Precision Feeding After a Challenging Hay Season

Precision Feeding After a Challenging Hay Season

Just like soil sampling before purchasing fertilizer, hay should be sampled and sent to a lab for evaluation before purchasing supplemental feeds. As Dr. Jennifer Tucker from UGA often says, “Don’t guess, forage test!” Credit: Doug Mayo, UF/IFAS

The summer of 2018 has been very challenging for hay production.  The combination of frequent rainfall, and heavy downpours have prevented timely harvest, and also diminished the quality of the hay produced.  The days are getting shorter, grass growth has slowed, so it is time to start planning for cool-season supplementation. Because of the rainy summer, many producers will have to feed at least some lower quality hay this year.  Since hay serves as the base for the winter feeding program on most operations, it will be even more critical this year to balance low quality hay with adequate supplemental feeds.  This conundrum has many producers asking, “What is the best way to do that?”

In the modern area of precision agriculture, many crop farms have implemented the technique of precision fertilization.  Using grid soil sampling, GPS maps can be generated with variable rate fertilization zones.  Once the maps are paired with high-tech application equipment that responds to the data, crop farmers can fertilize more efficiently than ever before.  While most livestock producers are familiar with high-tech genetic and breeding technologies, many farms are not utilizing the available technology for what I call “Precision Feeding.”  Whether you produce your own hay, or buy it from a local farm or supply dealer, you should have your hay tested for nutritional quality.  As Dr. Jennifer Tucker, UGA Beef Specialist,  often says, “Don’t guess.  Forage test!”  Once you know how good or bad your hay is, you can precisely determine the type and amount of supplement needed to balance the nutritional needs of the animals you are feeding.

Forage Sampling

So where do you begin this process of fine-tuning your winter nutrition program?  The first step is to sample each cutting or purchased lot of hay to determine the nutritional quality.  Contact your local county agent to get some help with thisA number of the agents in the Florida Panhandle have forage probes at their office, or can get one to use from a nearby county.  If you want to purchase your own equipment, there are a number of different companies that sell forage sampling probes.  The one I use, was ordered from Nasco and fits on the end of a 1/2″ cordless drill.  The combined cost of the forage probe ($130) and a heavy duty 1/2″ cordless drill is around $350.

Forage Sample Equipment

To send in a forage sample to a lab for analysis you need a 1/2″ cordless drill, forage probe, and a submission form from the lab of choice. Credit: Doug Mayo, UF/IFAS

To submit a hay sample to a lab for testing, you will need to fill a 1-quart Ziploc bag with ground hay from probing 7-10 random hay bales from each cutting or purchased lots. Samples of hay from the exterior of a bale will not provide an adequate representation of the hay you will be feeding.   You also don’t want to sample only a single bale.  Just as with soil testing, you want to try to get a representative sample from each cutting by taking core samples from bales produced from different parts of the field.  If you purchased the hay to be tested, just randomly sample from as many different bales as possible from each load.

Forage Testing

There are a number of both commercial and university forage laboratories that can be used to provide a summary of the nutritional quality of your hay.  The main things you need to know are the moisture content or dry matter (%DM), crude protein (CP), and the energy level reported as total digestible nutrients (TDN).  The University of Florida has a forage testing lab at the  Range Cattle Research and Education Center in Central Florida, that provides a basic test for $7/sample:  UF Forage Test Submission Form.  You can also send in hay samples through the Southeast Hay Contest that are analyzed by the University of Georgia’s Forage Lab:  SE Hay Contest Entry Form.  For $22 you get the forage analysis, a nitrate level test, and may win recognition at the Sun Belt Ag Expo as one of the top forage producers in the region.  The entry deadline is the third week in September each year.  If you want to use a commercial service, you can also submit samples to Waters Ag Lab in Camilla, GA:  Waters Feed Test Submission Form.  No matter which lab you select, the goal is find out what level of protein and energy is provided by the hay, so you can calculate the level of supplemental feed needed to complement it.

