Harvest Quality Livestock Forage

Good soil and optimum harvest times can improve livestock forage in your pastures.


| July/August 2015



Cattle Grazing

Cattle grazing in Bridgeport, California. Plenty of water in the area, and the grass is lush.

Photo by Londie G. Padelsky

Nature made the most of our four-legged friends with digestive systems that were designed to digest coarse, cellulose-laden plant material. As part of a diversified ecosystem, much of the world’s topography is perfectly suited to the growing of forages such as grasses, forbs and brush. Due to the variability of soils and terrains, not all of our arable land can be used to grow corn and soybeans, or fruits and vegetables that are easily cultivated for human consumption. Most forages, which are indigestible for simple-stomached humans, when consumed by wild or domesticated animals, provide an indirect means by which we attain additional food and fiber from the earth.

Whether you own one cow, goat, sheep, horse, donkey, llama or alpaca, or you own several hundred, you know that forages are the foundation of their nutrition and health. You’ve no doubt been confronted with the issue of forage quality and been confused about what it means and how it relates to the health of your animals.

When we discuss forages within the context of domestic animal agriculture, we are generally referring to grasses and legumes that are grown in pastures or on hillsides for grazing, or specifically grown in fields that are accessible for the production of hay or silage. Whether you own or rent a few acres of land that you use for pasture, or you raise forage on a large scale, you’ve probably seen that your animals will quickly devour some species while they turn their noses up at others.

Quality Equals Nutrition

The bottom line for what determines forage quality is based upon the level of nutrition – energy and protein – that it can supply to your animals. The more biologically immature a plant is, be it grass or legume, the more carbohydrates and protein it has to offer when it’s consumed. And depending upon the purpose or goals for which you are engaged in animal agriculture, whether it’s for food, fiber or pleasure, the higher the quality – meaning digestibility – of the forage, the easier it will be for you to attain your goals.

Plants such as grasses and legumes, like every other living organism, follow a life cycle that includes growth, maturation, reproduction and expiration. At the beginning of their life, plants emerge from seeds and derive nutrients from the soil, starting off small and tender. As they grow, they become taller, and when the time is right, they produce seeds. While all this is happening, the structural and molecular makeup of the plant is constantly changing. Photosynthesis creates sugars and proteins that start off in leaves and tender stems. As the plant matures, stems must become thicker and stronger to support the weight of the plant, leaf production in many plants is replaced by flowering (but not in all plants), and eventually the protein and energy is diverted into seed production.

Chemically, all plants are made up primarily of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Most plants also have some fats (lipids), but, for the most part, that has little to do with the quality, palatability or digestibility of the plant. Every plant has its own unique combination of carbohydrate fractions that influence its digestibility. When a plant is young, much of the carbohydrates are in the form of simple sugars such as glucose or fructose. As the plant matures, the sugars develop into pectins and starches, and eventually into cellulose. It’s the ongoing development of these cellulosic matrices that are responsible for the structure and rigidity of a stem. As plant material ages, another structural carbohydrate called lignin tends to accumulate and it is largely indigestible, except by highly specialized invertebrates.





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