October 2009
Forage Matters

Important Forage Facts

To have an efficient livestock operation, a producer needs to have (or at least have access to) information pertaining to many subjects, including animal health, animal genetics and breeding, animal behavior, marketing, various regulations and forage crops. However, some facts or concepts are so basic and important everybody ought to be aware of them. For example, here are some facts about forage crops of interest and value to any Alabama livestock producer.

• There are more acres of open land in forage crops in Alabama than in all other agronomic and horticultural crops combined.

• Over half the cost of beef production is associated with forage production (about 28 percent for pasture and 27 percent for hay according to Auburn University beef production budgets; thus, about 55 percent of the total).

• It is estimated over 80 percent of the nutrients consumed by beef cattle in the U.S. come from forage.

• On most livestock farms in the Southeast, nutrition is the primary production-limiting factor, with the most common limiting nutritional factor being energy.

• Considering the relatively minor investments of time and money involved, soil testing, followed by liming and fertilizing according to recommendations, ranks among the most valuable practice a forage/livestock producer can employ.

• Periodically adjusting stocking rates or otherwise exercising appropriate grazing management is essential to take advantage of the economical forage production resulting from regular soil testing.

• Of the three major nutrient elements, nitrogen has the greatest immediate impact on forage growth, but failure to apply adequate phosphorus and potassium will also sharply reduce yield and eventually stand persistence.

• Auburn University (AU) budgets reflect, when forage grasses are managed according to recommendations, nitrogen fertilizer typically accounts for 20 to 40 percent of the cost of forage production.

• Except for boron, which is needed in small quantities for alfalfa production and for good seed production of clovers, tests at AU have shown, in Alabama, forage crops almost never respond to application of minor elements.

• Applying nitrogen increases the protein content of grasses, but fertilization typically has little or no effect on forage energy value.

• Hay quality can be affected by many factors, but stage of maturity at harvest is generally the single most important.

• Once dry hay is in a barn, or otherwise well-protected from the elements, feeding value decreases very little over time.

• Matching forage quality to animal nutritional needs greatly increases economic efficiency. This is true with both stored feed and when pasturing livestock.

• In general, as the amount of hay required for a cattle operation is reduced, the likelihood of making a profit is increased in direct proportion.

• In our climate, when hay is stored for several months outside on the ground with no protection, dry matter losses often exceed 30 percent.

• With most types of forage crops, the greatest losses to round bales stored outside results from moisture moving into the hay from the ground rather than penetration of rain water.

• The color of hay has little correlation with forage quality.

Don Ball is an Extension Forage Crop Agronomist with Auburn University.