Mississippi livestock producers saw it coming, but the hay shortage is forcing some tough decisions that may have long-term repercussions on the health, performance and profitability of their animals.

Jane Parish, beef cattle specialist with Mississippi State University’s Extension Service, said surplus hay is difficult to find in the state, and the traditional spring forage flush is not yet available. She receives calls daily from producers looking for more hay.

“Some producers are now looking to cull cows that they should have culled on the front end. Those who cull will end up with a better herd than before if they treat the situation as an opportunity to improve herd genetics,” Parish said. “Now, producers have to make sure their cattle are in good enough condition for spring breeding in April and May. Once they calve, it is hard to get weight on them to be ready to breed the next season.”

Parish expressed concerns that conception rates this spring will be lower because of the condition of the cattle.

“Producers should not keep bulls in the pastures longer to attempt to breed later. That will make a bad situation worse,” she warned. “Sticking with a set calving period helps producers manage their nutritional program better. Otherwise, they will underfeed some and overfeed others when feed costs are high.”

A set calving period also helps producers better manage their marketing plans and health programs. Producers reduce their labor costs when they work all their cattle at the same time.

Parish said recent reports from the National Agricultural Statistics Service indicate a loss of 8,000 head of beef cows in Mississippi from January 2006 to January 2007. Much of Mississippi’s 2006 hay also left the state for places like Texas where producers would pay a lot more because of their own drought conditions.

Some Mississippi cattle producers are looking at alternative feeds, such as cottonseed hulls, which are bulky and require special handling.

“Cottonseed hulls can be expensive, but they are a good roughage substitute for stretching hay supplies,” Parish said. “At least cattle producers have a variety of by-product feed and marketing options.”

Extension equine specialist Preston Buff said high-fiber roughage should be the majority of a horse’s diet. Concentrate feeds, grains and pellets can supplement and extend hay supplies.

“Horses need to be fed between 1.5 percent and 2 percent of their body weight in roughage daily. The minimum amount of roughage to keep the digestive system of a horse healthy is 1 percent of its body weight per day, so a 1,000-pound horse needs at least 10 pounds of roughage per day,” Buff said. “If feeding large, round bales of hay to horses, owners should limit their access to two to three hours in the morning and night to reduce wasted hay.”

Some supplements or alternatives to hay include soybean hulls or soybean hull pellets, dehydrated alfalfa pellets, complete feeds, hay cubes and haylage/baleage.

Buff said soybean hulls or soybean hull pellets are similar in nutrient content to a medium- or low-quality bermudagrass hay.

“They are one of the most economical replacements to hay, but they should not be used exclusively. Use them to supplement and extend hay supplies by feeding half hay, half soybean hull pellets in equal weight amounts,” he said.

Dehydrated alfalfa pellets are similar in appearance to other pelleted feeds. They are nutritionally equivalent to alfalfa hay, but do not contain as much bulk. Complete feeds are higher fiber concentrates that are designed to be fed without hay or with minimal hay. The minimum fiber content needs to be at least 15 percent.

Buff recommended feeding some hay or long-stem roughage with complete feeds for proper digestive tract health.

Buff said when feeding horses concentrates, feed several smaller meals — at least two — throughout the day. Make diet changes as gradual as possible during a one- to two-week period. Make sure the horses always have access to water and salt. Salt will encourage them to drink more water, which will help prevent colic.

“Horses that do not have enough roughage also will be more prone to colic,” he said. “Horses need plenty of roughage moving through their systems to keep them healthy.”

Buff said in place of hay, some horse owners are feeding hay cubes. “Hay cubes are processed hay, generally alfalfa or an alfalfa and grass mix, which are sold in bags at feed stores,” he said. “They are a good-quality option, but they will be more expensive than hay.”

Haylage, also known as baleage, is a high-moisture hay that has been baled and wrapped. Because of the high moisture, there is a possibility of mold, so it should be fed within a day or two of opening.

Some horse owners are turning to pastures that were planted with winter grasses last fall.

“Limit time in fresh fescue or ryegrass to avoid hoof problems, specifically founder, caused by overeating. Start with a couple hours on the grass each day and gradually increase. As the grass matures, there is less risk,” Buff said. “Some horses are more prone to developing pasture laminitis, especially those that are overweight.”

Buff also warned owners to be aware of fescue toxicity and its impact on pregnant mares. Grazing certain types of fescue can result in delivery and lactating complications.

e-mail: agcommnews@ext.msstate.edu