Alternative feeds can help reduce feed costs or stretch feed supplies, but it’s important to take the time to understand the nutritional quality of the feeds that are available, and become aware of any potential health risks to your cattle by including them in feed rations.
A producer from South-Central Manitoba who has had to pull his cows off dry pasture early recently asked us about feeding soybean straw and kochia.
Like other straws, soybean straw is high in fiber so it is not very digestible. It also has very low energy content, so an energy supplement may be necessary. Energy supplements can include high-quality hay, or even grain, screenings or byproducts like distillers grains.
Kochia has good energy and protein content, so it can be a useful feed but should be less than half of the diet. Like hay, kochia’s nutrient value and feeding recommendations depend on its maturity.
Risks with feeding kochia:
- Kochia contains oxalates. At high levels, these can cause kidney damage, sensitivity to light, and interfere with calcium availability, which is especially important near calving.
- Kochia can accumulate nitrates if it is harvested shortly after it has been stressed (e.g. drought).
- Both oxalates and nitrates appear to be more of a risk as kochia matures.
- Kochia can have a laxative effect, so some nutrients may pass through into the manure without being absorbed by the animal
- Kochia contains saponins, which can increase the risk of bloat.
- When grown on saline soils, kochia can have high salt content. This may reduce palatability and intake.
Knowing How to Ration Alternative Feeds
Nutritional quality can vary widely, so a feed test is strongly recommended before using any alternative feed. Talking to a nutritionist and your veterinarian are also recommended. The costs of doing so are an inexpensive insurance compared to the cost of dealing with larger problems later on, like thin cows in the spring that lead to later calving and lighter weaning weights in 2014, for example.
A nutritionist can help you:
- Assess the feed supply in relation to the cow herd,
- Decide how best to work alternative feeds into the diet,
- Determine if a mineral supplement is needed to help deal with potential salt, oxalate and nitrate concerns, and
- Develop a strategy to manage the feeds like kochia over the winter. (For example, they may recommend feeding lower levels of straw and kochia in the pre- and post-calving period, and keeping better quality hay for growing replacement heifers.)
Your veterinarian can give you advice about signs of potential problems related to alternative feeds, such as nitrate poisoning, kidney damage and photosensitivity. Health and performance problems are less likely if the ration is balanced properly, but being aware of the signs will allow problems to be detected and corrected sooner.
Clean, fresh water is always an essential nutrient for all classes of cattle.
Alternate Feeds for Beef Cattle – Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs
Information on straw, canola forage, corn stover, weeds, cattails and bulrushes.
Forage Outlook and Strategies for Fall 2012 – Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs
Feeding Kochia – Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture
Feed Kochia – Manitoba Forage Council
Kochia – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – BeefMagazine.com
Kochia (Kochia scoparia) toxicosis in cattle: results of four experimental grazing trials – Journal of Veterninary and Human Toxicology
Feed Testing – ForageBeef.ca
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