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Salvaging Cereal Crops as Forage

By Catherine Lang, BSA, AAg, Livestock and Feed Extension Specialist, Watrous

October 2019

After the early snow and a month of wet weather in Saskatchewan, many acres of annual grain crops could not be harvested. There are growing concerns regarding sprouted and unsaleable grain. It is possible to salvage these crops as forage for livestock, but there are a few important points to take into consideration.

It is important to remember that if the crop was insured through Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation (SCIC), you must contact them prior to any salvage operations commencing.

Economic Considerations:

Baling costs range from $12 to $15 per bale, according to the 2018-19 Farm Machinery Custom and Rental Rate Guide. It's important to first determine if there is a market for the feed and adequate nutritional value to justify these expenses. The cost of transportation to your operation and bale hauling to the livestock should be part of this consideration as well.

If baling is no longer an option because the plant material is too wet, it may be possible to graze the crop in the field. Both standing/lodged and swathed crops can be grazed. However, utilization of the mature crop needs to be managed to reduce the risk of acidosis from grain overload. Cross-fencing using temporary fencing is the best way to limit access to plant material and decrease wastage. Costs for temporary electric fencing can vary greatly depending on equipment owned and supplies available on the farm. The Fencing Costs web page can help in assessing costs for your operation. When taking animals to the feed source, the cost of transporting the animals to the field should be considered. Water availability should also be noted, and, if good quality water is not present, the cost of hauling water also needs to be factored in.

Baling Considerations:

Bales containing 18 to 20 per cent moisture (or higher) have the potential to heat and lose their quality. Once the heating process occurs, some of the sugars will be used by the microbes, reducing the energy content available to the animals. If temperatures within the bale rises above 40 C, the bales will smell sweet or like tobacco and the colour can change to dark brown or black.

Mold growth and spoilage are also a risk with higher moisture bales. Applying the appropriate amount of inoculant as a buffered propionic or formic acid to higher moisture feed can help reduce mold growth and heating. These products could allow baling at four to five per cent higher than normal. However, moisture levels will remain higher than recommended and these bales should be fed out as quickly as possible.

Chopped or baled silage are not recommended with mature grain crops that have lain and weathered in the field for several weeks. Aerobic bacteria will have established themselves in the swath and outcompete the anaerobic bacteria required for the ensiling process. Mould, spoilage and/or frozen feed are also a risk, in addition to the nutritional losses from leaching.

Letting the feed stay in the field until temperatures remain below zero could allow you to "freeze bale" the crop. This is very risky, however, as the time available for baling between consistently freezing daytime temperatures and before the crop is completely snowed under may be very short. Furthermore, if temperatures rise, microbial action could begin again causing the bales to heat and mold.

Nutritional Considerations:

Higher moisture, heated bales can tie up protein as fiber making it unavailable to the animals. If this occurs, request an Acid Detergent Insoluble Nitrogen (ADIN) or Protein (ADIP) test in addition to the regular feed analysis. The adjusted protein value will need to be used when formulating rations. Information regarding feed testing can be found in the article Feed Testing 101.

Mouldy feed can also result in a loss of quality, possible feed refusal, and health concerns via mycotoxins. Before feeding a salvaged cereal crop it is advisable to have the feed tested for nutrient composition and screened for mycotoxins.

Another concern with feeding a salvaged crop is nitrate accumulation. Nitrate accumulation occurs after the plant undergoes a period of stress; in the fall this is often associated with a frost. If the crop was cut before a frost the risk of nitrates is low. However, if the crop underwent a frost and was then cut, nitrate poisoning becomes a serious risk. A feed test for nitrates is recommended and will dictate how the feed is fed. High nitrate feeds can be diluted with low nitrate feeds making them usable for the livestock.

Feeding Considerations:

There is an approximate 1:1 weight ratio of grain to straw in mature cereal crops. Therefore, roughly one half of the weight of each bale would be mature cereal grain. For example, a 1200 pound salvaged barley bale would be 600 pounds of straw and 600 pounds of barley grain. Depending on the type of cereal grain, the class of livestock being fed, and the number of animals being fed, there is a potential for grain overload or rumen acidosis. Care and planning will be required to avoid grain overload while meeting the livestock's nutritional needs. It is important to remember that the straw has an extremely high fiber content and cannot be fed on its own; a different forage will need to be included in the ration to provide the functional fiber that ruminants need.

Cereal crops can be salvaged as forage but their quality will dictate their place in your winter feeding plan. Consult with your local Livestock and Feed Extension Specialist or your nutritionist prior to making changes to your feeding program. We can help develop rations to ensure your feeds will meet your herd's changing needs.

For more information on salvaging grain crops for forage, contact your local Regional Office or call the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.

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