Forage Analysis Results

Most all forage labs provide sample analysis results in two formats:  as-sampled and dry-matter.  The as-sampled column would be useful for actual ration formulation of a total mixed ration.  In general though, you should focus on the dry-matter columns for comparisons between forages, and for basic supplementation calculations.  Moisture levels of forages are rarely identical, so removing the moisture gives a more accurate comparison.  For basic supplementation program development, you would use the highlighted dry-matter protein and energy values.  If you want to know more about the other information provided in a forage test, Understanding Your Forage Test Report is an article that was published a while back that more completely explains what each of the reported values represent in a standard forage test lab report.

sample hay test rport
The forage analysis report above is fairly typical quality for average quality Bahia or low quality Bermudagrass hay that was more mature because of frequent summer rains.  If you were going to feed this hay to lactating cows, or growing animals you would expect those animals to be deficient in both protein and energy.  These numbers mean very little, however, without also knowing the nutrient requirements of the animals you are feeding.

Decision Aids for Supplement Calculations

There are a number of commercial software options for livestock ration balancing, as well as private nutrition consultants that provide very precise calculations for complete ration balancing.  For feedlots and dairy operations, having very precise mixing recipes is essential.  For most cow-calf operations, however, determining the right amounts of supplements to provide is not that complicated.  Since you typically feed hay free-choice, all you really need to know is whether the hay is adequate or deficient in protein and energy.  Once you know that, a simple spreadsheet can be used to provide a good estimate of the type and amount of supplement required to maintain body weight.  Dr. Nicolas DiLorenzo, UF/IFAS Beef Specialist recently developed a very simple spread sheet called the UF HAY BALANCER that can be used to help cattle producers make decisions on supplement choices for mature cows on a free-choice hay diet.  The University of Georgia also has a decision aid spreadsheet called the UGA BASIC BALANCER  that is a little more complex, but it can be used to compare supplements for brood cows, bulls, heifers, and stockers, as well as providing some feedstuff cost comparisons.  Both of these are Microsoft Excel spreadsheets that come with information pre-loaded for use.  Commodity prices do fluctuate, so you may need to update the prices in the feed list provided.

Putting it All Together

In closing, I wanted to share an example of the end results of this process to demonstrate how the UF Hay Balancer can be used to help cattle producers become more precise with feeding supplements to compliment the hay they produce or purchase.  For this example lets assume that you must purchase hay to feed 25 cows for 30 days that will be in their 2nd month, or peak lactation.  This would be the time of most concern, because if you don’t supply adequate nutrition for these cows they will lose weight, reduce milk production, delay cycling and calve later for the following season. The following is a comparison of two types of hay at different prices, and a comparison of different supplement options.  You can purchase 850 pound Bahia hay for $43 per bale or 1,000 pound Bermudagrass bales for $67 per bale (based on Alabama Weekly Hay Report).  Which would be the best to purchase?

A comparison of two types of hay and the supplements needed to maintain cows at peak lactation. Source UF Hay Balancer, Alabama Weekly Hay Report and Alabama Weekly Feedstuff/Production Cost Report.

As you can see from this summary, this was not a simple scenario to answer.  The end result of this exercise was that even though the bahiagrass hay was lower in quality, the cheaper price compensated for the lack of quality.  The Bahia hay required a supplement that offered both protein and energy such as whole cottonseed, that can be purchased from local cotton gins, to balance the diet for these cows.  The Bermudagrass hay provided adequate protein, so an energy supplement such as corn or molasses was all that required for a balanced diet.  However, using 4 pounds/head/day of whole cottonseed, a rancher could feed his or her herd for 30 days cheaper with Bahia hay than with Bermudagrass hay, even though the supplement costs were $45 lower. If you had worked through this scenario with hay you have grown yourself, with similar production costs, the Bermudagrass hay would have been the better option.

If you would like assistance with forage testing, or balancing cattle herd supplementation, contact your local county extension agent.  They can help you develop a precision feeding program for your herd.

Understanding a Horse’s Digestive System

Understanding a Horse’s Digestive System

horse grazing pasture

Lucy Ray, Morgan County UGA Extension

The horse has one of the most complex, and arguably, the most frustrating, digestive systems of any grazing livestock species that owners/producers deal with. When one thinks of feeding horses, frightening scenarios like colic and founder can come to mind. While certain parts of the horse’s digestive system can cause them to be more difficult to feed than cattle, other features can make horses easier to maintain than ruminants.

Horses are classified as non-ruminant herbivores. This means that they have the capacity to break down the cellulose and hemi-cellulose components in forages without the four-chambered stomach that cattle have. Horses breakdown these structural components of roughages via a microbial population in a modified part of the digestive system called the cecum. The cecum is located behind the stomach in the digestive system. It is for this reason that horses are also called hind-gut fermenters. Cattle, sheep, and other ruminants, have food deposited into the rumen first, where it goes through a microbial digestive process before moving onto other compartments such as the true stomach. A diagram of the equine digestive system is shown below.

