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wikiHow to Feed Cattle

Five Parts:Assessing Your CattleAssess Your Operation & Its Environmental ConditionsAssessing Feeds AvailableGeneral Feed Ration Creation Considerations for Your CattleHow to Feed Your Cattle After Completing Assessments & Ration Creation

We all like to believe that the entire concept of how to feed cattle is as simple as just putting some hay in front of them. Yet the unfortunate reality is that it involves so much more than that. We really need to inquire about what feed can be fed, what cattle are being fed, how much can be fed to those cattle, and how that feed is going to affect their health and productivity. To make it that much more complicated, often several types feeds need to be supplied in order to meet the full nutritional needs of the animals. So much for just putting some hay in front of a cow!

To meet the full nutritional needs of a herd of cattle involves some knowledge of ruminant nutrition and forage quality, as well as diet or ration formulation. Those inquiries mentioned above all need to be incorporated in order for a particular ration to be effective. This means assessing your cattle (what are their nutritional requirements?) and assessing the available feeds (what is the feed quality in terms of nutritional composition?) before compiling all that information together to come up with a ration worth its weight in animal productivity.

In a nutshell, how to feed cattle means first assessing your cattle, assessing the available feeds, then come up with a ration suitable for your animals. This article is not going to provide a list of feeds to feed to your cattle, nor is it going to provide the answer to how you should go about providing such feeds to your animals. Rather it is designed to help you gain an understanding and give you a boost in the right direction in order for you to make better nutritional management decisions for the betterment of your cattle.

