Using ditch hay to feed cattle is a common practice across the U.S. It provides livestock producers with a source of readily available forage which can be very useful particularly during feed shortages.
"Under ideal conditions, it would be advisable to analyze the bales at least for crude protein and total digestible nutrients (TDN) and balance diets accordingly," said Alvaro Garcia, SDSU Extension agriculture and natural resources program director & professor.
However, he added there is quite a large variability in nutrient content and using average nutrient composition values can oftentimes result in unbalanced diets and reduced cattle performance.
The reason for this variability however doesn't seem to be as much the plant species composition, but rather the time of harvest. During 2015, NDSU Extension analyzed 182 samples of harvested ditch hay from across the state. The results showed that most of the ditch hay consisted of cool-season grasses, predominantly smooth bromegrass.
There were differences in nutrient composition that were attributed mostly to variability in the stage of maturity at cutting.
"The best compromise between tonnage and quality seems to be when ditch hay is harvested precisely during early July," Garcia said.
When determining whether to harvest ditch hay, it is very important to thoroughly inspect the area to make sure that the ditch is tractor-safe, and will not result in a dangerous rollover. Also, review the area for litter that may have accumulated such as glass bottles, aluminum cans, plastic, etc.
It is important to know whether the roadsides have been sprayed for weeds.
"Some herbicides are not cleared to be used on forage that is to be fed to livestock," Garcia explained. "And, some broadleaf herbicides sprayed on ditch hay fed to cattle are eliminated intact in the manure. Which could mean that if manure from animals fed ditch hay sprayed with these herbicides is applied to the fields, there is a good chance the herbicide will hurt yields or even the whole subsequent broadleaf crop."
Current suggestions are to skip at least two growing seasons before planting broadleaf crops to acreage that was fertilized with manure from these animals.
There have not been health issues reported in cattle fed hay treated with herbicide.