Horse Digestive Tract

Illustration of the various components that encompasses the equine gastrointestinal tract. Source: UGA Extension Equine Colic

Before delving too deeply into the differences in ruminant and non-ruminant herbivores, perhaps we should give an overview of how a horse grazes and what happens to the forage once it enters the digestive system. A typical 1000 lb horse will graze approximately 12-18 hours/day. Horses are spot grazers, they have specialized mouths to select and eat the tops of the plants that they like. They rarely graze in “rough areas” or areas where they defecate. Because of the selective behavior, horses have a reputation as rough and detrimental on pastures and forage species. This reputation is not entirely undeserved.

Horse chewing movement is both lateral and vertical. From the mouth, the forage travels down the esophagus. The esophagus has one-way peristaltic action which means that horses cannot regurgitate their food and therefore can’t “chew their cud.”  They also cannot burp or pass gas through their esophagus.

From the esophagus, forage travels to the stomach. A horse’s stomach is approximately 4 gallons and is the smallest in relation to its size of any other livestock species. The stomach secretes hydrochloric acid (HCL) and specific enzymes. Production of HCL is continuous and can contribute to ulcers in horses who are not fed properly. Remember, horses are designed to graze 12-18 hours a day! In the small intestine, some nutrients are absorbed and bile is secreted directly from the liver into the first part of the small intestine. The continuous production of HCL and the way that bile is secreted into the small intestine make it necessary for horses to consume small meals several times a day.

The horse’s large intestine accounts for 60% of the total volume of the digestive tract. The cecum contains active bacteria similar to the microbes of the rumen. Bacterial breakdown of cellulose and other carbohydrates result in the production of volatile fatty acids (VFAs). VFAs are a source of energy similar to glucose and other sugars. The small colon is the primary site of water absorption and the rectum is where manure is expelled.Several of these attributes add up to making horses susceptible to digestive upsets. For example, the inability to regurgitate food or gas, means that everything must be expelled through the rear of the animal. This can result in gas colic, or impaction colic as sometimes the material has a LONG way to travel before exiting the animal. Moldy hay is more likely to cause issues in horses. Since the equine digestive system doesn’t have a lot of muscular contractions, adequate water is essential to keep things moving through the tract. Again, this can result in impactions and digestive issues if there is not enough fluid available.

However, the speed at which food moves through the digestive tract, makes non-ruminant herbivores more likely to be “easy keepers” than most ruminants. They can move a larger volume of feed through their systems and extract the nutrients more rapidly. In addition, there is some research to suggest that horses handle high nitrates in forages better than ruminants due to the physical makeup of their digestive system.

There are limitations and benefits to the equine digestive system. As long as one keeps in mind the anatomy of the horse and how they were designed to eat, the pitfalls long associated with feeding horses can be minimized.

For more information on this subject, use the following publication links:

Heaves – The Horse Version of COPD

Heaves – The Horse Version of COPD

Heaves is a non-infectious respiratory disease of horses that is similar to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in humans. It is considered progressive, and degenerative. That means it will never go away completely and each bout will get progressively worse.

There are a number of forms relative to cause, but they share similar symptoms. Horses react to an allergen and airways become restricted so air cannot move normally. The tissues of the lungs become inflamed and thicken. An affected horse will likely cough, wheeze, have an increased respiration rate, flared nostrils, nasal discharge and will become intolerant to exercise.  Removal of the irritant often abates the symptoms, so remission can occur. With each successive bout however, the lungs lose more elasticity. Over time, breathing out requires as much energy as breathing in. The result is enlarged abdominal muscles in the area of the flank that are referred to as “heave lines.” Figure 1.

Figure 1. Enlarged abdominal muscles in the area of the flank that are referred to as “heave lines.” Source: Twin Pines veterinary Services.

Though there is no cure, the symptoms can be treated orally or with injections. Corticosteroids can help reduce inflammation. Unfortunately, laminitis and/or generalized infection can occur with prolonged use of corticosteroids. Aerosolized bronchodilators (Ventolin/Proventil or albuterol) can be prescribed and administered with a tight fitting mask placed over the horse’s nose that works much like an inhaler for humans. Figure 2.  Though costly, they are very effective and have fewer side effects.

Figure 2.  Aerosolized bronchodilators that work much like an inhaler in humans can be prescribed and administered with a tight fitting mask placed over the horse’s nose. Source: Twin Pines Veterinary Services.

