This past week a producer from Virginia called and had an interesting question. He asked “I've been buying this free-choice mineral and based on the tag it has a ton of stuff in it that I don't understand. Do I really need all this?” He faxed me a copy of the tag and he was right, his mineral was extremely complex based on the ingredient list which included 51 items. One of the most common questions I get from beef and dairy producers alike is: “I've been buying this feed and it has ‘X' in it. What is it for and why do I need it?” Product ‘X' may be any number of ingredients or additives and in many situations may have absolutely no practical application. This was the case in the first example, there were many items in the mineral product the first producer was buying that really had no practical application but which he was paying for. A tremendous amount of time and effort is spent in developing nutritional programs for beef cattle with the goal of maximizing economic return as the number one priority. A number of years ago this was a relatively simple task and was a matter of utilizing available feed ingredients such as corn, hay, silage, whole cottonseed, soybean or cottonseed meal, etc. to balance for the basic nutrients such as dry matter, protein, energy and fiber. As time and research have progressed, we find that the beef and dairy industries have much greater choices in terms of utilizable feed ingredients (alternative and/or by-product feeds), as well as any number of additives (medications, performance enhancers, buffers, yeasts and other microbials, mineral and vitamin premixes, etc.). These various ingredients and additives find places in the cattleman's ration because of cost effectiveness, performance enhancement or to hopefully correct a physiological problem within the herd such as weak calves, retained placentas, low immunity and so on. Unfortunately, in some cases, the research into the use of a given ingredient is questionable and in some cases non-existent but has had an effective marketing program built around it. In today's marketplace and economic environment it is important that producers evaluate EVERY component of his feeding program to insure that he truly needs that ingredient and that it plays a valuable role. This will help insure that nothing is fed (and paid for) that is not needed.
The net result, in many instances, with the use of various basic ingredients, several alternative or by-product feeds and a number of additives, a basic beef feed or ration looks more like a formula for rocket fuel than it does a ruminant diet. In Table 1 you will find an example of a basic medicated 14 percent Heifer Developer/Grower feed that might be fed to weaned heifers up through breeding. A formulation of this nature could be, within reason, produced in many if not most feed mills and delivers the essentials and will produce effective growth and development results.
Why are Feeds so Complex?
The complexity of a typical feed or ration is not totally unfounded. Research into ruminant nutrition has taken tremendous strides in recent years. Secondly, as with every other industry, the use of computer technology allows us to take a much more detailed look at formulations. Linear programming models and “least-cost formulating” allows the nutritionist the option of controlling many more nutrient levels than ever before and determining which feed ingredients can most cost effectively deliver these nutrients into the ration or feed product. With profit margins tight in the livestock and feed industry we are constantly evaluating the grain markets to determine how we can keep feeding costs down in order to produce, maintain or increase profits.
Much of what is now considered applicable to the beef cow feeding industry we have learned from the dairyman. With the dairy industry strongly in the lead in terms of adopted technology, the cattleman and nutritionist are faced with a number of challenges. These include interpretation of the multitude of studies published, determining which are effective in an individual operation and designing a practical program to include those which are most cost effective or provide an economic return on investment. These same factors are also true in feeding of beef cattle, even for the plain old, every day range cow standing out in the pasture. An example of this includes current concepts in the requirement for degradable and undegradable protein and subsequent use of by-pass proteins. Another example might be usage of the various microbial products available to assist in improving rumen and lower gut health and stability. With these and the multitude of other concepts we must examine, ration and feed formulation for optimum performance and productivity is a much greater challenge in today's beef industry. One problem we run into, however, is that we tend to evaluate a feed or product strictly by what is on the tag and what the bottom line price of the feeding program or price is. It is very simple for a feed company to formulate and manufacture two seemingly identical feeds with identical tags and one be much cheaper than the other. This may be accomplished by utilization of less expensive, poorer quality ingredients. These types of ingredients, such as many of the rice and peanut by-products, aspirated grain dust, floor sweepings and so on are commonly incorporated into feed products. Ingredients such as these can be appealing to many manufacturers who can incorporate them into a pellet and use fairly non-descriptive terminology on the tag and significantly reduce the cost of manufacturing. This has become increasingly common over the last few months with the escalation of ingredient costs and the demand by the producers to keep costs down. Unfortunately, the use of cheaper ingredients may result in savings that may or may not be passed on to the buyer. These types of ingredients are often lower in digestibility therefore making the nutrient contents much less available to the animal. These ingredients can also possess a lower energy content making two feeds which look identical on the tag but are much different in their energy content and subsequently their value. I always recommend to my clients when we are evaluating a particular product to request a ingredient and nutrient profile on the product in question. This gives much more detailed information on what is actually in the feed and what the nutrient composition is, including energy values such as what we discussed last week. It is, however, common to meet resistance from many manufacturers who do not wish to share this information. Contrary to popular belief, there are no magic or secret ingredients. There is also no mysticism involved in specific combinations of nutrients. Obviously, there are differences in how feeds are put together and it is obvious when a company has done their homework. The greatest value in any feed lies in use of quality ingredients and good manufacturing and handling processes and a company that wishes to work with it's customer base and help them be more profitable -- not just sell a product.
