What are the feeding options available to beef farmers this winter?

By Aidan Murray, Teagasc beef specialist, Cavan Lower, Ballybofey, Co. Donegal

It is always wise at this time of year for beef farmers to complete a fodder budget. A fodder budget will do one of two things:

  1. It will give you peace of mind that you are OK for feed;
  2. It will alert you early that you are going to be short of fodder and that action is needed.

If you discover you are short of feed, there are a number of factors to consider.

What is the scale of the deficit?

If you have 50% or more of your forage requirement on-hand, then essentially it is not necessary to buy forage, unless it can be bought at good value.

Concentrates will probably be better value and certainly more nutritionally sound than buying dubious-quality silage.

What are your options?

1. Buy forage

Aside from any issues on the quality of purchased forage, if you have 50% of your forage requirement on-hand, buying extra forage appears to be poor value.

Table one below indicates that good-quality silage – before losses – is worth €38/t and that average-quality, round-bale silage is worth €31/bale. A 4X4 round bale of straw is worth €14 for feeding.

2. Buy meals

For many of you – although a draw on cash flow – this option may offer the best value and be the most practical to implement.

Although meal prices will rise by €40-50/t this year, they are still competitive. Maize meal, valued at €267/t in table one below, represents good value and many feeders have bought it in to replace some cereals and paid considerably less than its relative value.

Table one

In a situation where you are restricting silage and feeding concentrates, it is critically important that:

  • Farmers have a defined feeding plan in place to feed the restricted silage;
  • Farmers have adequate feed space available, so that all animals can feed at the one time. For example, this is seven cows per standard bay (4.8m) or nine-to-10 weanlings. Offer fresh silage daily, keeping to a fixed feeding schedule if possible. Farmers may need to plan to put in extra feed space using a feed trailer, ring feeder or extra troughs;
  • If ration ingredients vary, ensure that total energy, protein and fibre requirements are met;
  • Monitor cow condition score throughout the winter. Thinner animals should be grouped together and fed additional feed to build up condition;
  • Don’t forget to feed minerals;
  • Ensure a good supply of fresh water.

3. Buy wet or alternative feeds

When purchasing alternative feeds, it is important to be aware of the protein and DM (dry matter) content of some of these feeds so that they are supplemented to provide a balanced diet.

You also need to make provisions for how you will store and handle these feeds to reduce losses; ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is it practical for me to buy these alternatives? Some people will have access to forage crops; ensure you have a feed plan for their use;
  2. Will extra forage or minerals be needed?
  3. Is there an adequate run-back area?
  4. What are the risks with these crops? For example, bloat, nitrate poisoning or iodine deficiency.
Table 2

4. Reduce stock numbers

Often people are reluctant to reduce stock numbers if market conditions are not favourable or if there is a tax implication with reduced end of year stock numbers; but it will help cash flow.

There is such price variation in stock values currently that some thought needs to be given as to what to sell.

For example, there may be very little gained from selling poorer-quality, light, dairy-type weanlings. They are currently a poor trade and they won’t be large consumers of forage.

Large consumers of feed – such as cows that have been scanned empty or heifers that didn’t go in calf – should be targeted for extra feeding now and should be certainly gone pre-Christmas.

It is important to realise that there are options if you are short of feed; the earlier you take action as outlined, the more choices you will have.