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Previous issues of the BEEF Cattle letter

Issue # 575

February 20, 2008

Forage Focus: The Heave and Ho of Winter Seeded Legumes - Victor Shelton, NRCS Grazing Specialist/Agronomist

My cup of hot cocoa tastes pretty good to me as I sit here in my chair within the warmth of my house whilst the wind blows and the thermometer drops outside. Not exactly the conditions that would make you think about seeding legumes, but in reality, it is.

Frost seeding is certainly one of the least expensive ways to enhance the stand of legumes in your pastures. It is basically the process of broadcasting the legume seed onto the soil surface during the winter dormant months. For the most part, I usually say the ideal time period is somewhere between Christmas and Valentines Day. I guess you could call it a gift of one sort or another for the cows. If I really had my choosing, I'd wait until there is a light snow on the ground and then do the sowing. The snow serves two good purposes. One, is helps "catch" the seed and transport it to the ground and two, it serves as a great marker for the tractor or ATV.

Occasionally in the Southern portion of the state we are a little more limited with the most ideal conditions to really "frost" seed. Frost seeding relies on the freezing-thawing action of the soil, which is honeycombing of the soil surface with ice crystals. This causes the soil surface to expand and contract thus allowing the small seed to find a route into the ground. During warmer winters, you might not always get enough action and if you don't get good seed to soil contact and the seed does not get covered; then it is less likely to survive. I doubt that will be the problem this year. Too often, when left laying on the soil surface, the sun can warm the ground and seed enough to initiate germination…and it has little chance of surviving if this happens before the occurrence of another killing freeze. The seed that is protected by the soil will not be as likely to be impacted by the sun and is more likely to wait until the proper time period to germinate. Enough said on that.

Competition is probably your next worst enemy. Now, I would hope that most would not consider broadcast seeding or frost seeding into a heavy stand of grass… but I have seen it done and usually with little success. If you know you are going to be frost seeding legumes into a pasture then I would recommend, after the forage has become dormant, to graze it down to about 3-4 inches to remove any excess growth (not particularly a problem this year was it) to allow the seed to find it's way to the soil surface and wait for that freezing action. Grazing closer to the soil surface also helps to depress early spring growth of the grass which will give the legume seedling a fighting chance. Now that reminds me to mention before I forget, don't hit those newly seeded fields with nitrogen in the spring either. All this does is to promote the grass growth in the sward, and reduce those new legume seedlings chance. They won't have the root base or energy stored up to compete with established grass, especially with a boost of nitrogen!

It is certainly not out of line to continue grazing stockpiled forages such as tall fescue even after you have frost seeded the legume on. The hoof action caused by the grazing livestock can actually help increase that good seed to soil contact we are looking for unless we get into soft wet conditions which would not be ideal for the pasture or the seed. We want to plant it not bury it. As long as conditions are favorable, the grazing will continue to provide positive action, weakening the grass stand, and open up the sward. All this will slow down that early spring growth allowing the seedlings a better chance.

Of course, an alternative to frost seeding the legume is to wait until favorable soil conditions later in the spring and drill the seed. This still requires the same "ideal" conditions discussed above.

I suppose we should discuss seeding rates. I usually recommend slightly higher seeding rates for frost seeding than for conventional seeding. White clovers can be seeded at 1-1.5 lb per acre, remembering that it is a lot smaller seed than red clover and will be around longer. You can get it on too thick and yes, I know, it's hard to seed that small amount! I've found that mixing it with another seed as a carrier is good. A little Coke, Pepsi, or, RC (whichever is your preference, but not diet in any case) mixed in with it to get a little sticking action going also really helps. You can also mix the seed in with fertilizer (no nitrogen…and watch the amount of DAP) or some pelletized lime. Red clover should be seeded at 6-8 lbs per acre; birdsfoot trefoil at 5 lbs per acre and common lespedeza with hulled seed at 10 lbs. All legumes should be inoculated with the appropriate inoculants for that species to insure proper bacteria, good germination, and growth. Coated seed, when available can solve lots of problems including seed size, the inoculants, and can even help the pH for the seedling. Alfalfa can also be frost seeded, but is more pH sensitive and certainly does better being drilled. If frost seeded, then use at least 8-10 lbs per acre.

As spring starts pushing new growth in our newly amended pastures; remove early grass growth by grazing to allow for sunlight to get to the newly germinated legume seedlings. Keep growth under control by grazing or haying until the newly planted legumes have established themselves.

About 12 years ago I frost seeded several replicated plots of different legumes and grasses. Though I have seen on occasion, that almost anything works, the clovers, lespedezas, and then lastly the trefoil did the best. Seed to soil contact and competition was especially critical to the trefoil. Only redtop, timothy, reed canarygrass, switchgrass and ryegrass, as far as grasses were concerned, faired out. Larger seeded grasses and alfalfa certainly did better when drilled instead.

Lets ruminant over everything again for just a moment, I think the main points for a successful frost seeding of legumes is probably grazing the pasture down before seeding to lower the amount of litter, seed during freezing and thawing conditions to help move the seed down into the soil, and then keep grass growth under control during early spring to give the seedlings plenty of sun and a fighting chance to survive.

