Current Progressive Cattle digital edition

Helpful strategies for deciding when to supplement

Robert Fears Published on 23 July 2012

Feed is a significant portion of annual production costs in a cow-calf operation.

These high costs make a supplement strategy with price control guidelines an important part of the management plan.

Dumping supplements into a trailer for transport

Strategy 1: Reduce supplement requirements with grazing

Feed costs are reduced substantially by proper range and pasture management. The first objective in a supplement strategy should be to reduce or eliminate supplement needs with a good year-round pasture program.

“Typical warm-season pastures in the central Texas area contain hybrid bermudas (Coastal, Jiggs or Tifton 85), Kleingrass or native grasses,” says Dwight Sexton, county extension agent with Texas AgriLife Extension in Gonzales County.

“Our cool-season pastures normally contain oats, wheat or ryegrass with annual medics and clovers.”

“Typical warm-season pastures in Louisiana are common bermuda, Pensacola bahia and hybrid bermudas that include Jiggs, Alysia and Russell,” says Ed Twidell, pasture and forage specialist at Louisiana State University.

“A common practice is overseeding annual ryegrass into warm-season pastures around mid-October.”

As with any grazing system, year-round forage production will not be successful if proper stocking rates are not maintained.

Overstocking pastures is probably the biggest malpractice in the cattle business. Closer observation when driving a highway will routinely show a number of pastures grazed into the ground.

Overstocking is like keeping a zero balance in a savings account; it is hard to earn interest when there is no money in the account.

The same principle applies in grazing forages. Leaves of plants manufacture carbohydrates from sunlight.

They use a portion of the carbohydrates for immediate growth and store the rest in their roots. The carbohydrate storage is used to regenerate growth following a plant’s dormancy period.

If the plant’s leaves are totally removed by grazing, carbohydrates are not manufactured to support re-growth. A general rule of thumb is to adjust stocking rates where 50 percent of the plant is eaten and 50 percent is left to manufacture food for recovery.

Strategy 2: Feed supplements only when needed

It is important to recognize situations where supplements are needed and only feed during these periods.

Stephen Hammack and Ronald Gill explain six critical factors that affect supplementation needs in Texas AgriLife Extension Bulletin L-5354. The following paragraphs are taken from this publication:

The amount of available forage obviously affects the need for supplemental feed. If grazing or hay will be limited, take immediate action.

Reduce animal numbers in order to lessen supplemental feeding needs for the remaining cows. As forage supply declines, opportunity for animals to selectively graze decreases and so does diet quality. Supplementation may become necessary even if animal numbers are reduced.

Nutritional value of available forage determines if nutrients need to be supplemented in the diet. During most of the year, warm-season forages are likely to be deficient in some minerals, especially phosphorus and certain trace elements like copper and zinc.

In most situations, supplementation should include at least a year-round provision of salt and a mineral with 8 to 12 percent phosphorus and a similar level of calcium.

Vitamin A, usually low in dry or weathered forages, should be injected or fed in mineral or other supplements if it is suspected to be deficient.

Mineral and vitamin supplementation should be high priority because deficiencies can be corrected for relatively little cost.

After addressing mineral and vitamin needs, protein and energy deficiencies must be considered. Forage protein and energy vary seasonally.

Warm-season forage typically becomes deficient in protein in mid-summer and again in winter. Forage lacks adequate energy content primarily in winter but energy available to the animal is restricted more often by a limited supply of forage rather than by deficiencies in plant composition.

Animal body condition (amount of fat) affects supplemental requirements. Low body condition markedly increases need for supplemental nutrients and meeting such needs is often cost- prohibitive.

Moderate body condition significantly reduces or eliminates supplement needs. Fleshy cows generally need little if any supplement and the daily forage requirement is often reduced.

Potential for forage consumption is related to body size, so larger animals may not require more supplement than smaller ones.

Adjustments in stocking rate, to allow adequate amounts of forage per cow, may offset differences in size but will increase the cost per cow. If forage is sparse or limited, larger cows require proportionately more supplement.

Higher-milking cows can consume somewhat more forage but not enough to completely satisfy extra needs. When forage quality is inadequate, higher-milking cows need more supplement.

From 50 to 100 percent more supplements may be required for high versus low milk production in cows of the same body size.

Young animals are still growing and require extra nutrients but their body size is not as large as mature animals.

Because of their smaller body size, growing heifers cannot consume as much forage as mature cows. For these reasons, young females require higher-quality diets than mature cows and often require more and different supplements.

Strategy 3: Consider bulk feeding

Often money can be saved by buying feed in bulk. Russ Gentry of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation reported in 2001 that $20 per ton could be saved at that time.

The disadvantage of bulk feeds is that storage, handling equipment and suitable feeders are required. If you are not set up to handle bulk materials, required capital purchases may cost more than the savings on feed.

Transportation costs can also make bulk feed uneconomical, so explore the various alternatives before making a purchase.

Know which nutrients you need to supplement and then compare feed costs on content such as pounds of CP or TDN for the actual value. Robert Barrett, nutritionist at Producers Cooperative Association in Bryan, Texas recently discussed the following feed options:

  • Cottonseed hulls are readily available in cotton-growing areas following good harvests. They are very low in crude protein, phosphorus and calcium but they are highly palatable to cattle and serve as good roughage.
  • Soybean hulls have good nutrient values with 75 percent TDN and 14 percent crude protein. As a comparison, cottonseed hulls have about 42 percent TDN and four to five percent CP.
  • Rice hulls have a low feeding value but rice bran contains 60 percent TDN and 12 percent CP. Disadvantages of feeding rice bran are that the material is rather bulky and it can easily become rancid due to its high unsaturated fat content.
  • Availability of peanut hulls is good if you are located near a shelling plant. They are high in fiber and very low in energy and protein. Peanut hulls are extremely bulky and hard to handle.
  • Alfalfa is fed in some areas and contains from 52 to 65 percent TDN and from 14 to 22 percent CP.
  • Grains such as corn and milo are also commonly fed as an energy source. Small amounts are beneficial but large quantities may be detrimental due to digestive upsets and acidosis.
  • Common protein sources are cottonseed meal that provides high fiber and phosphorus levels and soybean meal that supplies a high-quality blend of amino acids.
  • Other sources of protein are sunflower meal and peanut meal. Sunflower meal is of poor protein quality and has palatability issues. Quality of peanut meal varies.
  • “Breeder/range cubes are a popular supplement and are most commonly 20 percent CP,” says Gill. “They are also found as 30 to 32 percent products. These feeds are designed to provide a combination of protein and energy.”

Ranches are usually more  efficient when operated from a plan,  and feed supplementation is no exception.  end_mark


Supplements are advised in midsummer when warm-season forage becomes less deficient in protein. Photo courtesy of Progressive Cattleman staff.