Providing cattle balanced rations for improved production

To say it’s slim picking in pastures currently may be a bit of an understatement. As winter wanes but spring remains elusive, producers may be hard-pressed to ensure their cattle are receiving all the nutrients required to thrive and raise calves. If cattle are falling behind in their body condition, then it’s time to assess their nutritional program and make some changes.

Evaluate Forage and Feedstuffs: The only way for producers to figure out where their nutritional program is falling short is to know what they are feeding. “It’s not an exact science, but the first place to start is to have your hay tested,” Ken Coffey, Ph.D., professor of animal science at the University of Arkansas, said. 

Extension offices have hay sampling probes on hand to loan to producers. Many of the probes can be placed on a cordless drill and inserted in round bales to get adequate core samples. There are numerous labs to send the hay sample for testing. 

Hay sample results will allow producers to understand what is lacking in their forage. Coffey recommends producers utilize the information from the hay tests by entering it into a computer program that takes the results from the hay tests and then compiles what additional nutrients the herd will need. 

Extension offices and university agriculture departments offer the ration balancing programs. The programs typically use spreadsheets to detail what feedstuffs need to be included in a herd’s daily ration. Many of the programs are designed to ensure cattle are getting proper nutrients for their particular stage of production. “That’s the place to start – is getting your hay analysis and you can plug that directly into the program and use that and balance it with other feedstuffs,” Coffey said. 

Supplementing Poor Forage: There are many alternatives available to producers looking for feedstuffs to make up the nutritional deficits in their hay. “Today we have lots of options for feed besides grain,” Coffey explained. “Corn is a great energy source, but it is low in protein. We have some byproduct feeds like distillers grains, corn gluten feed, soybean hulls, and wheat middlings that are good energy sources.”

Livestock specialists recommend producers consider the cost and viability of supplementing their herds with feed byproducts. While some byproduct feeds that are high in protein can be pricey, there are other byproduct feeds that are more economical. Byproducts like wheat middlings, distillers grains, and corn gluten contain adequate protein but not as high of a price tag. “Another advantage is in those feedstuffs the energy is coming from digestible fiber and so it complements a high forage diet much better than corn does,” Coffey explained. 

Many co-ops will offer a ration that is a blend of feed byproducts. For example, a five-way blend of distillers grains, cracked corn, soybean hulls, corn gluten, and wheat middlings create a balanced ration. Livestock specialists recommend a blend in most cases to offset the extremes in the individual byproducts. 

When to Take Action: Livestock specialists recommend producers regularly conduct a visual appraisal of their animals. If the animal’s body condition score (BCS) falls below a five or six, it’s time to take action and feed additional feedstuffs. “If you look at your animals and you are seeing their ribs and seeing their body condition go down, then it is likely they are just not eating enough of your hay, and you need to come in with a supplement of some of these byproduct feeds,” Coffey stated. 


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