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South Central: Be careful when trimming feed and fertilizer costs

Jason Banta for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 June 2022

With the increase in prices and the dry conditions many are experiencing, it is critical to carefully evaluate both feed and fertilizer decisions to minimize costs and get the best return on investment. What may seem like a good deal often is not.

Reducing or eliminating fertilizer applications is one thing many producers are considering. If fertilizer, especially nitrogen fertilizer, has been a regular part of an operation’s forage management plan in the past, it can’t just be eliminated from the program without some adjustments.

The benefit of nitrogen application is to increase forage yield and protein content. When other nutrients (water, phosphorus, potassium, etc.) are not limited, many grass species will produce from 20 to 45 pounds of forage for each additional pound of nitrogen applied. As a reference, a 1,300-pound non-lactating cow would consume about 28 to 30 pounds of hay per day.

If nitrogen fertilizer is reduced, then cow numbers need to be reduced; otherwise feed needs increase drastically even in areas getting rain. Not reducing cow numbers will end up costing more in the long run and will likely result in lower cow body condition, pregnancy rates and weaning weights of calves. Reducing nitrogen fertilizer can be a good strategy if cow numbers are also reduced.

When forages are limited, hay supplies can be stretched with appropriate feeding. Many animal-science extension groups have example diets that could be used in these situations.

For examples from Texas A&M University, go to, click on publications and look for stretching limited hay supplies. This approach can cost $3.50 to $4.50 per day for dry cows with current feed costs, so it is critical to understand costs and consider how long cows will be fed. It is easy to spend more money on feeding cows when forage is limited than can be made back with the next calf or two.

Precipitation Map

Feed selection is critical when stretching limited forage supplies. Feeds should be selected based on their cost per unit of TDN (total digestible nutrients) and protein. Good sources of TDN include whole shelled corn, soybean hulls, corn gluten feed, dry distillers grains (DDG) and some cubes.

Not all cubes are created equal, and names can be misleading. For example, “hay stretcher” and similarly named products are often really poor choices. They generally do not contain enough TDN to do any good and are also the most expensive per unit of TDN.   end mark

Jason Banta
  • Jason Banta

  • Associate Professor and Extension Beef Cattle Specialist
  • Texas A&M University
  • Email Jason Banta