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Keep Your Cows and Your Wallet in Good Condition by Testing Your Forages

By: Alicia Sopatyk, PAg, Regional Livestock Specialist, Tisdale

August 2017

Testing forages for nutrient quality provides a better indication on the nutrients available to your livestock. Knowledge of how the forage was put up and visual assessment are helpful, but they do not yield values for the nutritional quality. Do you want more control over your winter feeding situation? Feeding to meet livestock needs rather than under- or over-feeding increases your awareness and control over winter feeding.

Given that forages are the dominant portion of the livestock diet, testing forages to get a handle on nutritional quality is a good place to start. However, with so many test package options available, it can be difficult to know which one is right for your situation. Crude Protein (CP) and energy, measured in Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) are extremely important parameters to measure. Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) is a predictor of intake and is a major contributor to feed quality. There are testing parameters that come standard with most forage panels, including per cent Dry Matter (DM), and minerals like Calcium and Phosphorus. If you’re ever unsure of which test is most suitable for your type of feed, contact your local Regional Livestock Specialist.

Toxins can also be present in forages and come in a variety of formats. But, good news, you can test for them, too! Here are a few to consider:

  • Nitrates – When normal plant growth is disrupted (e.g. by hail, drought or frost), nitrate conversion is affected and it begins to accumulate in the plant. Cereal crops for greenfeed and some grasses or weeds can accumulate nitrates, but not legumes.
  • Ergot – Ergot is a fungus affecting cereals and grasses, but not legumes, producing several toxic alkaloids. Ergot alkaloids can cause feed refusal, loss in milk production, lameness, abortions and gangrene.
  • Fusarium – Fusarium is a fungus affecting cereals and some grasses that can produce several mycotoxins. Fusarium mycotoxins can cause abortions, reduced immunity and feed refusal.
  • Moulds – various kinds, not advisable to be fed to pregnant animals. Mouldy sweet clover can produce dicoumarol, which can cause bleeding diseases in cattle.  

Over-feeding can result in wasted forage and excess condition put on livestock while under-feeding can result in lost condition and poor production. By testing your forage, you have the opportunity to reformulate the diet to meet requirements. If forage quality is good, you have an opportunity to save money by feeding less, or adding straw to the ration, while still meeting nutritional requirements. If quality is poor, you can make arrangements for supplements to ensure your production isn’t hampered and livestock do not lose condition. If the forage has toxic properties, depending on the level, you can dilute it so that it can be used in your feeding program.

Testing your forages is the only way to determine the quality. Take control of your winter feeding situation: test your forages today!

Forage probes are available at Regional Offices throughout the province. Livestock and Forage Specialists can assist you with forage testing protocols, selecting a test panel and interpretation of the results.

For more information see the Feed and Water Testing Companies list or the list of Regional Office Contacts.

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