Well, I'm out of cocoa and out of words so until next time, keep on grazing!

EDITOR's NOTE: With the value of most any forage double or more the value it's ever been, the value of intense forage management offers more returns to labor than ever. Frost seeding is just one of several pasture and forage management options which will be explored during the upcoming Ruminant Livestock: Facing New Economic Realities programs. Find more details and reservation information in recent Ohio BEEF Cattle letters.

National Cattlemen's Beef Association Comments on Meat Recall (Feb. 18, 2008)

"Today, the United States Department of Agriculture announced a Class II recall involving beef from Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. This recall is happening, out of an abundance of caution, because the company did not follow regulations for handling non-ambulatory cattle.

We support USDA's recall as a precautionary measure. At the same time, we can say with confidence that the beef supply is safe. We have multiple interlocking safeguards in place in every beef processing plant in America so that if one is bypassed, the other systems continue to ensure the product we serve our families remains safe.

The ban on non-ambulatory or 'downer' cattle is one of many steps in a robust system to produce safe beef, but it is not the only step taken to ensure the safety of the beef supply. The beef we eat is safe because there are multiple safety hurdles before it arrives at our grocery stores or restaurants.

As an organization representing beef producers, we have two expectations when our cattle leave our farms and ranches: that our animals are treated humanely and that every step is taken to produce safe beef. We support USDA's actions today to enforce the laws that ensure our cattle are handled with care and that our beef is produced safely."

Down Cows: Potential Problem for Cattle Producers - Dr. W. Dee Whittier, Extension Veterinarian, Cattle
VA-MD Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, VA Tech

A down cow is a dreaded problem for any cattle producer and almost always has a negative economic impact, sometimes one that is quite severe. Prevention is always the best approach to downers. However, despite the best plans, the occasional down cow still occurs and the handling of the case determines the level of loss that will occur.

Down cows were in the national headlines after the BSE (mad cow) case a few years ago. Repeatedly the media defined a down cow as one that "was too sick to stand up". While this definition fits some down cows, many of these cows have experienced injuries that prevent them from being able to get up.

Although there is a list of over a hundred causes for down cows, it is sometimes helpful to group the causes of downer cows into the following four categories:

* Cows with metabolic problems. Often these are deficiencies such as milk fever (low calcium in the blood), grass tetani (low magnesium) or winter tetani (low calcium and magnesium).

* Cows with injuries to their bones, joints or nerves. These range from severe fractures of bones or dislocation of joints to bad muscle bruising to nerve damage that results from a difficult calving.

* Cows that are weak from disease. Some of the diseases that cause cows to go down are sudden onset such as severe mastitis, uterine infection, poisonings or grain overload. Other diseases are chronic such as Johne's disease, hardware, chronic pneumonia, etc. Nervous conditions such as circling disease or polio often cause cows to be down even though they have enough muscular strength to stand.

* Cows with end-stage conditions. Many of the cows that end up being downers at slaughter houses are crippled cows that didn't withstand the truck ride. Starvation cows are often not noticed as being at the "end of their ropes" but, none the less, go down because they have exhausted their energy reserves.

Prevention of Downer Cows: Many cases of downer cows can be prevented. Once again, there are hundreds of preventive measures associated with the many causes of downer. However, the categories of causes above suggest major approaches to prevention.

* Cows with metabolic problems. Appropriate mineral provision for cows is crucial to the prevention of down cows. Magnesium supplementation around calving time, especially in the spring is important. Milk fever (low blood calcium) is not common in beef cows but is seen in high producers such as dairy crosses. Interestingly, too HIGH dietary calcium prior to calving increases the risk of milk fever.

* Cows with injuries to their bones, joints or nerves. Cattle can injure themselves in a wide range of ways and some injuries are simply classed as unpreventable. Good handling facilities that are kept in proper repair are important to the prevention of downer-causing injuries.

* Cows that are weak from disease. A good herd-health program is an investment in disease prevention for many reasons, only one of which is the prevention of downers. This must go hand-in-hand with careful observation of cattle and appropriate early treatment of disease.

* Cows with end-stage conditions. These downers may be the most preventable of all. The temptation to keep cows "just until she calves" or "until the calf is weaned" may end up being a poor decision if a downer results. In a year with very short feed supplies following a poor grazing year, downer cows with low energy will be a possibility. High risk cows are older cows that are heavily pregnant.

Dealing with Down Cows: Regardless of the primary cause, cattle are badly designed for long periods of lying down, especially on hard surfaces. Downer cow syndrome has been used to describe the conditions that develop in animals that are unable to stand. After as little as six hours with the inability to rise, they develop abnormalities of the muscles, nerves and joints. In one study of dairy cows only about 2% of cows treated for milk fever within six hours became long-term downers. However, with cows not treated for 7 to 12 hours over 25% became downers and nearly 50% of cows not treated until after 18 hours were unable to rise (Fenwick 1969).

When healthy cattle lie on their chest, most of the foreweight is on the brisket, while the majority of the hindweight rests on the leg under the body. Normally, cattle reposition themselves and alternate the leg on which weight rests (this often involves at least partial standing and lying back down on the opposite leg). When cattle are unable to do this, the down leg experiences extreme pressure which may put the nerves in the leg to sleep and influence blood circulation so that muscles are much weaker.

