By Kerry Hoffschneider
Forage and feed testing is not always on the minds of busy farmers and ranchers, but it is front and center for Becca Kern-Lunbery – professional animal scientist for Ward Laboratories, Inc. and her colleague, Carrie Putnam – feed department supervisor for Ward Labs. Because they know the positive impacts of testing liveability and performance on livestock operations, Kern-Lunbery and Putnam both agree that the question needs to be asked, “Why are more farmers and ranchers conducting forage and feed testing?”
The answers are diverse, but in many cases, producers may simply not understand the benefits or clearly understand how easy their role in the testing process really is. They also may not think they can afford the extra cost, or they are intimidated and not confident they will be able to analyze the data they did once they received it. Or, they think it might take too long and they simply need answers, “yesterday.” Kern-Lunbery and Putnam are passionate about providing clarity around the misconceptions and confusion that exists around forage and feed testing and analysis.
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It also helps both women come from a background of front-line experience in the livestock industry. Putnam grew up on a farm in Missouri that raised registered Simmentals. She would later attend the College of the Ozarks and double major in animal science and agronomy.
“It was a small, Christian school with a work program where you would work in a degree-specific position. I worked at the dairy for 15 hours a week and paid for my tuition. You could also work 30 hours a week and they would pay for room and board. So, I did that and graduated in three years, “she said.
After college, Putnam had an array of experiences including working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the American Simmental Association and serving as a lead physician on a 5,000-head feedlot that included both bison and cattle.
“Agriculture was always there in my life. I knew I was going to do something ag related in my career, “she said.
Through a friend of a friend, Kern-Lunbery gained much of her early experience working on a dairy helping feed cows and other duties.
“It was very rewarding going into the calf huts and teaching the calves how to bottle feed,” she said.
Always an animal-lover, Kern-Lunbery decided to pursue the nutritional side and earned her master’s degree at the University of Wyoming in a collaborative project with the US Meat Animal Research Center based out of Clay Center, Nebraska. Her career experience prior to Ward’s included serving as a technician focused on RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequencing on beef cattle and swine.
Working closely with livestock producers made both professionals hypervigilant at excellent testing results and analysis of the utmost quality. One of the numerous ways Ward Labs ensures reliability and accuracy is being a long-time member of the NIRSC (Near Infrared Spectroscopy) Forage and Feed Testing Consortium. Kern-Lunbery currently serves as chair of the accuracy and quality committee for consortium and led the development of their Guidelines for optimal use of NIRSC Forage and Feed Collaborations in Membership Laboratories that were authored by an array of collaborators.
“NIRSC collects samples from commercial labs, researchers, and plant breeders throughout the United States, including members in Canada and China, as well as partner members in South America. The consortium, because of its broad network, provides the most robust equations available commercially, “she said. “If you send a forage or feed sample to us and want the most in-depth test for a reasonable price, we can provide that. Our tests will cost a lot less than a wet chemistry test, with fewer steps of human handling and, thus, fewer chances for human error. “
Rigorous testing procedures are, of course, a key foundation in building trust with their customers, both women agree. Ward Labs uses AOAC (Association of Official Analytical Chemists) methods and only uses vetted and verified methods when an AOAC method is not available. However, what farmers and ranchers want to know is that pays back dividends to their individual businesses. Both professionals agree there are real, tangible, and practical benefits.
“My number one reason for telling producers is they need to test animal nutrition,” Kern-Lunbery said adamantly. “Improving animal nutrition leads to better animal health and production. With adequate testing, you won’t waste money on overfeeding animals, and you won’t have losses from underfeeding animals either. Unfortunately, many times I end up talking to producers who don’t test their feed until they have a wreck going on. Often in these cases, it has to do with a mineral issue. Protein and energy testing is a key place to start, but paying attention to minerals is just as important. “
Putnam agreed the nutrients, lack of, or even ruminant animals of dangerous levels of things such as nitrates, may not be on a rancher’s or farmer’s mind.
“For example, I know a lot of producers who will just turn out to be cattle on cornstalks in the fields,” she said. “In a drought situation especially, nitrate levels in stalks such as corn, oats and sudangrass may be far higher. The nitrogen will build up in the stalk, especially in the drier years, and the plant cannot utilize it. This causes toxicity in cattle, sheep and any ruminant. “
If you know ahead of time testing what you are working on, you can help mitigate and manage these issues. Putnam added, “When grazing cornstalks, they eat the leaves first and leave the stalk for last. If you know you have a nitrate issue, you can move those animals off those areas. Cutting the stalks a little higher can even help take some of the risk out. “
“Everything ties back to the bottom line,” Kern-Lunbery noted. “Testing is an added expense, but it actually pays off. Saving one calf worth $ 500 versus spending money on a $ 12 to $ 30 test makes it worth it. I can’t reiterate enough knowing that your protein, energy and mineral levels save significant money on your vet bills, too. “
It also doesn’t take long, Putnam pointed out. “In most cases, the results should be back in two days,” she said.
And, you don’t have to interpret the results yourself, Kern-Lunbery said enthusiastically. “People can absolutely call and talk through their results. There are days I take dozens or more calls and we go through the reports. I also put together spreadsheets for people who are having mineral issues. Our role is to provide a lot of support on understanding the forage reports so they can be more informed when making decisions. If I’m not here, Carrie is perfectly capable of talking through test results, too. “
What it really comes down to is giving hope and answers to the farmers and ranchers they serve.
Kern-Lunbery reiterated, “When talking to customers, often times they are already spoken to a vet and extension agent, and they still do not have answers yet. A lot of people are in a bind, and come to us looking for a piece of hope. Sometimes we find that analyzing the feed and sometimes we don’t, but our hope is that they go away knowing we exhausted our options. “
Putnam said in closing, “At Ward’s, we have a very personal approach to our customers, and all the gains are a very rewarding feeling helping people. Even when we don’t have the answer, we want them to know we can put forth every effort we can. “
The best part is celebrating with a customer who is completely offline, Putnam when on. “We don’t always hear when things go well, but sometimes we do. For example, I had a guy call in and ask what might be wrong with his cattle. I thought back to my feedlot days and asked him what the cattle were doing. He said they were pushing their heads against the walls and acting strangely. What we were able to find out was that the distillers were feeding them to be high in sulfur and the cattle needed more thiamine. I told him to confirm the information with his vet, and that turned out to be the case. There is nothing more rewarding than hearing you help fix an issue. That ‘s what we’re here for. “
Want to reach out to the Forage and Feed Testing Specialists? They would love to hear from you! Contact Rebecca Kern-Lunbery, MS, at (308) 234-2418 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Carrie Putnam, BS, (308) 234-2418 or email@example.com.
Learn more about Ward Laboratories at www.wardlab.com.
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