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Reducing supplemental feeding frequency: Can it be done?

Kim Mullenix for Progressive Cattleman Published on 20 September 2018

As summer forage quantity and quality declines in the early fall, many cattle producers begin to think about supplementation options in their operation. This is especially the case for fall-calving systems, as herd nutrient needs increase prior to and just after calving.

Labor is a big consideration when providing supplemental feeds. Reduced feeding frequency saves time, fuel and equipment wear. While the benefits from a resource standpoint are easily seen, one question remains: Can frequency of supplementation be reduced without negatively impacting animal performance in my herd?

Research suggests this depends largely on the type of supplemental feed used. While feeds like whole cottonseed tend to be more self-limiting due to fat concentration, a study in Georgia noted that mature, moderate-sized cows often consume between 10 to 12 pounds of whole cottonseed per head per day. The authors noted that this quantity of feed consumption and use might become cost prohibitive, although labor needs of supplementation were reduced and animals maintained good condition during the feeding season. The use of a fiber-based byproduct feed mixture, such as soybean hulls and corn gluten feed, fed every other day did not reduce animal performance in a backgrounding study with weaned beef calves, which demonstrates this strategy might be a feasible management tool in this system.

Although forage dry matter intake was reduced in this study, overall diet digestibility was improved with alternate day supplementation of this mixture, and animal performance goals were maintained. A recent study at Auburn University compared the use of grazed winter annuals, free-choice whole cottonseed and hay, or 50 percent soybean hulls and 50 percent corn gluten feed, fed on alternate days (at 1 percent of animal bodyweight), and free-choice hay as reduced labor systems for supporting fall-calving cows. Cows in each treatment group maintained a body condition score of 6 during the 90-day winter-feeding period, and calf average daily gain ranged from 2.5 to 3.3 pounds per day during the trail. A second year of this project will be conducted in the coming winter, and an economic analysis will be developed to better understand the impacts of these strategies on winter carrying costs.

Research results suggest reducing supplemental feeding frequency is possible in many situations, but hinges on a few key points. First, make sure forage quantity and quality is not limiting in a reduced-frequency feeding situation. Most trials evaluating these methods used at least mid-quality hay (greater than 52 percent total digestible nutrients and 8 percent crude protein) or had access to grazed forage. Second, infrequent feeding of more starch-based energy feeds is generally not recommended. Alternate day feeding strategies with more potential are generally either more fiber-based energy feeds or high-protein supplements. Finally, producers must make sure supplemental feed and forage provisions are formulated to meet changing animal nutrient needs. Reduced labor options are only successful if these strategies are delivered in a way to still meet animal demands.  end mark

Kim Mullenix
  • Kim Mullenix

  • Assistant Professor/Extension Specialist
  • Auburn University
  • Email Kim Mullenix