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Making Hay Without It

limit-feeding — feeding commodity and supplement — makes stocker operations more predictable. With limit-feeding, you can get stocker cattle to their target weight on time even when forage isn't available.

“The drought in 1998 was the first time in recent years we faced a crisis like this year, where you have very limited forage — standing forage or hay — and what's available is very costly,” says Dave Jones, general manager of Livestock Nutrition Center facilities in Fletcher and Chicasha, OK.

“We (Oklahoma producers) learned two lessons in 1998,” Jones says. “First, limit-feeding — feeding commodity and supplement — makes stocker operations more predictable. With limit-feeding, you can get stocker cattle to their target weight on time even when forage isn't available. The other lesson we learned, but didn't remember as well, is that limit-feeding works for cows, too.

One reason is simply the tradition and mindset that cows need hay in the winter. In actuality, Jones says, “Hay has long been recognized by the beef-nutrition community as the most inefficient way to feed cows… At one time, it probably made sense but it's been a real draw on profitability for the past 20 years.”

Back then, there was little research on limit-feeding cows. Since then, several land-grant universities have upheld the concept's logic. For instance, Ohio State University researchers concluded that, in times of expensive hay and cheap corn, cows could be wintered at half the cost while maintaining the same levels of pasture and reproductive performance.

Closer to home, Jones says, “We've proven that, with today's ingredient costs, limit-feeding is the most economically efficient way to get nutrient into a cow.”

Based on the ration for an 1,100-lb. cow, he explains cows in his part of the country can be fed for $1.25/day. Feeding the same cow a more traditional winter ration of hay at today's cost and 1 lb. of supplemental protein/day would cost $1.95.

“With limit-feeding, you save 75-80¢/head/day, so it's a no-brainer this year,” Jones says.

Plus, there are cash-flow opportunities. As Jones explains, “Even if we get some rain and there's some wheat pasture and cool-season grass, with limit-feeding you don't have to tie money up in hay you may or may not need. You pay for feed as you use it, rather than paying up front.” He's referring to the fact many feed companies let producers lock in ingredient prices by agreeing to purchase a certain volume, and producers pay as the feed is mixed and delivered.

Besides, with forage and hay so scarce, Jones says, “I don't see any other way to keep cows and get them through the winter this year.”

Limit-feeding's principles

“The basic principle of program feeding, also termed limit-feeding, is to feed corn or some other concentrate energy source, along with just enough supplement to meet the animal's requirement for maintenance or for a targeted level of weight gain,” explains David Lalman, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension beef cattle specialist. “Generally a very limited amount of roughage will be fed, or enough to keep the animal's digestive system healthy.

Greg Lardy, North Dakota State University beef nutritionist, adds: “With limit-feeding or program feeding, you know grain or corn has more energy per unit of weight than roughage, so you're programming them to maintain or gain a certain amount of weight. The real key is to make sure you have the facilities.”

Typically folks think of limit-feeding as replacing most of the ration with grain-based concentrates. These days, however, folks are replacing hay completely by using ingredients like cottonseed hulls, which provide the necessary digestible fiber.

Understand this is an entirely different way of feeding cows. They have to be fed every day, ideally about the same time, and a specific amount. Besides the additional labor compared to normal wintering, limiting cows' consumption means they must be confined, either to drylot or to a trap or sacrifice pasture.

“It's not for everyone,” Lalman says. “Adoption is limited by the additional labor requirement, management skills, feed-storage capacity, and the availability of feed bunks, feed-delivery equipment and a well-drained lot or sacrifice pasture.”

Jones and his brother began limit-feeding their cows through winter a few years ago and found a way around the feed bunks. He cites University of Nebraska research that found 5% of a limit-feeding ration using rolled corn resulted in 5% or less waste when fed on the ground.

Jones found the same thing, explaining, “If you feed on the ground in piles, there's minimum waste… It takes cows a week or so to figure out how to circle around to piles when they eat,” he says. “Far as that goes, it takes cows a while to get used to the fact they're going to feel hungry for a while.”