Every so often, because of the complexities just discussed, the cattleman must evaluate his nutritional program and ask himself: "How much benefit am I actually getting from the various ingredients used in my rations and feeds?" Unfortunately, the answer to this question in most instances is: "I really don't know." Another factor to consider is that any given operation is constantly changing and that the conditions that exist today were not the same three months ago and will not be the same three months in the future. For that matter, they may not even be the same tomorrow! Among the factors where change is inevitable are temperature, moisture (lot and pasture conditions), forage and grain quality, herd health and labor availability. A good example of this occurred a while back when a client of mine called and told me that because of problems with his labor force he had to let six of his hands go and only had two to replace them so far. This drastically changed his ability for feed and care for the animals for a period of time.
Often rations will include additives of some type or another to offset some or all of these variables. In many cases we will try to offset poor management through the use of feed additives which will reduce stress, etc. There is nothing that will remotely replace good management. With profit margins constantly tightening two things become apparent, management must be as good as possible and each and every ingredient in the ration must have a positive impact on production. There are many additives such as yeast products, trace mineral complexes, ionophores and so on that are very helpful in reducing stress effects, improving immune response, improving feed efficiency and so on but these will have only a marginal positive effect if management is not what is should be.
Upon examination of your feeds or rations, if you have questions concerning any ingredient or additive performance, and most people do, it is very helpful to "go back to the basics." To begin with, take an inventory of your operation. This would include your herd (i.e. number of head, size of animals, genetic potential, body conditions, etc.), production levels (breeding and calving percentages, birth weights, weaning weights) and herd health. Another important factor that we often forget is the availability of fresh, clean water. Once you have taken an "animal inventory" evaluate your feed ingredients beginning with the basics. These include your forage or fiber source and, protein and energy sources. Check the quality of each ingredient to insure that you are getting what you are paying for. Then verify that the nutrient values being used by you or whoever is doing your ration work are correct. This may take a bit of time and incur some expense in lab fees but in most situations this is a good investment. Also remember that the more accurate your information is, the better the decisions you or whoever is assisting you can make.
Once these steps have been taken, set up as simple of a feeding program as possible. This ration should meet all necessary nutrient requirements for your herd and their stage of production. Also keep in mind that a healthy rumen is an especially vital part of this production system. Now begin evaluating individual components by adding them in individually. This way you can assess the effect each additive has on performance. One distinct advantage dairy production systems have over any other cattle operation is in response time. Once a change has been made, the results in terms of milk production may be apparent within two to three days. On occasion you may encounter products which claim to require a longer period of time to produce results (two to three weeks or longer) or that may have no truly measurable or obvious effects. In those situations it pays to be very skeptical of the product and it's claims. Beef cattle are slower to show a response to changes in the feeding program. Changes in performance can initially be observed by improvements in body condition (over three to four weeks), hair coat color or sheen, breeding activity, etc. Secondly, a change of this nature must be cost effective. Since it often takes a longer period of time to see the benefits or lack of through the use of a given ingredient or additive it is necessary to keep good production records. You will need to evaluate a program change over a given period of time (month, quarter, etc.). Look at what performance and costs are initially and then measure this again at given intervals. Can you see a difference? What is it costing you? In many cases it requires close observation. Also, how cheap is something or how much money does it save you if your conception rates are decreased by 10 percent.
Before making any change in a feed or program, look at the research and other documentation concerning what you are considering. Has the proposed change been profitable in other operations? What were the conditions it was used under? If it was a research study, who sponsored the study and who was presenting the data. The single most important recommendation I can make to you is to question everything. Talk to your veterinarian, nutritionist or other trained professional to give you an unbiased opinion. If you don't understand the reason for a proposed change or product someone wishes for you to buy, ask questions until you do.
The important point to remember here is that there are no magic compounds or silver bullets out there and that nothing beats good management and solid nutrition. If you have spent the necessary time, energy and money developing a sound nutritional program you have won the biggest part of the battle. This is vitally important because within a given operation, nutrition is probably your single largest input cost. You must insure that your dollars are spent wisely and cost effectively. There are numerous products available which can enhance productivity and returns but these must be evaluated carefully. Remember, if a product looks too good to be true, it probably is! So if your nutritional program has become overrun with ingredients or additives and you seriously question the returns they may be producing, it is time to get back to the basics and apply some common sense.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.