Feeding cattle hay

It’s time to put a pencil to your feeding program

With summer grazing season upon us, now is the time to figure costs on your supplementation and feeding program.

By Robert Fears

Feed is one of the big expense items in a cow-calf operation, so it is important to put a pencil to the feeding program periodically to determine if your cattle are being fed in the most economical fashion. Unmanaged feed bills can quickly erode ranch profits.

“There are some general economic rules to obey when planning and executing a feeding program. First, profitability of any livestock enterprise requires efficient utilization of available forages,” says Jason Johnson, Extension economist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

“The second rule is that cost-effective supplementation should complement forage and not substitute for it nor impair animal forage utilization. There is a very big distinction between supplemental feeding and substitution feeding. Continued short-cuts in providing adequate nutrition will produce long term negative consequences.”

Goals of a successful feeding program are facilitating rebreeding of cows while maintaining calving intervals, maintaining pounds of calf produced per cow, minimizing feed cost per pound of calf sold and putting desired weight on calves as quickly as possible. Factors affecting type and amount of supplementation include forage quantity and quality, animal body condition and size, milking level and age.

First things first

The first step in designing a nutrition plan is to determine the amount of nutrients cattle are obtaining from forage and match this information with animal requirements. If nutritional requirements are not being met, deficiencies need to be corrected with supplement. When forage begins to mature late in the growing season, digestibility and nutrient levels decrease and cattle may be unable to consume enough to meet their needs.

“If space permits, sort cows by age and expected calving date so that each group can be fed according to their nutritional needs,” says Johnson. “Feed the highest quality feeds to animals with higher nutrient requirements, such as growing replacement heifers and calves.”

Give the lower quality roughages to cows in the middle-third stage of pregnancy. “Save the best quality feeds for cows in the last stage of pregnancy and after calving. Compliment low-quality roughages with protein and/or energy supplements to fill nutrient voids,” he says. 

“Research studies from several universities indicate little or no difference in performance of cows supplemented two or three times per week compared to those fed daily. Recent studies show that feeding natural supplements once a week, with 32% or greater crude protein (CP), yields results comparable to those fed more frequently.

“Reduction of feeding frequency saves labor, fuel and equipment wear,” says Rick Machen, King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management. “High-energy supplements, however, with 10% to 18% CP perform best when offered frequently and in small amounts. Infrequent feeding of large amounts of high energy grain can cause serious illness.”

Ten additional ways to reduce feed costs in cow-calf operations are listed in Figure 1.

Supplement types

There are many types of supplements and it is important to choose the one that meets nutrient requirements of the herd at the most economical price. Oilseed meals, such as cottonseed, soybean and peanut, are high in protein with medium to high energy, whereas grain is low in protein and high in energy.

If both protein and energy are deficient in a cow’s diet, an oilseed meal supplement may be a good choice. If cows are only deficient in energy, grain is a good option. Corn and milo (sorghum) are the most common grains fed to cattle, but oats, wheat or barley are also suitable. Good quality hay is also a suitable supplement that provides medium levels of protein and energy.

Breeder or range cubes are a combination of protein and energy, fed in higher amounts than oilseed meals and are higher in nutrient costs than meals and grain. Cubes contain 20%, 30%, 32% or 40% crude protein.

Always read the ingredient list on the feed tag to ensure you are buying what your cattle need. Ask about the total digestible nutrient content (TDN) which is not required on the tag. Look for discount break points or if feasible, contract at truck load price discounts.

Liquid formulations of protein supplements are fed at higher cost than cubes. When computing the cost, consider the per ton price of the supplement plus delivery charges or use of a nurse trailer plus cost of a liquid feeder. Liquid feed typically contains 24% protein and 5% fat. There are 185 gallons in a ton and a feeder holds 300 gallons.

The most expensive protein supplement is syrup tub formulations. The product is primarily available in 30-, 60-, 200- and 250-pound tubs and formulations are either poured or cooked.

Poured formulations contain water, whereas most of the moisture is removed in cooked formulations. Low moisture tubs soften or liquify on the surface as they absorb moisture from the air which controls intake. The formulations normally contain 24% protein and 2% with most of the protein supplied from urea. 

“There are advantages in using liquid feeds or tubs,” Johnson says. “Convenience is the big advantage in that trips to the pasture are reduced from three to four times per week to one.”

This results in fuel and labor cost savings. “All cows get equal access to feed because the aggressive eaters are limited in consumption and don’t continually stand at the feeder. Consumption limiters in the formulations facilitate better eating habits. Cattle can eat ¼ pound, graze and return to the feeder rather than swallowing quickly, ruminating and then grazing.”

Alternate supplemental feed sources (liquids and tubs) work best when made available to the herd year-round. This allows accumulation of body fat reserves that are used in the fall and winter when forage quantity and quality decline.

Reducing feed costs offers a great opportunity to increase ranch profits, so put a pencil to the feeding program, sooner than later.

Fears is a freelance writer based in Georgetown, Texas.

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