubble is high.
  • 10ft wide tilled area for fabric laying only
  • No rocks
  • No large clumps of soil
  • Make sure there is NOTHING in the way of where we will be planting unless previously discussed

Mycorrhizal Fungi and Plants

As we near the start to our seminar on Soil Health & Drought Management we thought it would be a great idea to give some background on one of the topics that will be presented at the seminar, mycorrhizal fungi.

While research has yet to unlock all the secrets of the soil, one of the important hidden partners in the soil are a group known as mycorrhizal fungi. Approximately 90% of all plants form some association with mychorrhizal fungi. In fact, it was the partnership with mycorrhizal fungi that allowed plants to begin to colonize dry land and create life on Earth as we know it.

Mycorrhizae are symbiotic relationships that form between fungi and plants. Plants allow mycorrhizal fungi to colonize their roots and use root exudates formed from photosynthesis to supply the fungus with carbohydrates and sugars that the fungi use as a food source and energy. In return, the fungi provide nutrients, especially immobile nutrients like phosphorus, and water to the plants through their extensive network of mycelial hyphae produced by the fungus. The hyphae are fine filaments that extend into the soil and act as extensions of root systems. They are actually more effective in nutrient and water absorption than the roots themselves.

In addition to helping provide nutrients and moisture to the plants, some mycorrhizal fungi such as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi also play a key role in creating water stable soil aggregates, which is important for soil structure and water infiltration into the soil.

They do this by producing glomalin, a very stable carbon based glue. The primary purpose of glomalin is to coat the fungal hyphae to keep water and nutrients from getting lost on the way to the plant. In doing so, the hyphae act as a frame upon which soil particles begin to collect with glomalin gluing them together to eventually form soil aggregates.

In short, mycorrhizal fungi are a key component to soil health and also plant health.

If you’d like to learn more about mycorrhizal fungi and management practices that are favorable to maintaining higher levels of this beneficial fungi in the soil, make plans to participate in the March 23 Soil Health & Drought Management seminar being conduct by the Williams County Soil Conservation District. Caley Gasch, NDSU Assistant Professor of Soil Health, will talk about mycorrhizal fungi and the symbiotic relationship they form with plants in healthy soil. More information on the workshop can be found on this website.