Feed Composition Tips: How to use the 2018 data to mix the best feed for your cattle

Here are the nutrient composition numbers on a wide range of feedstuffs fed to cattle and sheep.

March 6, 2018

12 Min Read
Feed Composition Tips: How to use the 2018 data to mix the best feed for your cattle

Compiled by R.L. Preston, Ph.D.

See the 2018 Feed Composition table here.

The science of animal nutrition is broad and deep. Indeed, nutrition research spanning more than 125 years has defined the nutrients required by animals. Using this information, diets can be formulated from feeds and ingredients to meet these requirements with the expectation that animals will not only remain healthy, but also be productive and efficient. 

That expectation is best met when rations are formulated using feed analysis information. The ultimate goal of feed analysis is to predict the productive response of animals when they are fed diets of a given nutrient composition

However, feeds are not of constant composition. Unlike chemicals that are “chemically pure” and thus have a constant composition, feeds vary in their composition for many reasons. What is the value, then, of showing composition data for feeds? 

An actual analysis of a feed to be used in a diet is much more accurate than the use of tabulated composition data. Actual analysis should be obtained and used whenever possible. But, it is often difficult to determine actual composition in a timely way; therefore, tabulated data are the next best source of information. 

In using tabulated values, one can expect organic constituents (crude protein, ether extract and fiber) to vary as much as +/−15%, mineral constituents to vary as much as +/− 30% and energy values to vary up to +/−10%. Thus, the values shown in the table can only serve as guides. They are not averages of published information. However, judgment was used in arriving at some of the values in the hope that these values will be more realistic for use in formulating cattle and sheep diets.

New crop varieties may result in nutrient composition changes. Genetically modified crops may result in feeds with improved nutrient content and availability, and/or decreased antinutrient factors. Changes in processing procedures can change the nutrient composition of byproduct feeds.

Chemical constituents vs. biological attributes of feeds

Feeds can be chemically analyzed for many things that may or may not be related to the response of animals when fed the feed. Thus, in the accompanying table, certain chemical constituents are shown. The response of cattle and sheep when fed a feed, however, can be termed the biological response to the feed: that is, a function of its chemical composition and the ability of the animal to derive useful nutrient value from the feed. 

The latter relates to the digestibility or availability of a nutrient in the feed for absorption into the body, and its ultimate efficiency of use, depending upon the nutrient status of the animal and the productive or physiological function being performed by the animal. Thus, ground fence posts and shelled corn may have the same gross energy value but have markedly different useful energy value — total digestible nutrients (TDN), or net energy — when consumed by the animal.

Therefore, biological attributes of a feed have much greater meaning in predicting the productive response of animals, but are more difficult to precisely determine because there is an interaction between the feed’s chemical composition and the animal’s digestive and metabolic capabilities. Biological attributes of feeds are more laborious and costly to determine, and are more variable than chemical constituents. They are generally more predictive, however, since they relate to the animal’s response to the feed or diet.

Source of table information

Several sources of information were used in arriving at the “typical values” shown in the table. Where information was not available, but a reasonable estimate could be made from similar feeds or stage of maturity, this has been done since it is not too helpful to have a table with considerable missing information. Where zeros appear, the amount of that item is so small it can be considered insignificant in practical diet formulation. Blanks indicate that the value is unknown.

Using data contained in the table

Feed names: The most obvious or commonly used feed names are used in the table. Feeds designated as “fresh” are feeds that are grazed or fed as fresh-cut materials. 

Dry matter: Typical dry matter (DM) values are shown, but the moisture content of feeds can vary greatly. Thus, DM content can be the biggest reason for variation in feed composition on an “as-fed basis.”

For this reason, chemical constituents and biological attributes of feeds in the table are on a DM basis. Since DM can vary greatly, and since one of the factors regulating total feed intake is the DM content of feeds, diet formulation on a DM basis is preferred rather than using “as-fed” values. If one wants to convert a value to an “as-fed basis,” multiply the decimal equivalent of the DM content times the compositional value shown in the table.

Energy: The table lists four measures of the energy value of feeds. TDN is shown because there are more determined TDN values, and it’s been the standard system for expressing the energy value of feeds for cattle and sheep. There are several technical problems with TDN, however. 

