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Ration balancing is like a square dance

Woody Lane, Ph.D., for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 April 2020
Square dancing

All join hands and circle left;
Circle to the left, eight hands around!

A good livestock ration is a lot like a square dance. It has a clean structure, no-nonsense efficiency and, no matter how complicated, it serves its purpose precisely and well. But if the design is flawed – well, you know what a bewildering place a dance floor can be.

First, let’s analyze a typical square dance. To newcomers, the whirling dance may seem like chaos, but there really is logic to those movements. Trust me. Every square dance is built from only a few repeating elements. Each dance contains a basic figure, which includes simple or complex moves. Dancers perform this figure with each other in the square and, when this basic figure ends, the dancers may have come back to their original partner, or they may have temporarily changed partners.

In addition to the basic figure, every good square dance also contains a chorus figure, called a “break.” This break figure is done between repetitions of the basic figure, over and over again, much like the chorus of a song. Sometimes dancers perform the break with their original partner, sometimes they don’t. But when all the dust settles at the end of the dance – for all the thousands of square dances that have been written, some with incredibly complicated figures – the dancers always end up back at their home positions with their original partners, and all is well.

Like the square dance, every good ration is built from only a few basic elements: a base forage, a source of vitamins and minerals, an energy supplement, a protein supplement, water and a carrier for drugs or other feed additives. A nutritionist combines these basic elements in various ways to provide enough energy, protein, vitamins, minerals and water to meet our animals’ needs. Also, like a square dance, a good ration should use its elements economically, with tightly controlled precision. No duplication, no excess nutrients, no unnecessary costs. Excess and duplication cause nutritional problems and hurt the pocketbook.

Yet even with these restrictions, there are nearly endless combinations of ration elements. For example, mineral mixes usually include trace minerals, except when they don’t. Some mineral mixes may also include feed additives and vitamins, but sometimes they don’t. Some supplements contain high levels of both energy and protein, but some supplements are purposefully deficient in protein. Sometimes supplements aren’t even needed. Most rations contain only one forage but, at certain times of the year, good rations may contain two or more different forages.

Allemande left with your left hand …
Back to your partner with a right and left grand.
Hand over hand go ’round that ring,
Meet your partner and promenade!

Let’s examine a ration for a simple situation: mother cows and their calves on a lush ryegrass-clover pasture in western Oregon in mid-April. The land is as green as Ireland, and the clover understory is so thick we’re afraid our animals may bloat.

Our ration contains an obvious base forage: the pasture. Let’s assume, for a minute, that this pasture has enough energy and protein to meet our cows’ needs. The second component of our ration is the block of trace mineralized salt that we’ve put out on the pasture. It contains sodium chloride (white salt) and a complete spectrum of trace minerals. The third ration component is the water in the creek. It contains … well … water and possibly some dissolved trace minerals, but hopefully no runoff herbicides or nitrates.

If our cows need extra energy – for example, for heifers trying to raise large calves – what supplement should we choose? How about a convenient protein block which may also contain additional minerals? I don’t think so. Our base forage in April already contains more than 20% protein, which is enough for these heifers, and we are already feeding minerals.

What about cull peas? No. Peas also contain too much protein. A liquid protein lick? No, we already have enough nitrogen in the forage, and a protein lick would be a very expensive way of supplying molasses. What about some third-cutting alfalfa hay? No, the alfalfa would be a second base forage, which is redundant. Do you think cattle will consume hay while grazing lush pasture? Also, alfalfa doesn’t contain enough energy to do the job.

An answer: Follow the basic principle of KISS – “Keep It Short and Simple” (that’s one definition). Nutritionally, the simplest and most elegant option would be to choose a single source of energy, like corn or barley or oats.

Swing that gent,
And swing that girl,
Everybody swing,
And everybody whirl!

Now the dance moves smoothly, with rhythm.

Why even discuss this topic? Because we sometimes follow feeding strategies that contain duplicate ration elements and then wonder why things go wrong. For example, let’s say we feed a supplement containing grains, salt and some (but not all) minerals. Our cattle will avidly eat that supplement, of course – but will they also consume the trace mineral block in the pasture, at least at the consumption levels we expect? Not a chance because the white salt in the supplement satisfies our animals before they ever get to the trace mineral block in the pasture. What if we depended on that trace mineral block to supply a critical dose of selenium or magnesium or an ionophore feed additive?

The dance moves on. In late May, our Oregon forages change significantly as they rapidly approach maturity. Our simple energy supplement of corn was good in April, but it would be a poor choice in May. The maturing base forage has become low in protein, so therefore the supplement must supply both energy and protein. We’ll need to add cull peas to our corn in a 50-50 mixture to bring the entire supplement up to 16% crude protein.

The dances get more and more intricate …

Bow to your partner, corner too,
Thank the band –
That’s it, you’re through!  end mark

Getty Images.

Woody Lane is a certified forage and grassland professional with AFGC and teaches forage/grazing and nutrition courses in Oregon, with an affiliate appointment with the crop and soil science department at Oregon State. His book, Capturing Sunlight, Book 1: Skills & Ideas for Intensive Grazing, Sustainable Pastures, Healthy Soils, & Grassfed Livestock, is available through Woody Lane.

Woody Lane, Ph.D.
  • Woody Lane, Ph.D.

  • Lane Livestock Services
  • Roseburg, Oregon

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