3 non-traditional feedstuff options to consider for your cow herd

A range of forage crops can be used as cattle feed.

August 3, 2015

9 Min Read
3 non-traditional feedstuff options to consider for your cow herd

When traditional feeds are scarce or expensive, there are nontraditional crops and feeds that can be used. Options vary depending on where you live and what’s available, of course, but a cow’s ability to extract nutrition from a variety of feeds is one of her greatest attributes.

The problem? Figuring out how to transport and feed the many byproducts or waste products that can be used by cattle, says Carl Dahlen, Extension beef specialist at North Dakota State University.

Here’s a look at some of the alternative feeds to consider as you plan your fall and winter herd management practices:

Forage alternatives: The most underused resource in farming areas is crop residue — to graze, or bale and transport. “There are ways to process cornstalks and improve feed value and palatability with a calcium hydroxide solution or anhydrous ammonia. The latter is popular in areas where anhydrous ammonia is used as fertilizer, and available,” says Ken Olson, Extension beef specialist at South Dakota State University.

This can also be done with wheat straw or poor-quality hay. Some ranchers are using CRP hay. “We still have some ground in the Conservation Reserve Program,” says Dahlen. “When we run into serious shortages due to drought, they sometimes allow cutting and baling some of that grass. But by the time the announcement comes out, the hay is overly mature and poor-quality. Then we have to supplement or take steps to boost protein levels,” he says.

One option is to add ammonia to CRP hay, other poor-quality hay or straw. “Ammoniating increases protein content, digestibility and intake. It involves covering the forage stacks with heavy plastic to seal them up, then injecting ammonia under the plastic,” Dahlen says.

“You need a good seal so ammonia doesn’t escape, but goes into those forages. It’s very important to get the bags and stacks sealed, then open them up after the ammoniating process is done. Let it air out for a few days before feeding it. You can use a big silage-type plastic tarp, lying flat on the ground around the edges, so you can cover it with loose dirt and get a good seal with no air leaks,” Dahlen says.

Calcium hydroxide treatment also improves digestibility of crop residues like wheat straw or cornstalks. “At one of our research stations several winters ago, we treated wheat straw and it worked well,” Olson says.

“Some companies have trucks set up to do the whole process at your place. The truck has a pump that sprays this solution onto the material as it comes out of the tub grinder; then you can store it on your place. Because it is wet after treatment, it could easily mold, so we bagged it to keep it from spoiling,” he explains. 

A mature cow can handle untreated crop residue because she has the rumen capacity to ferment and break it down herself. It doesn’t need to be treated if you add the protein she needs in order to digest and utilize it efficiently.

“In Nebraska where a lot of corn is grown, only 15% of the cornstalks get used as feed. That’s a huge untapped resource. Some could be baled, transported and treated to enhance nutrient value, but a lot of it could be harvested by cows,” Olson explains.

“Anyone who runs cows in corn country has an opportunity to cheapen up cow diets if they can graze cornstalks. One of the impediments to regrowing the cow herd in the U.S. is unavailability of pasture. Farmers on the eastern side of the Great Plains have plowed up a lot of pasture to grow crops instead of cows. But with all the crop residues, there’s opportunity for confinement feeding during summer, grazing crop residues after crops are harvested or feeding in confinement year-round,” he says.


“Ethanol co-products and distillers grains are the modern byproduct feeds,” says Olson. “There’s also the syrup that comes out of the processing plant, and people have found ways to incorporate syrup into low-quality, forage-based cow diets. If you are tub-grinding feeds or running them through a processor, the syrup can be applied to the feed and then delivered to the cattle. The syrup controls dust, adds a lot of energy value, and increases palatability,” he says.

However, you can’t afford to haul it very far, because you are paying to haul a lot of water. “Producers who are good at working out costs have found ways to haul syrup a long ways and still feel comfortable they are making effective use of delivery dollars. The nutrients that come with it can be worth the cost,” he says. If you have a lot of low-quality forage at home, this is a feasible way to feed cattle.

“With distillers grains, if you are close enough to the ethanol plant, you can take wet material because it’s cheaper; they don’t have to pay to dry it. Through the years, I’ve calculated the breakeven distance based on cost of trucking and price of wet vs. dry. This changes, but typically runs in the 50- to 80-mile range. Last winter, if you lived more than 80 miles away, you were money ahead to buy dry material,” Olson explains.

“Those numbers are based on commercial trucking. People who have their own trucks still have to pay for fuel and depreciation on the truck, but aren’t paying the full hauling price,” he says.

There are some traditional alternative feed options when the market is right. “Sometimes soy hulls are economical. Here in Rapid City, S.D., we are too far west to always economically use soy hulls because of transportation costs, but if you need an energy concentrate that’s not grain-based, they work well,” Olson says.

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“If you live near a sugar beet plant, beet pulp is a great fiber-based energy feed. In North Dakota, farmers grow a lot of field peas, and this is a popular crop as an alternative to wheat. Sometimes peas that don’t make human food grade are cheap. Peas have a moderate level of protein and good energy, and can be used as a supplement in cow diets, or work well in growing diets if you can price it right,” he says.

The big challenge is in range country where there is little or no cropland, and no crop processing plants that produce byproducts. “If you have to haul something very far, the challenge is how delivery cost affects economics. Producers in those regions have to be innovative, pay attention to markets, find the bargains and what makes sense locally,” he says. 

If the byproduct is not already well-established as a feed source for cattle, or if the processing plant just needs to get rid of it, the price may be favorable. If ranchers can take it, saving the processor the cost of disposal, it might be cheap. 

Then the question is how to feed it, says Dahlen. “If there has been research on feeding it, or if we can look at the nutrient profile and make sure there are no major antinutritional properties that cause problems for cattle, we can make recommendations regarding feeding level, and how to fit it into a ration or supplement it,” he says.

Summer crops

Summer annuals might be an option where there’s enough moisture to make a crop. “In Nevada, we have to depend on irrigation,” says Jay Davison, crop specialist with the Nevada Cooperative Extension, University of Nevada, Reno, at Fallon.

Summer annuals could include teff, millets or sudangrass. If you know it’s going to be a short-water year, choose a crop that takes less water, with a relatively short growth period. Summer annuals are typically more water use-efficient,” he says.

On the other hand, pounds of material produced per inch of water applied are higher in warm-season annuals like millets and sudangrass.

“But you still need water late in the season to get full production, and a minimum of 50 days before you can graze them. Many people here are growing teff, which is a high-quality forage. With two cuttings, you get about 5 tons under normal irrigation and probably about 2 tons if water is short,” Davison says.

“With sudan and sorghum-sudan, you have to consider prussic acid when these plants are stressed; and in a drought situation, they will be stressed. By contrast, teff and millets don’t have those problems,” he says.

“If you have fall rains, you might try some brassicas or grazing turnips. These are usually planted in late summer and need moisture to get going. They grow quickly and produce good-quality forage. But when you run out of moisture, it’s hard to grow anything!” says Davison.

Some people are looking at things they haven’t used for a long time, like kochia. “In most areas, this is considered a weed. During the Depression, people in the Midwest grew kochia. When grazed or harvested early enough, it was a fairly good feed. Now we also have forage kochia, which is different; it’s a perennial and typically planted in the fall. It is an excellent feed source if you already have it planted. Forage kochia is one of the most drought-tolerant and grazing-resistant plants that we can buy seed for, so it can be an excellent choice for future,” says Davison.

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.

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