For one, the digestibility of crude fiber (CF) may be higher than for nitrogen-free extract (NFE) in certain feeds, due to the partition of lignin in the CF analysis. TDN also overestimates the energy value of roughages compared to concentrates in producing animals. Some argue that since energy isn’t measured in pounds or percent, TDN isn’t a valid energy measure. This, however, is more a scientific argument than a criticism of TDN’s predictive value.

Digestible energy (DE) values are not included in the table. There is a fairly constant relationship between TDN and DE in cattle and sheep; DE (Mcal/cwt) can be calculated by multiplying the %TDN content by 2. The ability of TDN and DE to predict animal performance is therefore the same. 

Interest in using net energy (NE) in feed evaluation was renewed with the development of the California Net Energy System. This is due to the improved predictability of the productive response of animals, depending on whether feed energy is being used for maintenance (NEm), growth (NEg) or lactation (NEl). 

The major problem in using these NE values is predicting feed intake, and thus the proportion of feed that will be used for maintenance and production. Some only use NEg, but this suffers the equal but opposite criticism mentioned for TDN; NEg will overestimate the feeding value of concentrates relative to roughages.

In deciding the energy system to use, there is no question about NE’s theoretical superiority over TDN in predicting animal performance. But this superiority is less if only NEg is used to formulate diets. If NE is used, some combination of NEm and NEg is more accurate.  NEl values are also shown, but few have actually been determined. NEl values are similar to NEm values except for very high- and low-energy feeds.

Distillers grain from the ethanol industry continues to be a large variable in the feeding of animals, not only in terms of the large and perhaps variable amount of this byproduct available for feeding, but also in its variable nutrient composition.

Nutrient variation depends upon the efficiency of a given ethanol plant in converting corn starch into ethanol; the drying conditions for the resulting distillers grain and its effect on undegradable intake protein (UIP); and recently, the amount of corn oil (fat) that is removed during processing the grain. Research from South Dakota State University indicates that for every 1% decrease in the percent of fat value for distillers grain, 2 Mcal of NEg per cwt should be subtracted from a table NEg value for distillers grain.

Protein: Crude protein (CP) values are shown, which are Kjeldahl nitrogen times 100/16, or 6.25, since proteins contain an average of 16% nitrogen. CP does not give any information about the actual protein (amino acid) and non-protein nitrogen (NPN) content of a feed.

Digestible protein (DP) has been included in many feed composition tables. However, because of the contribution of microbial and body protein to the protein in feces, DP is more misleading than CP. 

One can estimate DP from the CP content of the diet fed to cattle or sheep by the following equation:

%DP = 0.9(%CP)-3, where %DP and %CP are the diet values on a DM basis

UIP, rumen bypass or escape protein, values are shown. This value represents the percent of the CP passing through the rumen without degradation by rumen microorganisms. Degradable intake protein (DIP) is the percent of the CP that is degraded in the rumen and is equal to 100 minus UIP. Like other biological attributes, these values are not constant. UIP values on many feeds have not been determined, and reasonable estimates are difficult to make.

How should these values be used to improve the predictability of animal performance when fed various diets? Generally, DIP can supply CP up to 7% of the diet. 

If the required CP in the diet exceeds 7% of the DM, all CP above this amount should be UIP. In other words, if the final diet is to contain 13% CP, 6 of the 13 percentage units, or 46% of the CP, should be UIP. 

Once the relationship between UIP and DIP has been better quantified, CP requirements may be lowered, especially at higher CP levels. For diets high in rumen-fermentable carbohydrate, DIP requirements may determine the total CP required in the diet.

There is renewed interest in using metabolizable protein (MP) to express protein requirements, and therefore feed protein values. There are some problems, however, in applying MP to better express protein needs of cattle and sheep. 

As stated above, the partition of feed protein between UIP and DIP is not constant. The amino acid makeup of DIP is relatively constant since it represents the protein synthesized by rumen microorganisms from DIP. However, the amino acid makeup of the remaining UIP is unknown. Furthermore, the amino acid requirements of the ruminant animal itself are not well-defined. In the future, an MP system may be able to better predict ruminant animal protein needs, but the above unknowns require further definition.