Getting the correct diagnosis of a down is crucial to the success of the treatment. Determining the cause of a downer is one of the most challenging diagnoses. Involving a veterinarian in the decision making allows a professional to help with both diagnosis and treatment. One tool to use is to offer the down cow palatable feed. Most cows down from starvation will eat ravenously while some cows with injuries will also eat. Most cows with metabolic problems and disease will not eat.

Since treatment for metabolic disease is relatively cheap so it can be used as a tool to determine the cause of the downer. If other disease causes are determined, they need to be treated immediately. In the mean time, attention must be given to the ongoing damage to nerves and muscles.

For many years marketing a down cow that was determined to be otherwise healthy (no signs of systemic disease) was an option. This ended by regulation soon after diagnosis of the first case of BSE (mad-cow disease). This leaves putting the cow to sleep, home slaughter and consumption and treatment as options.

Table 1 describes options for treatment commonly used in Virginia along with their requirements, advantages and disadvantages. Quickly finding down cows and proceeding with treatment will increase the odds of success whatever treatment is used.

Table 1. Common methods for the treatment of downer cows in Virginia. From "In Practice" Don Huxley. 28:176-184. (2006)

Method Requirements Advantages Disadvantages
Tail lift Two or three operators; Non-slip surface; Lunging space Straightforward; Cheap Only suitable for mildly affected cows
Nets, slings, cradles Two or three operators; Must be fitted correctly; Lifting machinery Relatively cheap; straightforward Can be difficult to fit and harness; Cow must be accessible to lift machinery
Hip lifters One or two operators; Lifting machinery and hip lift device Easier to fit than nets, slings, cradles Cow must be accessible to lifting tools; Potential injury and welfare concerns
Flotation tank Two or three operators; Flotation tank and equipment system Probably the best, cow-friendly Quite expensive; Quite time consuming

Down cows occur for many reasons. Prognosis is never excellent for down cows since this is a serious condition. Rapid diagnosis and early, appropriate treatment will minimize losses due to downers.

Cattle Outlook - Glenn Grimes & Ron Plain, University of Missouri - Columbia (February 15, 2008)

The male-female slaughter ratio for 2007 at 1.1246 was up from the ten-year moving average of 1.09 but down from 2006 when it was 1.187. This data is consistent with the inventory of the cow herd. When the breeding herd is being increased, the ratio of males to females in the slaughter will increase.

Cow slaughter for the first four weeks of 2008 was up 5.6 percent, dairy cow slaughter was up 3.6 percent and beef cow slaughter was up 13 percent. Total cow slaughter for these four weeks in 2007 was up 7.2 percent, dairy cow slaughter was up 7.8 percent and beef cow slaughter was up 6.6 percent from 2006. The four-week data for 2008 shows total cow slaughter was up 16.4 percent, dairy cow slaughter was up 11.5 percent and beef cow slaughter was up 20.5 percent from the same four weeks in 2006.

With the demand for acres for corn, soybeans and wheat, we are likely to see some acres shift from pasture to crops. Also the size of the cattle herd needs to be reduced because of the increased cost to produce beef because of the higher feed prices. Therefore, the size of the cow herd will continue to downsize for some time.

The size of the cow herd is likely to be reduced more than the size of the total cattle herd as beef producers shift more beef production to pastures, ranges and forage from corn. The probabilities are high that young cattle will be raised to higher weights on forage before they are placed on a high grain diet.

The beef cow herd in the six states of Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, and Nebraska on January 1, 2008 was down 3 percent from 2007. This compares with the beef cow herd in the U.S. on January 1, 2008 being down 1 percent. Is this a sign that farmers are already starting to use some pasture acreage for crops rather that cows?

Wholesale beef prices rallied some this week but could not hold on choice at beef down $1.58 per cwt from last Friday. Select beef at $147.87 per cwt this Friday up $10.02 per cwt for the two weeks.

The weighted average for live fed cattle for the five market area through Thursday was up $0.03 per cwt at $90.15 per cwt from a week earlier. The weighted average carcass price for the five market area was down $1.80 per cwt at $145.30 per cwt for the week through Thursday. Fed negotiated cattle trade was only eight thousand through Thursday.

Feeder cattle and calves at Oklahoma City this week were $2-4 per cwt higher than a week earlier. The prices by weight groups for medium and large frame number 1 steers were: 400-500 pounds $125-136 per cwt, 500-600 pounds $114-129 per cwt, 600-700 pounds $107.50-119 per cwt, 700-800 pounds $100-110.50 per cwt and 800-1000 pounds $93.25-103 per cwt.

Slaughter this week under Federal Inspection was estimated at 624 thousand head, up 0.6 percent from a year earlier.

Visit the OSU Beef Team calendar of meetings and upcoming events

BEEF Cattle is a weekly publication of Ohio State University Extension in Fairfield County and the OSU Beef Team. Contributors include members of the Beef Team and other beef cattle specialists and economists from across the U.S.

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