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Lowering winter beef cow feed costs

There are opportunities to decrease the highest expense on beef farms

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Katie Wood, assistant professor in ruminant nutrition and physiology at the University of Guelph recently offered five tips to lower winter feeding costs in beef herds.

Speaking at the Ontario Beef Symposium at the University of Guelph on Jan. 18, Wood outlined the key steps:

  • Test feed;
  • Optimize alternative feeds;
  • Know the herd’s body condition scores and sort accordingly;
  • Be smart with timing when changing feed;
  • Add supplements and concentrates strategically.

Why it matters: Feed is one of the highest on-farm expenses. Decreasing those costs means increased potential profit margins for producers.

It’s important to test feed to gain a good understanding of what you are starting with, Wood says.

Katie Wood.
photo: Jennifer Glenney

“Nutrient concentration of that feed can vary drastically. You can’t tell by looking at it which is lower or higher in protein.”

Producers should sample 15 to 20 bales, store the samples in sealable plastic bags and if the samples are wet, freeze them. Then mail them to a feed testing laboratory.

Protein and energy are the two most important components to test for.

“If you are sampling annual forage, it might be a good idea to check for nitrates, certainly nitrate poisoning can be an issue.”

When interpreting feed analysis, there are some general guidelines.

Looking at crude protein, eight to 11 per cent is ideal, with eight per cent crude protein (CP) for early gestation, nine per cent CP for late gestation and 11 per cent CP for lactating animals.

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Looking at total digestible nutrients (TDN) to measure energy, 55, 60 and 65 are ideal — 55 per cent TDN for early gestation, 60 per cent for late gestation and 65 per cent for lactating cows when it is in short supply.

“Ideally, you are working with a nutritionist to discuss challenges on your operation and coming up with a winter feed program that matches your specific requirements.”

When looking at feed requirements for winter months, its important to know how much cattle consume.

When feeding low quality feed, such as straw, cattle can eat only about 1.5 per cent of their body weight.

In higher quality forages, such as hay or alfalfa, cattle can eat about 2.5 per cent of their body weight.

Alternative feeds

Producers have numerous options when choosing alternative feed types.

Wood completed a study comparing corn stalks and wheat straw alternatives within a total mixed ration (TMR) to a control group of cows getting straight haylage.

The research found that the wheat straw was the most efficient. As well, this ration weaned the heaviest calves and had the greatest milk production.

Crop residues can be fed either within the TMR or alternating in the TMR — fed independently once a day or every other day.

“It’s important to watch out for impaction. The rumen is working hard to digest some of those high levels of fibre. It can shut down without having enough energy for rumen bugs — added protein is beneficial.”

Extended grazing in corn residue or whole corn is another option. Both come with warnings of acidosis and producers must ensure enough feed is available for the cattle.

Body condition score and sorting

The ideal body condition score is 2.5 to three.

It’s best to split cattle into two to three groups: special needs cows and mature cows in good shape.

Special needs cows include:

  • Those that require added nutrition management;
  • Heifers and two-year-old animals;
  • Thin cows and old cows.

“(Body condition scoring) is something simple to do, doesn’t cost money and can make a huge impact on management,” says Wood.

Timing important

When changing feed, producers must ensure they are doing it during the proper growth stage. If not, it can have an impact on growing fetuses, future reproduction and milk yield.

“If we are too tough on these cows, they will not have any reserves to dedicate to reproduction or milk yield once they calve, and the calf will suffer in the next year.”

Cattle need to be in ideal body conditions 60 to 90 days before calving.

“Within the last 60 days (of gestation) the increase in the (weight of the fetus) is exceptional. A lot of energy and protein requirements that the cows need are directed towards that fetus.”

Body condition scoring in the fall allows producers two to three months to correct issues before calving.

As calves are weaned, the energy requirements for lactation disappear. It is the ideal time to implement alternative feeding strategies as producers are least likely to impact fetal growth, reproduction and calf production.

Adding supplements

When forage supplies are limited, grains or byproducts can be added to meet nutrient requirements.

“As we introduce higher levels of energy, it will also help to curb some of the cow’s appetite and she will need a little less feed.”

If feeding corn, approximately one pound of corn replaces two to three pounds of hay for every 100 pounds of body weight.

Distillers grain is another option as it is high in protein and energy, although it is important.

Although it’s important to watch the sulphur levels and ensure cows don’t end up with polio symptoms.

“Pay attention and talk to distiller suppliers. Full fat distillers have more energy in that feed than the modified distiller grains,” Wood says.

About the author


Jennifer Glenney

Jennifer lives on a farm in Cayuga, Ontario and has a lot of experience in the many aspects of agriculture.



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