Should Ditch Hay be Used to Supplement Costly Forages?
Many producers will tell you that ditch hay can provide welcome additional hay tonnage to winter feed supplies. While ditch hay is clearly not the first choice of producers, it is an affordable way to supplement costly forages.
While in a perfect world you would be able to analyze hay bales made up of ditch hay, this isn’t always feasible. Instead, consider formulating diets using the lowest likely analytical value for a particular nutrient in the hay. Next, balance the diet for the lower end of the animal requirements for each particular nutrient. This ensures that even under the worst-case scenario the requirements of the animal will be met and underestimations in protein or energy in the hay will result in increased animal performance. Finally, gradually adjust by cutting supplementation back until the desired growth, body condition or weight are reached. Mineral supplements and plenty of safe drinking water should always be available to animals, as well.
There are other issues to consider when using ditch hay. It is essential to thoroughly inspect the area to make sure that the ditch is tractor-safe. Further, the area must be cleared of any garbage as that garbage could end up in the bales fed to cattle or even damage equipment.
Another important consideration is whether roadsides have been sprayed for weeds. Many herbicides are not cleared to be used as forage for livestock and some broadleaf herbicides sprayed on ditch hay is eliminated intact in the manure of the cattle that consume it. If this manure is applied to the fields, there is a good chance the herbicide will hurt yields or the subsequent broadleaf crop. The same goes for animals supplemented with ditch hay while grazing on corn stalks.
Many herbicides that are used to control broadleaf weeds along roadways – in particular picloram and clopyralid – remain unaltered in the manure. Once in the soil they can be translocated into the plants. Experts recommending skipping at least two growing seasons before planting broadleaf crops to acres that were fertilized with manure from these animals. There have not been health issues reported in cattle fed hay treated with either of the herbicides listed above.
When forage is in short supply, producers often have to decide between purchasing feed or selling livestock. Selling animals entails a genetic drawback which may take years to recover from. Therefore, when possible, it is best to eliminate mature cows that consume lots of feed and keep young breeding stock and bred heifers. Retaining young heifers will be an investment that will help recover the herd in the long term.