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Forage Test Can Be Lifesaver for Cattle

Photo: Paul Vendrell

To some extent, John Mitchell has mixed feelings about the experimental forage field-testing kit he's helping evaluate.

"It monopolized my summer last year," said the Banks County Extension Coordinator. "It'll work you to death."

Mostly, though, Mitchell enthusiastically supports the testing kit that seems destined to become standard equipment in the University of Georgia's county Extension Service offices.

'Saved People's Backsides'

"It's the best tool I've used to do extension work," Mitchell said. "It saved some people's backsides in my county."

The kit enables agents to go to a farm, test a forage sample and get a reasonably accurate assessment of its nitrate content.

Nitrates in forages, at high levels, can cause sickness and poor growth in cattle. At very high levels, it can kill them.

Mitchell is one of 30 county agents involved in evaluating the kit created by Paul Vendrell, who heads the Feed and Environmental Water section of the Agricultural and Environmental Services Labs, in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Photo: Paul Vendrell

Matching the test-strip color to the hue on the chart determines the nitrate level in the forage sample.

Kit Not Complicated

The kit isn't complicated to use. The results are keyed to a color chart, with lighter tones giving the go-ahead to feed the forage to cattle. Intermediate shades signal caution, and the darkest hues call a halt to any feeding plans.

Mitchell tested one millet sample that went immediately to the darkest color. He alerted the farmer, who had planned to put 28 purebred cattle into the deadly field. The lab analysis confirmed an extremely high nitrate level would have killed the cattle.

The agents test forage samples with the kit and send samples for comparison to Vendrell's lab. The first year's testing showed Vendrell needed to recalibrate the color chart. Now he's setting up a second round of evaluations.

"We're not going to release it until we're sure the decisions being made with it are sound," he said.

Getting Proper Samples

Photo: Paul Vendrell

A key to getting accurate results with the testing kit being developed is taking care to get a proper forage sample.

Vendrell and a number of agents say the first year also showed the need for some education on getting proper samples. A number of problems, they said, were more likely related to the sample than to the kit.

Floyd County Extension agricultural agent Walt Parks said using the new fast-testing kit is "real county agent work." It makes farmers more aware of potential dangers in their hay and other forages. "They often don't see the problem with high nitrate levels," he said, "until they see a dead cow."

Most agents say the kit's benefits far outweigh its problems, offering a rare "foot in the door" with many farmers. "I've been able to talk to people who wouldn't give me the time of day before," Mitchell said.

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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