Part 1
Assessing Your Cattle

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    Study your animals and the environment they're in. You should not only already know what kind or type of cattle you have (beef or dairy, cows or steers, etc.) but also the climatic conditions which they are living in that will affect how much they eat and what their nutritional demands will be.
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    Know the productivity status of your cattle. Cattle are divided into different classes and types, based on intended production (growth, lactation, reproduction), age, gender, weight, breed[s], body condition score (level of fatness), how much weight they need to gain or lose on a daily basis, and even intended slaughter weight. Within these animal types, listed below, are other pieces of information to present when formulating a ration.
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      Lactating cows: Period of lactation (how long they have been producing milk), number of lactations (or how many times, per production cycle, has a cow produced milk in her life), how much milk she is production (in weight, not volume), pregnancy status (is she bred, and if so how far along), and expected birth weight.
    • Dry (non-lactating) cows: Generally whether a non-lactating cow is bred or not is of significant importance. If she is bred, like with lactating cows, the question that comes is how many months is she pregnant.
    • Bred heifers: Same information is required as for dry cows.
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      Feeders and Replacements: Age, gender/sex, and desired average daily gain (ADG) is really important for this cattle type. Also important to note are if ionophores are needing to be fed, if the animals have received implants, if MGA is being fed (applicable to heifers only), targeted slaughter weight (or mature weight for replacement heifers and bulls), and targeted grade, marbling and yield at slaughter.
    • Herd bulls: All information already mentioned, minus that for lactation, pregnancy and carcass evaluation, is needed.
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    Understand the physical characteristics that will determine nutritional requirements. Mentioned above were different animal types and the various characteristics and factors that set them apart. These, and other characteristics determine whether an animal (or a select group) will have high (or low) requirement for nutrients based on how much they are expected to consume per day and thus grow, gain, lose or maintain in muscle mass or body condition.
    • Body weight. Probably the most important question to know the answer to in asking just how to feed cattle (and how much) is how much do your animals weigh? It makes no difference if the weight is in pounds or kilograms.
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      Sex or gender. From a nutritional aspect, gender plays a very minor role in the differences of nutritional requirements. Studies have shown that nutritional requirements between heifers and steers or heifers and bulls (or cows and bulls) are not statistically different, rather that differences in gender only affect growth rates (also to a minor extent) and how nutrients are allocated to bodily tissues: either as muscle or fat. For example, if growth rate between a group of steers and heifers was the same, and they were fed the same ration, the heifers would be more likely to lay down more fat than steers will.[1]
      • The only concern with gender is the actual diet formulating, especially when it comes to cows. Females, especially mature cows, are probably the most difficult to formulate for because they have different requirements that are associated with where they are in their reproductive cycle (i.e., how many months into pregnancy they are, or how far along in their lactation cycle they are).
        • Heifers can be difficult too because of their growth requirements and, if they are pregnant or producing milk for a calf, the reproductive strain it puts on their bodies. Cattle don't stop growing until they are around 3 or 4 years old (depending on breeding), and a heifer that is pregnant at 18 months old (bred at 15 months), or suckling a calf or producing milk as a young dairy cow at 26 months old (calved at 24 months), is going to need careful consideration surrounding what the best diet she can be fed without putting too much fat on her while at the same time giving her sufficient energy to produce milk and to grow.
    • Reproductive Ability: This is not nearly so important in bulls and steers as it is in cows and heifers, however bulls have nutritional requirements that surround and affect their breeding ability and fertility. With females though, both timing in the gestation and lactation period will determine where cows and heifers are in nutritional requirements.
      • Gestation and Lactation. Since the average length of gestation is 285 days or about 9.5 months, three stages of pregnancy are apparent: first, second, and third trimester. Also, a cow is most likely also lactating during her pregnancy. Dairy cows lactate for a full 10 months, beef cows may be lactating (suckling a calf) for 6, 8 or even 10 months after calving. Females are usually bred back 2 to 3 months after they have calved. Because these dates and times coincide so closely together, nutrient requirements are mainly affected by whether the cow is in fact lactating, versus in pregnancy.
        • Nutritional requirements with gestation/pregnancy alone do not begin to increase until a cow is in her last trimester (last three months of pregnancy). Her nutritional requirements continue to climb after she has given birth.
          • Requirements of the heavy-pregnant cow increase because the fetus in her is growing and needing more energy and protein to grow. Careful consideration needs to be made with either essential, and often limiting, nutrients because of the fear of cows having problems giving birth (dystocia). However, note that there is some data correlating with how genetics for calf size at birth (in terms of birth weight) is more determined by the genetics of the bull, very little by the dam.[2][3]
        • Once a cow has given birth, she begins to suckle a calf (beef cows), or lactate to be put as part of the milking cow herd (dairy cows). Both types of cows will experience a climb of nutritional requirements until they reach 2 months after calving (some won't reach the peak until 3 months after calving). Nutritional requirements emphasize need for more energy, protein, calcium, phosphorus, and other vitamins and minerals. And since a lactating cow is producing milk for either her calf or for all those cow-milk-hungry humans out there, she also needs more water. This is also the point in time where a cow is re-bred via natural service (bull) or artificial insemination (AI).
        • After she has passed the 2- or 3-month lactation and re-breed mark, nutritive requirements decrease along with milk production. By the time the beef cow weans her calf at usually 6 or 8 months post-calving (she should be into her second trimester by then), her nutrient requirements dip significantly until she begins her third trimester again. Dairy cows' nutritional requirements decrease less dramatically because they are not "dried off" (milk production is slowed to nothing by stopping regular twice-per-day milking) until they have reached 10 months post-calving and are a third of the way into their last trimester.
        • All of these timings of gestation and lactation are why it is important to keep records on your animals. The better records you keep on calving, breeding, lactating, and weaning (the latter especially for beef herds), the more accurate you can get with keeping on top of a healthy ration for your cows and heifers.
