Pasture and Forage Minute: Calculating Feed Costs, Safe Alfalfa Grazing

Cattle on cornstalks

Pasture and Forage Minute: Calculating Feed Costs, Safe Alfalfa Grazing

Transporting Cows to Stalks

By Ben Beckman

When it comes to feeding cows during the winter, producers have a wide variety of forage and feed sources to choose from, with unique costs and benefits for each. How can you decide which option is best for your operation?

With dry conditions in the western U.S., typical winter feeds like grass hay have become increasingly expensive. To offset this cost, producers may turn to a lower cost grazing resource in crop residues. When available corn fields are local, the decision may be easy, but how far is too far to haul cattle to stalks?

Figuring out the true cost of grazing stalks or feeding hay can be done using the UNL Cornstalk Grazing Cow-Q-Lator and Feed Cost Cow-Q-Lator, respectively. Both tools ask in-depth questions like transportation distance and cost, number of grazing days, how often cattle are checked, feed loss, and storage and hauling fees to come up with an accurate cost of use. These tools will be combined into one easy-to-use tool, the Cow Transport Cow-Q-Lator, available soon. Just search UNL ag manager tools. It should be your top result.

Using this tool, Ag Econ Specialist Matt Stockton and Extension Educator Randy Saner produced a table showing that cornstalks are often at a competitive advantage when it comes to cost of feed. For a herd of 105 cows being checked on weekly at a distance up to 200 miles away, brome hay would have to be below $33 per ton to be a more economical option than stalk grazing. For a 400-mile distance, hay must be below $74 per ton, and below $155 per ton if going 800 miles.  

With hay prices as they stand now, even a long-distance trip to grazeable corn residue may be worth consideration this year.

Fall Grazing of Alfalfa

By Jerry Volesky

In the fall, a common question is, “When is my alfalfa safe to graze?”. There can be several different scenarios from which it comes. Usually corn stalks are ready to be grazed. It would be convenient and useful to include an adjacent alfalfa field for extra grazing and protein. 

Another scenario has grazing ending on summer range, but the final growth of alfalfa is still standing in the field. A side benefit is that grazing alfalfa in late fall or winter can reduce alfalfa weevil infestations by removing stems and plant parts that serve as a wintering site or a spring laying site for weevil eggs.

Even though it is mid-November, alfalfa is still quite green, despite several nights with low temperatures in the 20s. There may be some wilting and yellowing, especially on the top, but most leaves still are attached to the plant stems.

The real question often being asked is, “Can I be sure my cows won’t bloat if they graze my alfalfa?”. To be quite honest, you never can be 100% certain that alfalfa won’t cause bloat. Bloat occurs in ruminant livestock when gas produced during fermentation becomes trapped inside the rumen. 

Bloat risk is much lower a week after a hard freeze that causes wilting. But always use good management methods to reduce the risk further. Have cows full before turning out to alfalfa. Wait until mid-day, after frost or dew is gone, before turning out. Provide other dry, palatable feeds or even bloat retardants. And keep a close eye on them for the first couple days. 

Alfalfa can be grazed safely — just be careful and realistic. 

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A field of corn.