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Southeast: Forage intake in beef cattle

Kim Mullenix for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 January 2022

Forage intake potential plays a key role in supporting cow-calf animal performance. Three factors that affect forage intake are forage quality, animal weight and stage of production of the animal.

The amount of any forage that cattle consume is determined by the stage of production of the animal and by the dry matter content of the forage. Young growing cattle will consume an average of 3% of their bodyweight per day on a dry matter basis. This means a 700-pound steer will consume about 21 pounds of dry forage per day. Mature cattle will consume about 2.2% to 2.5% of their bodyweight per day on a dry matter basis.

Low-quality forages may have relatively poor intake characteristics and can limit intake potential to as low as 1.5% of animal bodyweight per day. Average to high-quality forages generally support intake levels of 2% or greater. These levels of intake align more closely with animal needs for various stages of production and can help meet the majority of animal nutritional needs with low to moderate levels of feed supplementation.

Forage intake levels are often described by animal scientists on a dry matter basis. In reality, hay is fed to cattle on an “as-fed” basis, or the measure of the hay dry matter plus the moisture content. How do we correct for this to know how much hay to feed? As an example, an 1,100-pound cow that is lactating and being fed a low-quality forage should eat about 2% of her bodyweight per day, or about 22 pounds of dry matter. If the hay is 89% dry matter, she will consume about 25 pounds of hay (22 pounds/0.89 = 24.7 pounds) on an as-fed basis. This provides a way to help estimate hay needs on a herd basis. Note that this does not include wasted hay, which can be substantial under some circumstances.

Quick facts on forage intake in cooler weather

  • The higher the quality of forage, the greater intake potential.

  • In colder weather, forage intake generally increases as animal maintenance requirements increase. Cattle use energy to help maintain basic functions and energy needs for maintenance increase under cool conditions – and especially cold, wet conditions.

  • Water intake is decreased in the winter months compared to other times of the year. Water is important for digestion and moving forage through the digestive process. Low water intake and low forage quality can sometimes lead to nutritional problems.  end mark
Kim Mullenix
  • Kim Mullenix

  • Extension Beef Specialist/Associate Professor
  • Auburn University
  • Email Kim Mullenix

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