Crude, acid detergent and neutral detergent fiber: After more than 150 years, crude fiber (CF) is declining in use as a measure of poorly digested carbohydrates in feeds. The major problem with CF is that variable amounts of lignin, which isn’t digestible, are removed in the CF procedure. 

In the old scheme, the remaining carbohydrates — nitrogen-free extract (NFE) — were thought to be more digestible than CF despite many feeds having higher CF digestibility than NFE. One reason CF remained in the analytical scheme was its apparent requirement for the TDN calculation. 

Improved analytical procedures for fiber have been developed, namely acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF). ADF is related to feed digestibility, and NDF is somewhat related to voluntary intake and the availability of net energy. Both measures relate more directly to predicted animal performance, and thus are more valuable than CF. Lignification of NDF alters the availability of the surface area to fiber-digesting rumen microorganisms.

Effective NDF (eNDF) has been used to better describe the dietary fiber function in high-concentrate, feedlot-type diets. While eNDF is defined as the percent of NDF that is retained on a screen similar in size to particles that will pass from the rumen, this value is further modified based on feed density and degree of hydration. 

Rumen pH is correlated with dietary eNDF when diets contain less than 26% eNDF. Thus, when formulating high-concentrate diets, including eNDF may help in preventing acidosis in the rumen. In feedlot diets, the recommended eNDF levels range from 5% to 20%, depending on bunk management, inclusion of ionophores, digestion of NDF and/or microbial protein synthesis in the rumen. 

Estimated eNDF values are shown for many feeds. These should be decreased depending on degree of feed processing (e.g., chopping, grinding, pelleting, flaking) and hydration (fresh forage, silages, high-moisture grains) if these feed forms are not specified in the table.

Ether extract: Ether extract (EE) shows the crude fat content of the feed.

Minerals: Values are shown for only certain minerals. Ash is the total mineral content of a feed. Calcium (Ca) and phosphorus (P) are important minerals to consider in most feeding situations. Potassium (K) is more important as the concentrate level increases and when non-protein nitrogen (NPN) is substituted for intact protein in the diet.

Sulfur (S) also becomes more important as the NPN level increases in the diet. High dietary S levels compounded by high S levels in drinking water, however, can be detrimental. Zinc (Zn) is shown because it is less variable and is more generally near a deficient level in cattle and sheep diets. Chlorine (Cl) is of increasing interest for its role in dietary acid-base relationships.

The mineral level in the soil on which the feeds are grown, or other environmental factors, preclude showing a single value for many of the trace minerals in feeds. Iodine and selenium are required nutrients that may be deficient in many diets, yet their level in a feed is more related to the conditions under which the feed is grown than to a characteristic of the feed itself. Trace mineralized salt and trace mineral premixes are generally used to supplement trace minerals; their use is encouraged where deficiencies exist. 

Vitamins: Vitamins are not included in the table. The only vitamin of general practical importance in cattle and sheep feeding is the vitamin A value (vitamin A and carotene) in feeds. This depends largely on maturity and conditions at harvest, and the length and conditions during storage. 

Thus, it is probably unwise to rely entirely on harvested feeds as a source of vitamin A value. Where roughages are fed that contain good green color or are being fed as immature, fresh forages (e.g. pasture), there will probably be sufficient vitamin A value to meet animal requirements. Other vitamins, if required, should be supplied as supplements.

It has been my pleasure to compile the feed composition table for BEEF for many, many years. But it is now time to step aside and let others take up the effort. This will be my last update to the BEEF feed composition table.

However, if you have suggestions or additional compositional data, please send the information to Burt Rutherford at [email protected]. When sending compositional data, adequately describe the feed, indicate the DM or moisture content and if the analytical values are on an as-fed or DM basis. If more than one sample was analyzed, please indicate the number of samples analyzed.

Since 1957, Preston has taught and conducted animal nutrition research in the areas of protein, minerals, growth and body composition. He has also conducted cattle-feeding research on the energy value of feeds, growth enhancers and nutrition management. Preston was a member of the National Research Council Committee on Animal Nutrition and president of the American Society of Animal Science. He retired as emeritus professor from Texas Tech University, where he was a Horn Distinguished Professor and held the Thornton Endowed Chair. In 2017, the Plains Nutrition Council named him a Legend of Feedlot Cattle Nutrition.


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