Across Ontario, it would be fair to say that hay and pasture yields were off by about 30% in many areas this year. Many producers in those areas are concerned about how their herds and flocks will be fed this winter. On account of various commodity prices, now is the best time to start making decisions on whether grain, and in particular corn, can replace part of the hay requirement on many farms.
In short, corn (and other grains or corn byproducts) can be used very effectively to partially replace hay. For example, one pound of corn can displace two pounds of hay for about one-third of the ration. This rule of thumb is based on typical energy and moisture contents of corn and cow hay. It all boils down to economics and managing the livestock and ration under those circumstances. The economics are certainly right at this point in time; grain is inexpensive and hay is rising in price or already high, again depending on location.
The graph shows price breakpoints where corn use is or is not useful in replacing hay, from the economic point of view assuming that 1 unit of corn replaces exactly 1.8 units of hay. Since grain typically needs to be processed for beef cows (but not sheep) to ensure availability, a milling or rolling premium of $10-15 should be considered in the decision process.
The greatest challenge with using corn to replace hay is bunk management. Most people winter feed their breeding females with free-choice systems. By introducing grain, the ration becomes a limit-fed (restricted) diet simply on ration bulk or lack thereof. The animals will be hungry although their needs are met. This means there needs to be enough bunk space for each and every animal in the group to avoid serious behaviour problems, as the weakest animals will not get their required share. Just like the rich get richer', fat cows or ewes get fatter while their skinny sisters suffer in a limit-fed system that has too little bunk space..
Increased bunk space usually translates into fence-line feeders. These are also usually safer for man and beast when hungry livestock are involved. Beef cows and heifers each require 65 to 75 cm (26-30") of bunk space, compared to less than one-third of that amount with self-fed (free-choice) systems. For ewes, this range is 30 to 45 cm (12-18").
Acidosis, or rumen upset from the overfeeding of grain is a concern, especially with cows as grains typically need to be processed, unlike sheep. As a result, the ration should be kept to about one-third grain. For example; a diet that was 28 to 30 lbs of hay/day for a 1400 lb. beef cow can be reduced to 20 lbs of hay plus 5 lbs of grain, or most extreme at 15 lbs of hay plus 7.5 lbs of grain. This latter scenario requires at least 2 times a day grain feeding or the use of TMR (total mixed ration) delivery and good management. Keeping the hay replaced at the one-third level rather than half will also help keep the hunger response from being too extreme. Similarly for ewes, we can change a ration of 4 lbs of hay/day into 2 lbs hay plus 1 lb whole corn and count on the corn fed in its entire form for the effective fibre' or scratch-factor normally provided by forages.
Other opportunity feeds also present themselves in the hay-reducing equation. Cull canola can be used if ground or rolled with the corn (or other grain) component to prevent the oil from caking in the processor. Due to the poorer palatability and high oil content (40%), it must only be used in small amounts not exceeding 3 lbs per beef cow per day. However, this amount provides cheap protein and energy (because of the oil) at the current salvage value for canola if the hay is poor in quality, such as late first-cut hay. Whole canola should be valued at least as high as the average of the cost of soybean meal and corn with regards to its value for beef cow feed, assuming protein and energy were needed, as the oil content of canola makes it a very high-energy feed.
Another option is dried corn distillers' grains (CDS). This product has the added benefit of being pre-ground, higher in protein and has less acidosis potential when compared to corn ground on-farm for beef cow use. Much like canola, it is an ideal choice in cases where a small amount of a high energy, moderate protein source is needed. In practice, CDS can be valued at almost exactly the average of the corn and soybean meal cost.
Of course, other grains such as wheat or barley may also be used in the place of corn as an energy source. Barley as an energy source should be valued at about 90% of corn, while wheat is equal or slightly higher than corn. However, all these rules of thumb should not be used as a replacement for ration evaluation or balancing, but are intended to quickly assist in hay replacement concepts.
The bottom line is that in the current environment where a number of energy feed commodities are undervalued, the opportunity for cow/calf and sheep producers to use these resources to replace hay is huge! Keeping in mind that hay replacement can only be partial to avoid potential problems, now is the time to start looking at possible rations and then making arrangements or at least considering commodity alternatives to hay.