A frustrating harvest season this fall means many acres of crops in the province still need to be combined. Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist at the Alberta Ag-Info Centre, looks at using high moisture barley if cattle are in need of grain supplementation this winter. Photo by Stu Salkeld

Harvesting and using high moisture grain in cattle rations

Calcium and magnesium are typically deficient and phosphorus is adequate

A frustrating harvest season this fall means many acres of crops in the province still need to be combined. Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist at the Alberta Ag-Info Centre, looks at using high moisture barley if cattle are in need of grain supplementation this winter.

Yaremcio says that harvesting the barley crop at 25 per cent moisture or higher and storing it in a grain bag or silage pit will result in the barley fermenting no differently than a whole plant cereal silage. “To have a high quality, palatable finished product, packing the grain to exclude air, or oxygen, is key.”

“If using a bag,” says Yaremcio, “The brake on the bagging unit needs to be engaged sufficiently to really pack the grain well. When the bag is being filled, the height of the bag should be constant without ‘hills and valleys’ which is caused by the machine rolling too far at one time. There is more air in the bag when the height is uneven, and that can cause problems during fermentation. If filling a silage pit, pack the grain with a tractor no differently than a crop of cereal silage. Cover with plastic and seal the pit as within three to four hours, if possible.”

Yaremcio explains why high moisture barley can help to improve animal performance. “Higher moisture barley kernels are swollen due to the moisture, so the pericarp – or hull on the outside of the kernel – is not held as tightly to the seed as when the grain is dry. Rumen microbes and bacteria have an easier time breaking down the kernel, and digestive efficiency is increased, by eight to 10 per cent. Some research states that the higher digestive efficiency eliminates the need to roll or process the grain before feeding. Average daily gains for growing or finishing animals is also improved by approximately eight per cent. If the barley is to be rolled, it should be done before the grain goes into the bag or pit. Rolling frozen high moisture grain can result in more shattering which increases the amount of fines in the ration.”

However, the higher digestive efficiency can create a few problems. Says Yaremcio, “With a more complete and rapid fermentation, the starch in the grain is more readily available. It can produce digestive upsets such as acidosis or bloat. If high levels of grain are fed in a straw-grain ration for pregnant cows, increase the grain content gradually to prevent this problem. If the ration starts off with approximately six pounds of grain per day, increase the grain portion one pound every second day. This increase allows the rumen bacteria to adjust to the change which prevents problems.”

Yaremcio says to evaluate the consistency of the manure to determine whether the changes being made to the ration are causing subclinical acidosis. “With a healthy rumen that is functioning properly, the manure ‘pie’ is fairly flat in structure. If the grain is causing acidotic conditions, the manure will become very wet and sloppy, resulting in a ‘splatter’ or runny consistency. As well, it can have a sour smell. If this happens, reduce the amount of grain to allow the rumen to recover. Be sure to monitor the herd to ensure all the cows have access to the feed and the dominant cows aren’t pushing the younger or weaker cows out. That could result in the boss cows eating too much grain and cause acidosis.”

“With most grain–straw rations, calcium and magnesium are typically deficient and phosphorus is adequate,” adds Yaremcio. “The use of a feedlot type mineral with roughly 20 per cent calcium and three to four per cent magnesium is recommended to prevent downer cows or winter tetany. A 2:1 mineral will not supply sufficient amounts of calcium to the diet.”

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry has a factsheet on Storage of High Moisture Barley (https://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex101/$file/114_61-1.pdf?OpenElement ). For more information, contact the Alberta Ag-Info Centre at 310-FARM (3276).

-Submitted by Alberta Agriculture

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