Beef cattle farmers – Save a horse by feeding cornstalk bales to cattle

Beef farms with ample hay supplies can profit from feeding cornstalks and selling some hay to horse owners desperately in need.

The short supply of hay in 2012 is placing farm families and other owners of hay-consuming animals in difficult situations as much of the United States begins entering the winter. Hay yields for the year were down 20 to 50 percent across many states because of drought and reduced hay acreage.

This year the hay supply is very low, and the corresponding price for hay is up two to four times what it was a year ago.  Livestock operations can cull the herd back to a level that matches the feed resource and receive a good price for most animals sold because demand for meat remains high. They also can graze or bale feed sources such as cornstalks before winter truly arrives to  fill the hay gap.

Horse owners, on the other hand, do not have these options. There is not a U.S. market for horse meat for human consumption, and with these high hay prices, it is next to impossible to give an average horse away, let alone sell it. Cornstalk consumption by horses can lead to equine health problems such as colic and laminitis, which are caused by excess mold and grain consumption.

A family owning horses may be caught in a difficult situation. They will either spend thousands of dollars more to buy the extra feed or give away the horses for virtually nothing.

“We are getting calls weekly from families that thought they had a hay supply lined up or that thought this hay shortage was being exaggerated, and now they are entering winter realizing they do not have enough hay to feed their horses,” says Karen Waite, Michigan State University 4-H/youth equine specialist. “Economically and emotionally it will be devastating for them.”

There are alternatives for these horse families that may help bring more of their horses through the Michigan winter.

“Feeding straw as a substitute for a portion of the hay in a horse’s diet is one alternative,” says Tom Guthrie, Michigan State University Extension equine education specialist. “Straw is less than half the price of hay across Michigan, and if it’s fed carefully with some quality hay still being fed along with a complete horse grain feed, up to 25 percent of the diet can be straw.”

“Another creative idea is to ask the local beef farmer to come to the rescue,” says Jerry Lindquist, MSU Extension grazing and crop management educator. “We have an abundant supply of cornstalks in the state that the gestating beef cow will readily consume and do well on for the first two trimesters of her pregnancy as long as one-third of the ration is still hay. There is still time to bale or graze a lot of cornstalks, and if that feed supply is fed, extra hay could be freed up and made available for sale.

“At the price margin of $70 per ton for cornstalks and $175 per ton for clean, nonweathered, first-cutting hay, the beef farm will profit even after baling, hauling and all loading costs are figured in -- around $25 to $30 per round bale of hay sold,” he estimates.

His estimates factor in buying 25 percent more stalk bales weighing the same as the hay bales that were sold because cows routinely utilize only 75 to 80 percent of the fodder in a stalk bale. Still the beef farm is making some extra profit by shuffling its feed resources, and farmers are potentially making new friends or cementing old friendships by providing a hay resource to horse owners. In this example, the hay price would be $4 per small square bale or $80 per large round bale.

“These beef farms can charge more, the market is higher,” Lindquist notes, “but if they can sell locally for a decent profit and it maintains more of the animal industry and infrastructure in their community, maybe the decent profit is enough,” he concludes.

The reasons this works nutritionally is that most beef cows are routinely fed hay in the winter that is above their nutritional requirements. Cornstalks with a little protein, which in this example is the protein in the hay, will grow the calf embryo and maintain the cow’s body condition. Cornstalks are still a good value in this Michigan market, and the current price spread between them and the high demand for hay makes it work economically. It is a win/win for both parties.

For more information, contact MSU Extension grazing educator Jerry Lindquist at 231-832-6139.

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