Cattle Today

Cattle Today



by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Part 3

Dry conditions shorten the available grazing and increase the time for supplemental feeding of beef cattle of all classes. Although certain areas have received moderate to adequate rainfall, other areas continue to be dry and feel the effects of reduced rainfall this summer. As noted, this situation increases the demand for feed and, coupled with high feed costs, this creates a need for producers to look closely at key factors of feed availability, feed quality, and feed purchases. While most producers are looking at ways to maximize the use of “home-raised” forages (minimizing costs), in drought affected areas this luxury may not be as readily available. The final part of this series discusses these factors in relationship to the drought situation.

Alternative Feeds for Cattle

Most of the US has a large variety of alternative feeds available. Feeds such as straw, grain hays, corn stalks, and other low quality feeds have always been used to some extent, but during an extensive drought, roughage products such as these will have to be used as a larger portion of the feed source. Table 1 lists the total digestible nutrients and protein content of several of these feeds and compares them with good quality alfalfa hay. This table provides estimates of the average composition of these feeds. An actual analysis of these feeds can provide a more accurate determination of their feed value, but for comparison purposes, this may be useful in comparing feeds that may be available to individual producers.

Here are some thoughts on how you can manage your feeding and supplementation situation during these circumstances include:

1. Design your feeding program to get the most mileage from available feeds on the ranch or in your locality. Research this closely AND have forage test. There is NO better investment in our current economic situation.

2. Supplement low-quality feeds correctly. See #1 above.

3. Carefully balance every ration against the animal's requirements.

4. Underfeeding nutrients lowers production. Overfeeding nutrients increases feed expense and reduces the net return over feed expense. Your goal should be to feed/supplement as accurately as possible.

5. Make every effort to reduce feed losses. This may require buying feed troughs or bale rings. Avoid feeding on the ground as much as possible.

6. Feed the highest quality feeds to animals that have the higher feeding requirements, such as growing replacement heifers or growing calves.

7. Feed the lower quality roughages to cows in the middle-third stage of pregnancy.

8. Save the better quality feeds for those periods just before and after calving.

9. Consider substituting grains for hay when these substitutions can balance the ration more adequately at a lower price (see section on substituting grain for hay).

10. Consider treating low-quality roughages with various feed additives. They will improve their palatability and their feeding quality when appropriate (see section on treating straws).

Buying Supplementary Feeds

Limit your purchases of feeds to those that complement your existing feed and or forage supplies. Do not buy something because it is “cheap.” For example, if you have good quality grass or alfalfa hay on hand, you need not purchase more alfalfa hay for wintering beef cows. A lower quality roughage such as a native grass hay or even possibly straw or other equivalent roughage will provide much of the energy for beef cattle at a lower cost. If you need supplemental ingredients such as minerals, protein, or energy, purchase additional supplemental feed carefully and on a quality basis. Again, do not buy a commodity or supplement just because it is inexpensive. While you want to be cost conscious, very cheap products may also compromise performance and cost you a great deal more in the long run! How much will it cost you if your conception/breed back is reduced by 10 percent. Have feed analyzed where necessary for moisture and crude protein. Again, know what you are buying or feeding

The choice of feed for cattle depends upon its nutritive value for energy and protein in most cases, its cost in relation to both energy and protein content, its suitability for the kind of livestock being fed for such things as palatability, and the physical effect on the animals. This principle can also be applied to feeds that are purchased for supplementing minerals and vitamins as well. In many cases these will be commercial supplements, but a similar comparison can be made. When comparing costs of feeds, be certain that the average composition being used is equivalent to the unit and price for which you are purchasing it. For example, silages and other high moisture feeds contain a high percentage of water. On a weight basis these feeds are low in protein and energy, even though they may be a highly palatable, good feed to use. Be certain that comparisons are based on energy, protein, and water content if that is included in the price. Buying a feed on an "as fed" basis and comparing it with a table containing 100 percent dry matter content can be very misleading, particularly when comparing feeds with high moisture content.

Harvesting and Storing

During drought, the method of harvesting and storing feed can become more important. When hay and forage prices are high, storage losses can steal a larger share of the feed nutrients you buy or harvest. Carefully cover alfalfa stacks with plastic if they are exposed to weather. Cover silages within four to six hours after filling to eliminate top spoilage.

Don't fail to review the alternative way of harvesting each crop that you plan to harvest. Your method of harvesting and storing in a drought period may change from what you would do in an average year when prices are not as high. One thing to consider might be putting up hay that is available in baleage. This is a higher moisture version of your regular hay. It is rolled at a higher moisture content and wrapped in groups or rows of bales or individually. Typically hay put up in this manner is more palatable and cows waste less. In many cases, if timed correctly, baleage is also more nutrient dense on a dry matter basis. This is important if the overall hay supply is short to begin with.

Substituting Grain for Hay

Substituting grain for hay, given current commodity prices may be less attractive this year than in the past. A consideration though is that even forage costs will be higher due to higher fuel, fertilizer and other input costs. Plus, availability in lower rainfall areas is a factor. As such, cost comparison is relative. Lets review some factors: We know that wintering rations for cows and calves commonly are largely roughage. Substituting grain for roughage could possibly be economical depending upon availability and price relationships between the two. Drought often shifts the economics toward grain, because more energy per ton can be transported, compared to hay.

Depending upon the goals of a cow wintering or calf growing program, producers must determine how to provide an adequate ration at the least possible cost. To find this answer, the producer needs to know:

1. The animals' daily nutrient requirements.

2. The nutritive value of common feeds available.

3. The substitution value of available feeds in relation to the nutritive properties and cost.

Table 2 is a comparison of various grains with several common hays, based upon their energy value. On this basis, corn grain is worth 1.9 times as much as average quality prairie hay. Said another way, 1 pound of corn will replace 1.9 pounds of prairie hay in a wintering ration. Other by-products can be used but the feeding rate and comparison to forage has to be considered.

These examples value only the energy in the feed. Protein is not considered, nor are minerals and vitamins. It should be recognized that the ration must be balanced for all of the nutrients if it is expected to perform adequately at the energy level provided.

Grains may also create some possible feeding problems. It is suggested in most publications that wheat make up no more than one-half of the grain to be fed, because of possible digestive disturbances. Because of the need for roughage in the ration, one-half pound of hay per 100 pounds of body weight is suggested as a minimum level of roughage. This may need to be increased during severe cold weather.

When substituting values are a possibility, it may be well for producers to plan for winter feed programs during the hay harvesting season.


As with many situations, management of forages during summer periods becomes an issue of supply and demand – how to increase the supply or reduce the demand or both. On top of this is added the factor of reducing heat effects as effectively as possible during this period to reduce the stress placed on the animal. Needless to say, this is a challenging period for the producer. And, as everyone in this industry is well aware, costs of both forages and feeds has created a completely new dynamic for the producer.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at For more information please visit


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