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What to ask the nutritionist formulating feed for your calves

Tara L. Felix for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 September 2018

As an extension specialist and a nutritionist, I get a couple calls a week from folks who ask, “Hey Doc, will you throw together a ration for me?”

Sure, I could; however, one of the greatest benefits of hiring a nutritionist is the opportunity to question someone intricately familiar with your operation. Here are some of the questions you may want to ask your nutritionist.

1. Can you explain a feed analysis to me?

Feed analyses are the first thing I want whenever someone asks me a question about their herd. Your nutritionist should provide you with regular analyses of your ingredients. While it is the nutritionist’s job to make sure your diet meets the needs of your growing cattle, being able to understand your feed ingredient analysis will help make you a better manager.

For example, an analysis of corn silage or hay can often tell you how good of a job you, or your supplier, did with harvest.

2. How frequently will you analyze my feeds?

Your nutritionist’s answer to this one may, and should, change depending on the feed ingredient. For example, stored dry corn will have analyzed values that vary only slightly over several months. However, wet ingredients, like corn silage or byproducts, will differ considerably week to week.

Along with this question should be a conversation with your nutritionist about how the analyses will be used to alter your ration, how quickly you move through commodities and how that affects diet adjustments. More frequent analysis of inconsistent ingredients ensures your ration remains properly formulated.

3. How will I transition the cattle from their current ration to this one?

For growing beef cattle, subtle changes (10 percent of the dry matter here and there) will not require transition. However, if you are trying to take advantage of spot markets on certain commodities or byproducts, you may have larger swings in the diet. These swings require transitions so that cattle continue eating.

4. How much of this diet should I feed in a ration?

To ask this question, you must know how much you are delivering to each pen. This is a crucial, and too often overlooked, facet of cattle feeding. Similarly, it is important to have an idea of what those calves should be consuming.

If your cattle consume more or less than predicted, it may be an indication of sickness or an indicator you are heading toward a train wreck. Work with your nutritionist to understand how much feed your cattle should be eating.

5. Can we cut feed costs by using other ingredients?

Cost is the major driver behind our decisions to remain profitable, or just to remain, in the beef industry. Feed costs represent 60 to 70 percent of the input costs on most beef cattle operations.

Your nutritionist should work with you to formulate a least-cost ration for your growing cattle. If you are harvesting your own feeds, make sure you know how much it costs you to produce those feeds – because you need to know if it pays more to sell your corn and purchase byproducts.

6. Can you do additional analyses of my forages to be sure our inclusion rates are optimal?

One thing we do not discuss frequently in the beef cattle industry is forage, partly because it is such a small proportion of our diets. However, forage can provide additional benefits to the ration outside of just the rumen’s requirement for scratch factor.

Have your nutritionist look at your forages to determine if increasing particle size could be advantageous in your operation or if you should feed forages that provide more protein to decrease your purchased protein costs.

7. Is the mineral and/or vitamin supplement we’re using the best option for feeder calves?

All too often I see mineral labels stating simply “beef minerals.” This generalization leads producers to assume minerals are one-size-fits-all. In fact, forage-fed cattle and grain-fed cattle have very different needs for mineral nutrition. In addition, growing cattle have different mineral requirements than mature cattle. There are minerals, like copper and zinc, that can be added to growing cattle rations to aid in mounting immune responses.

There is a growing body of research on increasing certain minerals toward the end of feeding, prior to slaughter, to improve energy use as well. Research has shown that for marbling potential, vitamin A requirements may be less than what is dictated by the Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle (NRC). Your nutritionist should help you optimize a mineral package for your cattle.

8. Is my nutritional program conducive to enhancing technologies I’m using or would like to use?

This one I’ll keep simple. There is a body of research demonstrating the benefit of added protein when swine are fed beta-agonists. While this is not supported in the literature for beef cattle, asking more of the cattle, by using implants or beta-agonists, does require adequate energy supplies.

If you are implanting cattle but feeding predominantly hay, do not expect them to respond as well to the implant as cattle fed more energy- or grain-based diets.

9. What is the predicted growth of the cattle consuming this ration?

Predicting growth is fairly straightforward in beef cattle and despite relying on “old equations,” still rather accurate. If your ration from your nutritionist predicts that cattle should be gaining 3.2 pounds per day and they are gaining 2 … keep reading to the next question.

10. What suggestions do you have to improve my management of nutrition on the farm?

One of the hardest things to do is open ourselves up to criticism from someone else. However, it can be one of the best ways to better our operation. All too often, we lack the ability to realize areas where we could improve simply because we see the same things every day.

With a fresh set of eyes, your nutritionist can help you reach your goals for average daily gain, days on feed and ultimately, the profitability of your operation.

Remember, it is the nutritionist’s job to ensure that the diet the computer says will meet your goals actually works in your system. Hire someone who is willing to get to know you, your operation and your cattle. The benefits of a good nutritionist will pay dividends. end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

Tara L. Felix
  • Tara L. Felix

  • Beef Specialist
  • Penn State Extension
  • Email Tara L. Felix