You can manage the disease by minimizing exposure to allergens. Keep records of occurrence so that you can identify the triggers and when they occur. Determine if it is seasonal or year round. To stop the irritation, change the environment, reduce dust, soak hay. If your horse has seasonal heaves, it is likely due to an irritant associated with grazing pasture. You can place the affected horse in dry lot during seasons when they are reactive to pasture.

Though the precise allergen(s) in grasses have not be defined in Florida, there is reason to suspect endophytes and mycotoxins as triggers. In an effort to identify grass species that contain fungal endophyte and mycotoxin presence, UF/IFAS researchers, led by Ann Blount, UF Forage Breeder, have received funding from the Florida Cattle Enhancement Fund. Researchers are currently sampling bahiagrass, bermudagrass and limpograss pastures on approximately 13 ranches state-wide over a period of one year. Analysis of these samples will help UF/IFAS researchers provide unbiased information about endophyte and mycotoxin presence in forages and how it relates, if found, to animal health and performance.

If you think your horse is suffering from heaves, contact your veterinarian for diagnosis and a course of treatment.


Managing Carbohydrates from Grazed Pastures for Horses with Metabolic Disorders

Managing Carbohydrates from Grazed Pastures for Horses with Metabolic Disorders

Florida pasture grasses contain lower sugar content than in other parts of the country.  Even so, pasture access might need to be limited to help control calorie intake. Limiting grazing time may cause some horses to overeat when they are turned out, so consider using a grazing muzzle or feeding horses some hay before turnout to slow intake. Photo Credit: Amy Parker

Marcelo Wallau, Lori Warren, Carissa Wickens, Jose Dubeux and Doug Mayo, UF/IFAS Extension

As extension specialists, we are often asked about nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) in forages and the potential risks grazing poses to insulin-resistant horses. Numerous blog posts and reports have been written on the topic, alarming horse owners everywhere. However, for horses managed on pastures in Florida, is over-consumption of NSC actually a problem?

Nonstructural carbohydrates are a form of energy reserve in plants, and include simple sugars, fructan and starch. The major source of NSC in a horse’s diet is usually from grains, which range from 60 to 85% starch, and commercial concentrate feeds, frequently containing molasses and other ingredients to increase palatability. In forages, the concentration of NSC depends on plant type, management, and season of the year, typically highest in the spring and fall when growth is slow and seedheads are present. Temperate climate forages (e.g. orchard, timothy, or our cool-season species here in Florida, such as oats, ryegrass and clovers) tend to have more NSC (around 16%) than our warm summer grasses (around 8%), such as bahiagrass and bermudagrass.

Several factors are known to contribute to the development of metabolic disorders in horses, including genetics (Morgans, Arabians, ponies, and Spanish breeds are most affected), overfeeding (of anything, not just grain), overweight/obese animals (those prone to being “easy keepers”), and lack of exercise. The most common metabolic disorders are Cushing’s Disease (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction) usually associated with aging, and equine metabolic syndrome (resulting from the genetic and management factors described above). What they share in common is insulin resistance (similar to, but not exactly like Type 2 diabetes in humans), making them susceptible to secondary diseases such as laminitis or founder. These horses tend to be more sensitive to sugar, starch, and fructan in the diet. Not all horses have these problems. In fact, the frequency of laminitis in horses is low, ranging from 2 to 5% (Kane et al., 2000) and normally is related to horses which have a predisposition, either genetic or acquired from sub-optimal management practices.

For horses with metabolic disease or a history of laminitis, feeding diets with less than 10% NSC is recommended. Reducing NSC in the diet can be accomplished by cutting back on grain consumption and any other sort of treat containing high sugar levels. For lush pastures containing cool-season forages, there may be a need for limiting pasture access and timing turnout to occur in the period from late night to early morning when sugar and fructan levels in the grass will be at their lowest. For pastures containing Florida’s warm-season forages, NSC is less of a problem, but pasture access might need to be limited to help control calorie intake. Note that limiting grazing time may cause some horses to overeat when they are turned out, so consider using a grazing muzzle or feeding horses some hay before turnout to slow intake. These approaches combined with monitoring horses’ body condition and weight will allow owners and farm managers to safely utilize forages in feeding horses diagnosed with metabolic disorders.

