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Livestock producers should pay attention to forage quality

Though forage production is at the forefront of many producers' minds, overall forage quality is also something that should be considered.

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High levels of nitrates of nitrates can be deadly if consumed by livestock. Producers should have feed tested for nitrate levels. Photo taken June 24, 2021 in Ellendale, N.D. (Emily Beal / Agweek)

While many producers are concerned with the lack of forage production in their pastures, overall forage quality should still be something they are taking into consideration.

“The most obvious impact of this drought is the impact it is having on forage production,” said Miranda Meehan, North Dakota State University Extension livestock and environmental stewardship specialist.

However, Meehan said widespread drought can take a toll on overall pasture and forage quality, just not the way some may expect. Due to the dry fall and winter, some forage never reached the reproductive stage, and Meehan explained this is good news for forage quality.

“One thing we are seeing is in some instances that the growth did not really start in the first place, so those plants never reached a reproductive stage. So in terms of quality because those plants are cured before they reach that reproductive stage, it is actually making it maintain a higher quality in some of those plants,” she said.

An easy way for producers to assess forage quality is by taking a look at the color of their forage.

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“It really depends on the timing of the drought. So, what we’re seeing is our forage is brown, it hasn’t greened up. Though some has greened up with some recent rain, overall forage quality decreases when the forage is brown and will increase when it is green,” Meehan said.

Meehan also said she is hearing reports of about 25% of normal forage production across the state and even less in the areas of the region hit the hardest by the drought.

Producers should also be mindful of their nitrate levels in their fields, pastures and forages when letting their livestock graze on them, as nitrate toxicity can be deadly to livestock.

When a large quantity of nitrate is consumed, it is absorbed into the bloodstream of the animal. This makes it impossible for the animal’s blood to carry oxygen throughout its body, ultimately leading to the animal suffocating. For cases not as severe, some warning signs may be weight loss in the animal, night blindness and potential abortions in their females.

The lack of precipitation can cause nitrates to build up in the plants found in the pasture due to the high stress the plant has been put under.

“Nitrate is a common form of nitrogen found in the soil, which is taken up by plants and converted to protein through the process of photosynthesis,” explained Janna Block, Extension livestock systems specialist at North Dakota State University’s Hettinger Research Extension Center. “Under normal growing conditions, nitrate does not accumulate in the plant. However, when plants encounter stressful growing conditions, photosynthesis is inhibited and the potential for accumulation of nitrates is increased.”

Emily grew up on a small grains and goat farm in southern Ohio. After graduating from The Ohio State University, she moved to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a career in ag journalism with Agweek. She enjoys reporting on livestock and local agricultural businesses.
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