Short on hay this winter? Try corn for mature beef cattle

In some cases, whole-kernel corn can provide an economical alternative to hay.

January 6, 2020

3 Min Read
Cattle eating whole corn from feeding trough
CORN FOR COWS: Feeding corn to mature beef cows could be a good alternative to feeding expensive hay, but it all comes down to economics. Colby Lysne/Getty Images

Winter feed is the greatest expense in a cow-calf operation.

In 2012, with the drought and weather changes in Pennsylvania, hay shortages pushed prices to $400 to $500 per ton. The need for additional winter feed increased cost of production.

In order to manage these feed costs, beef producers, especially cow-calf operators, need to be aware of alternative feed sources to mitigate winter feed costs.

Nutrient requirements of cows

Cow nutrient requirements depend on body weight, milk production potential, and whether the cow is lactating or dry.

Table shows nutrient requirements for non-lactating beef cows weighing 1,000, 1,200, or 1,400 lbs.

Heavier cows will require more nutrients than lighter cows. In addition, nutrient requirements increase as the cow nears calving. These increases occur because the fetus grows most rapidly in the final three months leading up to calving.

Based on the average nutrient concentrations of hay across the U.S., in some cases feeding hay alone may meet the nutrient requirements of the mature beef cow in mid-gestation. However, when hay is limited, of poor quality or simply too expensive, producers may consider some alternatives.

Feed more corn

Corn can be substituted for hay as the primary energy source in mature cow rations.

Whole corn-based diets can meet the nutrient requirements of pregnant beef cattle without adverse effects on production and, depending on the economics, may be provided at a lower cost than feeding hay.

Because corn is much more energy-dense than hay, intake of corn must be restricted so cows do not get fat. This can be done by putting cows on a limit-fed corn-based diet. With limit feeding, cows are not able to eat all the corn that they want, but rather are provided with just enough to meet their nutrient requirements.

In general, a mature cow will require about 1 pound of whole-kernel corn for every 2 pounds of hay it eats. So, from an economic standpoint, if hay is $160 per ton and corn is $4.50 per bushel, the corn is a better buy from an energy standpoint because they are roughly the same price per ton, but your cows need half as much corn as they do hay.

Add some protein

While corn is energy-dense, it contains relatively little protein. Therefore, in order to meet protein requirements of the pregnant cow, protein supplements must be included in the diet.

In addition, these supplements should include an ionophore to prevent ruminal acidosis in cows. Keep in mind that ionophores should not be fed free-choice, so they must be fed daily as part of the total ration.

Keep hay in the diet

Limit-feeding whole-kernel corn is a great alternative in times of poor hay quality or when hay is too expensive. But cows should still be given some hay.

It is best to feed cows 2 to 6 pounds of hay per day. If weighing hay is problematic, consider limiting the cow’s access to hay to about two to four hours per day by gating off the feeding area.

Either limiting access or restricting the pounds fed per day will reduce hay use by the cows and, potentially, save money.

Pasture scarcity, short supplies of harvested forage and higher hay prices are opportunities to consider a feed alternative.

Because corn is the most readily available source of supplemental energy in many areas, limit-feeding a corn-based diet can be a cost-effective option for meeting the nutrient requirements of beef cows.

Felix is a Penn State beef Extension specialist.

Source: Penn State Extension, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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