Ration Wisely

feed testing

By Harry Brook

A nice fall for harvesting must come once in a while and this year has worked out. Crops are coming off dry and hay and greenfeed can finally be taken off at the right moisture levels.

Now you have your feed in the yard and are ready for winter, there’s still a task or two to complete. Have you tested your feeds for their feed value?

The quality of hay and greenfeed is often confused with the condition it was harvested in. Feed quality is related to the nutrient content the feed has when it is cut, prior to harvesting. Nutrient content starts high and declines as the plants mature and volumes increase. Once the grasses and forages have flowered, fibre content dramatically increases, reducing the energy content and protein levels in the feed.

Feed condition is related to the degree of weathering the crop has experienced from when it was cut to when it is baled. Weathering will also depend on the machinery used for cutting the feed. If a conditioner or roller opens up the stems, any soluble sugars (which are part of energy) will be lost from a rain, but protein levels should not be affected. Brown greenfeed or hay may look bad but that is not necessarily a reflection of feed quality. Cattle may prefer weathered, brown feed that was cut in early July to any green, un-weathered feed cut when it is over-mature in September.

How to tell if you are harvesting good feed? Take a representative feed sample and send it away for testing. The key point here is that the feed sample be truly representative of the entire field. Taking a grab sample from one or two bales just doesn’t do the trick. Core samplers, available to ratepayers from the county, can take samples from the side of bales. If you think of the bale being wrapped up in the field, a core sample taken from the side of the bale is many miniscule samples taken along the path of that bale. By sampling 20 – 40 bales you then get a very good average sample that truly represents the feed quality that field contains.

A feed sample should be taken for each field the hay, or greenfeed came off from, unless the fields in question were very similar in species composition and stage of growth at harvest. What should the feed be tested for? Energy and protein, moisture, phosphorus, calcium, manganese, zinc, copper and sodium for sure. Nitrates can and should be included in the test if there is any question about safety for a greenfeed crop. Nitrates are almost never a problem in perennial hay.

Once you have the results, the biggest benefit you can derive from a feed test is doing rations for your livestock. Knowing what your feed contains can save money over the winter and prevent any feed-related problems from occurring. In many cases, feed testing and ration balancing can save thousands of dollars of winter feed costs and improve reproductive efficiency in cattle.

Knowledge is power. Feed testing and ration balancing are fairly cheap but effective tools to fine tune your winter feeding program and keep winter feed costs under control.

Harry Brook is Flagstaff County’s Agricultural Fieldman. He can be reached via email at: or by phone at: 780-384-4138.