Although the incidence of insulin-resistance is relatively low, many people worry about the health of their horses housed on pasture. What is important, however, is to provide a balanced diet which is in accordance with the category and use of the animal: growing, lactating and active horses (working or athlete) need a more nutrient dense diet to meet their requirements, while most leisure horses’ nutrient requirements can be met primarily by forages and a vitamin-mineral supplement. Nevertheless, the low NSC content of most forages in Florida represent a low risk, even for horses with pre-disposition for metabolic disorders


The following are some additional references and suggestions for further reading on this topic:

  • Kronfeld DS, Harris PA. 2003. Equine grain-associated disorders (EGAD). Compendium on continuing education for the practising veterinarian. 25:974–83.
  • Lameness and laminitis in U.S. horses. 2000. USDA: APHIS: VA, CEAH, National Animal Health Monitoring System. Fort Collins,CO. Contract No.:N318.0400.
  • Kane AJ, Traub-Dargatz J, Losinger WC, Garber LP. 2000. The occurrence and causes of lameness and laminitis in the U.S. horse population. San Antonio TX: Proceedings of the 46th AAEP; Nov 26–29; p.277–280.
  • Longland, A.C., and B.M. Byrd. 2006. Pasture Nonstructural Carbohydrates and Equine Laminitis. J. Nutr. 136(7): 2099S–2102S
  • Wickens, C. 2016. Monitoring Body Condition in Horses: Helpful Smart Phone Apps for Horse Owners.


Friday Feature: The Ride Over Gate

Friday Feature: The Ride Over Gate

Every livestock producer has daydreamed about automatic gates to make travel around ranches faster and easier.  But, it is too expensive to provide power and hydraulic cylinders for each pasture gate.  This week’s featured video was produced by the Wrangler Company in New Zealand to introduce their Ride Over GateThe ride over gate is a small, spring loaded gate that allows four wheelers, utility vehicles, and center pivot irrigation wheels to pass through fences to access pastures without ever having to stop to open and close the gate, with no electricity needed.  With their gate system, checking livestock on a utility vehicle can be much more convenient. 


If you enjoyed this video, you might want to check out the featured videos from previous weeks:  Friday Features

If you come across an interesting or humorous video, or a new product innovation related to agriculture, please send in a link, so we can share it with our readers. Send video links to:  Doug Mayo



Equine Infectious Anemia is Still a Concern for Horse Owners

Equine Infectious Anemia is Still a Concern for Horse Owners

Horses at the University of Florida Horse Teaching Unit. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.

Sometimes we can get complacent and forget why we do things. A Coggins test in horses is one of those things.  We know that it is a requirement in Florida to have a current negative Coggins test (within the last 12 months) in order to:

  • Move horses within the state,
  • Move horses out of the state,
  • Change ownership of the horse,
  • Breed horses,
  • Congregate horses for the purpose of shows, exhibits, sales/auctions, trail rides, rodeos and even boarding.

Normally, proof of negative Coggins test is in the form of a paper with information about the owner, horse and lab performing the test. Cards (negative EIA test verification cards) are available for an additional fee.  These cards are more convenient for those who travel often with their horses.

But why do we need a negative Coggins test every 12 months?

The Coggins test screens horses for Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA), a viral disease that has no vaccine and no treatment. A veterinarian must collect the blood sample and send it to a state and federally approved lab for testing.  The US started using this test in 1972 and has significantly reduced the number of new cases since then.  The EIA virus is transmitted by large biting flies such as horseflies and deerflies.  Contaminated needles and equipment can also spread this virus.  Horses with EIA can show clinical signs such as fever, weight loss, yellowing of skin, anemia, swelling of limbs and weakness.  Some horses with EIA show no signs of infection, but can still transmit the virus to healthy horses.

Horses that test positive for EIA are either euthanized or segregated from negative horses. USDA has set forth Uniform Methods and Rules for detecting, controlling and preventing the spread of EIA in the US. This is the minimum standard for states to follow.  Florida rules exceed these minimum standards since we are an historic “hot zone” state.

In 2017, 108,388 Coggins tests were performed in Florida with 2 horses testing positive. So far in 2018, one positive horse has been reported in March in Hardee County. Currently in the US less than 0.01% of horses tested are positive for EIA.  In 1972, when testing was implemented 4% of horses tested were positive.  If we get complacent and ignore EIA, since it is no longer very prevalent, we will see an increase in cases around the US.  Since there is no vaccine and no treatment for this disease, which can be fatal, testing is our best defense against this virus.