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How Much Should I Feed My Beef Cattle? Grain Rations for Cattle

Beef cattle operations can be very profitable, but they are also subject to many variables in the market, including the rising and falling costs of both beef and feed. You can be more profitable under these conditions if you ration grain properly and follow smart feeding guidelines. This means ensuring your cattle have all their needs met, with potential options in case market conditions change.

Here's how to make sure your cattle are getting all their nutritional needs met while keeping your costs down.

Cattle Nutrient Requirements

Cow sniffing feed in farmer's hand while cattle eat feed in the background

First, you have to make sure your feed fulfills all your cattle's nutritional requirements. The primary nutritional needs you have to be concerned about are:

  • Calories

  • Fiber

  • Protein

  • Vitamins

  • Minerals

Calories measure the energy stored in food. Cattle need to have enough energy to supply their basic metabolic needs (known as maintenance energy), and enough to help them increase their weight.

You also have to make sure cattle get enough fiber. Cattle are ruminants. Their digestive systems are designed to deal with foods that have a high degree of fiber. Failure to supply them enough fiber can lead to digestive problems.

Weight gain should ideally be mostly in muscle, rather than fat. Protein is an essential building block of muscle tissue. Without enough protein, weight gain may not produce enough quality meat.

Vitamins help your cattle stay healthy and produce quality meat. There are a few vitamins your cattle depend on and that you should monitor their intake of, namely A, D, and E, which they cannot synthesize on their own.

Cattle also need to take in a good balance of minerals to stay healthy and gain weight. The main minerals you should monitor are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and salt.

Feed Composition Sources

In general, your cattle feed will be made up of three different sources: roughage, concentrates, and supplements.

Roughage is relatively low in most nutrients, but high in fiber.

Concentrates provide most of the calories, protein, and other nutrients for your cattle, but are relatively low in fiber. Ideally, your concentrates should also include most of the nutrients your cattle need, but that isn't always the case.

Supplements are food sources added to your cattle's diet specifically to make up for nutritional shortages in your cattle's other feed. The most common supplement is salt, but others include oils, phosphate, and limestone.

Roughage Options

Roughage should make up the bulk of your cattle's feed in volume and weight. The least expensive roughage option is usually forage. Basically, this means that your cattle are pasturing and consuming the plants they find. It's important to make sure you have a good supply of forage, rotate animals regularly, and periodically assess the quality of forage in your pastures.

Other roughage options are hay and silage. These both have their advantages, and which is best for you will likely change with the market and the seasons.

Cattle grazing on forage in a field near a farmhouse at sunset
Cattle grazing on forage in a field

Concentrate Options

Concentrate options are widely variable, but they are almost all derived from grains. Often, cast off grains from other industries -- such as brewer's or distiller's grains -- provide a cost-effective concentrate. These have been depleted of sugars, but retain most of their protein, fiber, and other nutrients.

Corn is the most popular grain used for feeding cattle. However, barley and oats are also very popular.

Field peas and other legumes are also good concentrate options. They are high in protein and contribute to high-quality meat.

How Much You Should Feed Your Cattle

It's time to put some numbers to these generalizations. Of course, this comes with the caveat that you need to monitor the growth and health of your cattle to ensure they are eating properly. However, as a starting point for estimates and budgeting, consider these approximate figures for daily feeding to achieve maximum weight gain:

Several cows eating feed in a line
  • Total digestible nutrients (TDN): 1-2% of body weight

  • Energy: 2 Mcal / 100 lbs body weight

  • Crude protein: 3 lbs per animal

  • Calcium: 0.12 lbs for smaller animals, gradually decreasing to 0.11 lbs for larger animals

  • Phosphorus: 0.06 lbs per animal

While the TDN and calorie intake requirements increase with size, the requirements for protein, calcium, and phosphorus remain stable or decrease as cattle grow. Thus, for smaller animals, protein, calcium, and phosphorus make up a higher proportion of their feed.

Using these figures, you can consider different feed options based on the composition of the feed. As long as you continue to hit these requirements, you can adjust the actual composition of your cattle's diet in response to market and seasonal changes, switching from forage to hay to silage and using different grains as necessary.

Sample Diets

Here are some sample diets to consider for feeding your cattle. These might not be optimal for your situation, but illustrate how you can build diets out of different components.

For a 1100 lb cow per day:

  • 5 lbs alfalfa grass hay

  • 20 lbs barley

  • 2 oz limestone

  • 2 oz 2:1 mineral

  • 1 oz salt

For an 800 lb cow per day:

  • 11 ½ lbs Ground shelled corn

  • ½ lb Soybean meal

  • 6 ½ lbs Corn silage

  • 2 oz limestone

  • 1 oz potassium chloride

  • 1 oz salt

Seasonal Considerations

The above figures assume that animals are in good conditions. However, animals' nutrient requirements change when they become stressed.

Some sources of stress for beef cattle include:

  • Heat

  • Cold

  • Mud

  • Sun

  • Pests

  • Illness

  • Imbalanced and/or unpalatable diet

Close-up view of cow standing in a snowy field

In hot temperatures, animals may eat less, but need more to maintain their weight, which can lead to weight loss. Similarly, cold temperatures can also increase maintenance requirements. Mud makes it hard for animals to walk, increasing their calorie requirements. Sun, pests, and illness all require additional bodily resources, which means more feed for less weight gain.

To help animals maintain weight gain, try to remove stress whenever possible. Provide reasonable shelter against heat, sun, and cold. Try to condition areas where animals frequent to reduce mud. Protect against pests and vaccinate against illness. Make sure animal diets are balanced and are desirable to your animals. This may include processing grains. A roller mill provides a good way to break grains for easy digestion without producing significant levels of dust that are wasted and can lead to digestive problems.

When you cannot eliminate stresses, compensate with additional food. Stressed animals may require more than 20% more protein than unstressed animals, and about 15% more calories.

Other nutrient requirements also increase, with many doubling. Check individual nutrients to determine whether you need to add seasonal supplements or change the balance between concentrates and roughage.

Having a Roller Mill Makes Your Operation More Flexible

When you are designing the optimal diet for your cattle, you have many factors to balance. Having a roller mill can help you keep the balance in your favor. You can buy less expensive and more stable whole grains and mill them yourself to be more digestible and less likely to cause problems.

At Automatic Equipment Manufacturing, we have nearly a century's experience helping farmers efficiently grow their cattle. Whether you have a huge feedlot in need of a high capacity mill or just a few hundred cows, our mills can help improve the efficiency and profitability of your operation.

To learn more, please contact Automatic Equipment Manufacturing today.

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