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Dive into why having cows out on cornstalks can be so beneficial to livestock producers in the fall and winter months. Decreased feed costs and labor costs by utilizing available resources.
Putting cows out on cornstalks in the fall and winter months is by no means a novel concept. It’s a well-developed practice simply due to all of it’s benefits. Livestock producers in many ways have got to be one of the best when it comes to utilizing whatever type of resource they may have access to. Livestock, and especially cattle, can be expensive to keep fed. Not quite as bad as horses, maybe. But nonetheless. Cornstalks provide a method of feeding cattle feed/roughage that very well may have gone to waste otherwise.
Benefits of Putting Cows on Cornstalks
The obvious reason why producers may want to put their cows out on cornstalks is that it helps utilize forage left on the field as a type of feed for their livestock. This can help cut the feed bill in some of those winter months. And if hay and other feed costs are expensive, cornstalks can be such a blessing on the budget.
The other huge benefit to having cows out on cornstalks is that labor and operating costs go down. For example, if our cows are out grazing cornstalks, we aren’t having to take the time everyday to start up our tractor, load the feed wagon, unload the wagon in the bunks, and get everything put away. Instead, we might have to still water our cows and check on them daily, but we aren’t having to spend that guaranteed time everyday in the tractor. And by cutting that time out, we also aren’t spending as much on fuel for the tractor either. It’s kind of a win win situation.
The last huge benefit to having cows out on cornstalks, in my opinion, is animal health. By having our cows continue to graze cornstalks during the winter months instead of being in a more confined lot, animal movement goes up. Just like in humans, keeping our cows active prior to calving is important. We want them to be in good condition to hopefully make the calving process go smoother. Is it the end of the world if they end up having to be in a more contained area? No. They should still be just as healthy. However, if given the option, we will choose to give them the ability to be out moving and foraging.
What’s Available to Forage?
When corn is harvested, the leftover part of the plant is sent out the back of a combine. this includes the cob, stalks, and leaves. Additionally, some corn tends to spill on the ground and some ears may fall off the stalk prior to harvesting due to wind or other reasons. So when cows are turned out onto cornstalks, they usually end up foraging for the corn and leaves first and will leave the stalks to the very end.
Because cows tend to go to the corn first, if your cows aren’t conditioned to eating some corn prior, you may have an issue with acidosis or bloat. This also depends on how much actual corn is on the ground out in the field. If you have little to no corn on the ground, then a direct turnout should be fine and you really shouldn’t have to worry. Some producers, if they have the ability, will turn cows out on stalks for a few hours and then chase them out. This limits how much corn those cows can consume.
How Long until Supplementation?
A good rule of thumb on cornstalks is 1 acre/cow/month. However, it largely depends on how much forage is available. When the cows are eating corn, the starches are what ends up providing a protein source. And since they usually run out of corn first, protein is the first thing that usually needs to be supplemented. And the best way to know when they’ve run out of corn is when you stop seeing corn in their fecal material.
For supplementing protein, we tend to reach towards alfalfa first. We already have it on hand and it’s fairly easy to supplement with a bale once a week. Or, we have been feeding ground hay in bunks once a week. Basically, you need to meet your herds protein need once a week. Cows recycle nitrogen, so you can save on labor and time by simply supplementing once a week without any ill-affects to your cows.
Another option is protein lick tubs. However, deepening on costs of feedstuffs, this could get pretty expensive. I highly recommend exploring your options and reaching out to a local nutritionist if you have any ideas you want to run by them.
When cows run out of forage available on the field, they will either have to be moved to a new field or be supplemented roughage along with the protein. And the roughage supplementation will have to be adequate to keep the cows fed every day rather than just once a week.
What else do cows on cornstalks need?
About the only other thing that cows on cornstalks need is water, mineral and salt. The three main things that they should be getting year round. Cornstalks aren’t necessarily the most nutrient dense forage. Therefore, our cows tend to go through a little more mineral while grazing them.
We choose to feed a loose mineral and salt separate, not mixed. This allows us to know exactly how much they are consuming of each. Right now, we are using Payback mineral and a cobalt salt. Mixing them can still be an option depending on what you prefer.
Water can sometimes be difficult to provide while cows are on cornstalks. Usually, there isn’t a hydrant available to simply fill up a tank. We thankfully do have one, however it’s not always the case. If you don’t have a water source connected to field your cows are in, you may have to haul water. This isn’t a huge problem necessarily, but you will need water storage tanks, a means of transporting it to the field, and enough tank space at the field to hold all the water to suit your cattle’s needs. On average, one cow needs about 10 gallons of water a day. Say you have 100 cows on one field of cornstalks. You will then need at least enough capacity to hold 1000 gallons of water or 500 gallons twice a day.
Fencing for cows on cornstalks
Fencing can be quite simple for cornstalks. You don’t necessarily need a 3-5 wire barbed fence. In many cases now, most fields don’t even have barbed wire around them. Instead, electric fence can be put up. As long as the your power supply is strong enough to provide a good current around your entire field, then your cows should stay in.
As far as how strong your electric fence should be, we like to run ours on our Gallagher fence tester at around 5 kV. This is usually enough to deter cows from messing with the fence. Ours respect the single wire very well as long as they know it’s there.
If you’re going to be using electric fence, I highly suggest turning your cows out during daylight. Sometimes actually seeing a single wire fence can be a struggle if they aren’t looking for it. If you turn them out in the daylight, they will have less problems seeing the wire while they explore the field. If you turn your cows out in the dark, they might get spooked or accidentally run right through the wire.
Also, if your cows have never seen electric fence wire before, you may want to hang around and make sure they will respect it before you get too far away. Otherwise, a bad scenario might occur and you might be having an impromptu cattle round up.