What are your cattle consuming? Variation in feedstuffs can be significant, making forage sampling an increasingly important livestock management tool, according to extension experts.

Brett Melton, livestock production extension agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension, explained its importance and how to do it during a winter livestock workshop Feb. 11 in Mankato, Kansas.

“The whole objective is to get a representative sample of whatever the cattle are actually going to be consuming,” he said.

Since most weather damage occurs in the outer 12 inches of big, round hay bales he recommends using an approved forage sampling device and take a sample by drilling at least 18 inches deep into the bale.

Minimizing errors is important. Grabbing grass from the side of the bale, for example, won’t give accurate results.

“The whole idea is to be highly precise so we know what you’re feeding the cattle,” Melton said.

He recommends sampling 10-20% of round bales randomly. Samples should be taken as close to feeding as possible. Poor sampling techniques can create more problems than producers think.

“All types of forages can have a wide variety of values depending on several factors, including maturity, rainfall and soil type,” he said. “Proper forage sampling and testing is important to be able to balance a ration for cattle. We need to know how much energy and protein the cattle can get out of the forage so we know how much protein and energy to supplement.”

Using a forage lot for a sample can provide good information. A lot consists of forage harvested from one field at the same cutting and maturity within a 48-hour period. It usually contains less than 100 tons of hay.

The lot should have similar growing and harvesting conditions. Forage types, soil types, and weed infestations would be alike, as well as cutting dates, the type of harvest equipment used, weather during growth and harvest and storage conditions.

When grouping bales, Melton suggests grouping by field, source, forage type and quality, and test for nitrates in the future.

If sampling big square bales, Melton advises sampling from the ends.

Sampling standing forage is also a good idea, he said.

When sampling from a large silage pile, he urged extreme caution when using a loader or rake: “Be very careful not to get trapped in a ‘silage avalanche,’ and put safety first,” he said, noting its vital to have a second person with you to assist in emergencies.

Rancher Mark Russell of Courtland, Kansas who taught FFA for 38 years at Pike Valley High School in Scandia, Kansas, attended the February 11th K-State Winter Ranch Management presentations, which included forage sampling.

Forage sampling is something Courtland, Kansas rancher Mark Russell was familiar with from his days teaching FFA at Pike Valley High School in Scandia, Kansas. It was also something he read about thoroughly and shared with his students with a hands-on competent.

“I always tried to teach kids how to come up with a balanced ration. We passed the samples around to the kids, along with some analysis from the lab so they could compare … the more leaves you have on alfalfa, the better,” he said.

Russell ranches in a Republic County partnership with a herd made of mainly Red Angus that was in the midst of calving season in early February. For those mothers, nutrition is especially important, and so is forage sampling, he said.

“Like Brett said, it’s important – getting more material from the inside of the bale, because from the outside; you get deterioration from rain, snow or other,” Russell said. “So it’s important to use the probe to get material from the inside the bale.”

Amy Hadachek can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.