Lalman adds: “Limit-feeding's cost-effectiveness depends on each producer's price of alternative forage, price of grain and price of the supplement needed for hay or for limit-feeding.”

Wrapped a dally tighter, Lardy says, “It really depends on the trucking costs. What can you buy corn for? And, do you have the facilities to manage it?”

You can find sample ingredients and rations in the OSU fact sheet F-3028 available at

Stick to the plan

“You need tight fences and plenty of bunk space. It's not something you can implement in large pasture situations,” Lardy says. “Cows would normally consume 40 lbs. of roughage and you're backing that down to 15-17 lbs. of feed in the ration. The cows will act like they're hungry but they don't necessarily need the feed.”

Confinement is a must because limit-feeding is all about precision. You decide exactly what the cattle will consume based on specific performance goals and the ration designed to achieve those goals. Giving cattle access to standing forage or other feed undermines the ability to achieve the goals.

Likewise, Jones says limit-feeding's success depends on a mixed ration. Though feeding a ration composed of a single ingredient would be cheaper, Jones advises, “Don't try to feed a straight ingredient for a limit-fed ration. All ingredients have nutritional weaknesses and need to be blended into a total, complete mixed ration.”

He and his brother tried with soybean hulls, the closest to a complete source of nutrients that exists as a feed ingredient. Bloat was a problem, just like high-sulfur levels can be with corn gluten, or acidosis can be with whole corn.

Next, Jones emphasizes vitamin and mineral packages designed for the specific ration, and production goals, are the oil that makes all of the rest of it operate to maximum potential.

“This is more complicated than just feeding a nutrient-dense package. We're kind of turning a cow into a feedlot cow, so she needs a different vitamin and mineral package, along with an ionophore to enhance feed efficiency,” Jones says.

As Lalman says, “Acidosis, bloat and founder are always a risk when high-grain diets are fed to ruminants,” he adds.

With these challenges in mind, Jones explains, “That's where you have to ask yourself if the 75¢/head/day savings in feed costs is worth it to you.”

How to limit feed cows

  • Gradually increase the amount of grain fed and reduce the amount of hay fed over a two-week, step-up period.

  • A minimum of 30 in. of linear bunk space/cow should be provided, more if cows are horned.

  • Whole shelled corn is safer to feed than finely processed grain. If grain must be processed, coarsely roll or crack it. University of Illinois research shows cows limit-fed with whole corn performed similarly to cows fed cracked corn.

  • Long-stemmed hay should be fed at a minimum dry matter (DM) level of 0.25% to 0.50% of body weight for cattle receiving whole shelled corn. If cracked or rolled corn is used, provide long-stemmed hay at a minimum of 0.50% body weight DM, but not in excess of 0.75%. Feeding less hay reduces the cost but increases the need for greater management intensity.

  • Feeding an ionophore helps prevent acidosis and bloat, as well as reduce the amount of feed needed by 7-10%. Rumensin is the only ionophore cleared for feeding to beef cows (100-200 mg./day).

  • Feed cattle at the same time daily. Altering feeding time significantly increases the risk of digestive upset. An ideal feeding situation: where corn, hay and supplement are placed in the bunk ahead of time, with cattle given access to it at the appropriate time of day.

  • The idea is to supply a ration in a small package, highly concentrated in energy. Thus, the total pounds consumed/head/day will be less than cattle are accustomed to; they will likely act hungry for the first few days. They will also look gaunt compared to cattle receiving free-choice hay or pasture.

    Resist feeding more if cattle look or act hungry. The advantages of decreased cost and/or decreased hay utilization will be negated.

  • Closely monitor cow body condition and adjust the amount of concentrate to maintain a body-condition score of 5 or better for mature cows, 6 or better for first-calf heifers.

Source: David Lalman, Oklahoma State University