Feeding the Cow Herd - Winter 2000/2001

Darrell Rankins, Jr.

Extension Nutritionist - Beef Cattle

If hay supplies are adequate, then free-choice, good-quality (53% TDN or greater) hay will maintain a pregnant cow. However, once the cow has calved a supplement will be needed. Depending on hay quality, the cow should be supplemented with 5 to 7 pounds of supplement. If the hay contains at least 10.5% protein, then the supplement should be an energy supplement. If the hay contains less than 10.5% protein, then the supplement should contain both energy and protein. Corn is an energy supplement, whole cottonseed is an energy and protein supplement and cottonseed and soybean meal are protein supplements. Most of the commercially blended supplements (range pellets, blocks, mixed feeds) contain both energy and protein.

Because of this year's drought it is likely that many producers have inadequate supplies of hay. Therefore, the remainder of this discussion will focus on providing adequate nutrition with limited amounts of hay. First of all, it is important to remember that cattle are ruminants and thus need some forage (fiber) in their daily diet. In general, the minimal amount required is about .5% of body weight which would equate to 5 to 6 pounds for 1,000 to 1,200-pound cows. Because most beef producers use hay in the form of a large round bale, it is difficult to limit hay consumption to 5 to 6 pounds per day. There are only two realistic ways to limit hay consumption with round bales. The hay can be unrolled and offered at a predetermined amount. Another way would be to put an adequate number of rolls in a small area such that the cows can be put into the area for about 2 hours per day in order to control the amount of hay that they consume. With this program it is important that all cows have access to the hay, approximately 1 roll for every 10 cows. If small, square bales of hay are available, then it becomes much easier to offer 5 to 6 pounds of hay per day.

Another alternative for providing 5 to 6 pounds of forage per day is by limited access to stock-piled forage. If you are in the fescue region, this would be an excellent choice for stock-piling. We can assume that fescue with 70 to 80 pounds of N per acre and adequate moisture would accumulate approximately 1,800 to 2,000 pounds of utilizable forage per acre by December 1st. With proper fencing, the animals could be given a fraction of an acre every day or every other day such that you were giving them access to about 5 to 6 pounds of forage dry matter per day. This technique works extremely well with the use of electric fencing. The same principles could be used with winter annuals in the non-fescue growing areas of the state.

A final option for providing roughage to the cows would be the use of various by-products such as peanut hulls, cottonseed hulls, gin trash, cotton motes or any other by-product roughages that may be available in your area.

Now that the hay has been conserved by some sort of limit feeding system, what is needed to meet the nutrient needs of the cow? For a 1,000-pound cow that has not yet calved, we would need to provide her with about 12 pounds of a grain mix that contains approximately 12% crude protein. One such mix would be to blend 575 pounds of corn with 50 pounds of soybean meal. Another possibility would be to feed soybean hulls which usually contain about 11.5% crude protein. Once the cows calve and begin lactating, 

then their daily nutrient requirements will increase and they will require approximately 18 pounds of the grain mix or soybean hulls per day plus their hay allowance. With this system, the cows would be fed 12 to 18 pounds of the concentrate per day (depending on stage of production) and given 5 to 6 pounds of forage per day. For this system it is important to have adequate bunk space for feeding the cows. In general, if the cows can access both sides of the bunk, then a 10-foot trough will accommodate 10 to 12 mature cows. Obviously, this system is quite labor intensive and requires a large amount of daily feeding; however, if hay supplies are severely limited, it may be the only alternative available.

There are other ways to limit intake of the grain without daily feeding. One such option would be to incorporate salt into the mix. This strategy requires art in addition to the science and one should be very careful not to founder the animals while they are adapting to the mix. For specifics on this practice see ANR-288 (Feed Intake Limiters for Beef Cattle). Another option is to mix the grain with broiler litter. Mixing 80% litter and 20% corn for pregnant cows and 70% litter and 30% corn for lactating cows will provide adequate nutrition to the herd. These mixes can be offered free-choice and the cows will generally consume about 30 pounds per day. It is also important to provide the 5 to 6 pounds of forage to the cows. All broiler litter should be deep-stacked and covered for at least 21 days prior to feeding it to ensure that it is safe. For detailed information on the use of broiler litter as a cattle feed please see ANR-557.

Each of the three previous options are compared below. It is important to note that the price comparisons do not include labor and equipment costs associated with each feeding strategy. For these examples I assumed a cost of $60/ton for round bales of hay, $3/bale for square bales (50 pounds), $25/ton for broiler litter and $90/ton for soybean hulls. The length of the feeding period has been established at 140 days. All three examples provide adequate nutrient intake for a lactating cow that will breed back within 80 to 90 days of calving.

Example 1. Free-choice hay plus 7 pounds of soybean hulls per day.

Consume 25 pounds hay/day (round bales) = $105

Supplement 7 pounds soyhulls/day = $44.10

TOTAL = $149.10/cow = $1.06/cow/day

Example 2. Free-choice broiler litter and soyhulls (70:30) + hay.

Consume 30 pounds of litter mix = $93.45

Consume 9 pounds of hay/day = $37.80

TOTAL = $131.25/cow = $0.94/cow/day

Example 3. Limit fed soyhulls and limit fed hay (daily feeding).

Feed 18 pounds soyhulls/day = $113.40

Feed 5 pounds square hay/day = $42.00

TOTAL = $155.40/cow = $1.11/cow/day

As you can see there is very little difference in actual feed costs for feeding unlimited hay and a supplement versus limit feeding the hay and providing larger quantities of the supplement. However, there are substantial differences in daily labor requirements.