      • Considering Replacement and Bred Heifers. As mentioned above, heifers need a little more attention because they are still growing, replacing their baby-calf teeth, and also are feeling the strain with becoming new mothers for the first time (or new to the milking dairy herd). Their nutritional requirements with regards to gestation and lactation are no different from the mature cows. However, energy supplied must be limited so that they are not putting on too much fat which will compromise milking ability and calving ease later in life. Fat deposits in the udder hinder proper mammary tissue growth and maturity, and too much fat in the birth canal make it more difficult for heifers to push out a calf. Heifers must be fed to encourage growth and some fat deposition so they are in good condition when it's time for them to give birth.
      • Cull Cows/Heifers. Cows and heifers can be culled regardless if they are pregnant or not, or have a calf at side or not, and as mentioned in the How to Cull Cattle article, are culled for a variety of reasons. Cull cows can be marketed as open (not pregnant), bred (pregnant), or even bred with calf at side (three-in-one). Feeding requirements for cull females are no different than if they were a part of the breeding herd. They may be destined for slaughter, but nutrition shouldn't be compromised or considered a "specialty" just because they're suddenly culls. However, feed requirements do regard serious consideration when their body condition is under par. Feeding according to body condition score will be covered later in this section.
      • Herd Bulls. Fertility of the bull is of serious importance in regards to nutrition and feeding. Since the bull-to-cow ratio is high (1:25 to 1:50), fertility of bulls is much more imperative than for cows because of how important it is, ideally and especially for beef cow-calf herds, to have every cow bred and give birth to a live, healthy calf. Body condition of the bull plays a large part, because there's nothing worse than having a bull that is too thin to breed all the cows (not enough energy to service every opportune estrogen-hyped cow in a short period of time), or to fat to try to mount any (too much condition impairs both sperm production and even libido of the bull himself). Bulls often come out of the breeding season thinner than when they went in, so the time they have to rest up is the best opportunity to feed them up so that they gain back what they lost chasing after all those enamoured cows.
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    • Feeding for Slaughter. Feeding cattle for slaughter comprises of two groups of cattle: those that are backgrounded, and those that are finished.
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        Backgrounding/Stocker Cattle: Heifers and steers that are being "backgrounded" or "stockered" are those that have just been weaned and are being raised on a forage-dominant ration, plus pasture (possibly), for six to 12 months. The reason for this phase is so that the calves can focus on developing bone, building muscle, and growing in frame rather than becoming literal butter-balls like if they were fed a high-energy, high-grain diet. Carcass quality is considered "good" if the carcass doesn't contain a lot of external fat to trim off and too much marbling or intramuscular fat. Packers prefer meat that is relatively lean, does not have a lot of extra-muscular fat to trim, and moderate marbling. All this is affected by how beef calves are fed before they are finished. The better quality forage they get that contains sufficient energy and optimum protein, calcium, phosphorus, and trace minerals needed for their health and growth, the better they will grow and look when they transition to the feedlot or "finishing" phase.
      • Feeder/Finisher Cattle. Time to reach a finishing weight and/or body condition is generally four to six months, depending on the breed. This is especially true with cattle fed in a commercial feedlot or drylot. When finished on grass, finisher cattle will take longer to reach a decent size, weight and condition score to be slaughtered for beef. Where grain-finished cattle are sent to the packers when they are from 18 to 24 months of age, forage-, pasture- or grass-finished cattle won't get the cap-bolt gun until they're 30 to 36 months of age. Between that time and entry into this finishing phase, energy and protein requirements aren't as important as the target weight, average daily gain, and body condition that are needed to be achieved in the given amount of time.
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    • Body condition score (BCS). Body condition scoring is judging the level of fat the animal is carrying. As described in the linked article previously, condition scoring is done by looking and/or feeling the latter half of the animal, from the ribs to the pelvic region. The lower the score, the thinner the animal. In the Canadian system, the score goes only up to 5 (1 to 5 scoring). In the American System, it goes from 1 to 9.
      • Lower scoring animals in your herd mean that you will need to compensate and adjust what you're feeding so that those animals can gain weight. Thinner animals tend to have higher requirements for nutrients than those that have a moderate score or higher. This can translate into higher consumption levels. This also means that you need to invest more in higher-quality feed to bring those animals up to a desired body condition by a certain amount of time (calving, breeding, or even as meat cattle for sale).
      • It's different with fatter or moderate-framed cattle. With these, you have to manage feed so that they're either maintaining their weight, or losing some of it. It's actually easier to make a cow lose weight than for her to gain it, economically and metabolically speaking, which will be explained in more detail in the section on ration creation below.
      • Body condition score is an especially good indicator of where particular individual cattle may be in the pecking order. Thinner cows may be the hard-keeper cows that need more energy and protein than the rest of the herd, but they may actually be those that are being bossed around too much and can't get the nutrients that they need for themselves. The fatter cows, too, may either the bossy cows or the easy keepers or both.
        • Cattle on the lower end of the pecking order tend to be less competitive for food than those that are considered the "boss" animals: The bigger bulls, bigger/stronger cows, more robust animals, etc. The "bossy" or "bully" cattle tend to come in when the weaker ones try to get at the feeder first to get what they can, and push those weaker cattle out so they can eat what they like until they are full. The lower-pecking-order cattle don't get what the need themselves, so become thinner than the bossier cattle. Separating the two groups into different pens can help remediate this. Or, spreading feeding stations around may also help because it gives those lower down in the pecking order a chance to get what they need with lowered competition from the bovine bossies in the herd.
    • Desired average daily gain (ADG): How much weight an animal, no matter the class or type, is expected to gain or even lose during the feeding period. This is all determined by what condition those animals are in, if they're growing, and/or if they are being raised for meat.
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      • ADG, along with BCS, is actually a good way to determine feed efficiency, residual feed intake, foraging ability, etc. of your cattle. Those animals that can maintain their weight on feed that may typically cause a dairy cow to quickly lose condition, would be considered as having good feed efficiency. On the other hand, those that need a little extra "boost" with some grain or extra pellets are those that need to be watched for potential weight loss. If a beef cow-calf producer were looking for cows that are "feed efficient" or "good on feed/pasture" in his/her herd, the drop in condition and even how much more feed is needed (in a general, or somewhat ambiguous sense) to maintain those animals needs to be monitored to know which cows may need to be culled eventually. This can be especially concerning during times of feed shortages caused by drought or abnormally dry conditions.
      • Target ADG is really important with growing cattle, regardless if they are meant for the meat market or for the breeding herd. Young cattle should be growing and gaining weight at at least 1.5 to 3 pounds per day. ADG of 3 lb/day is pretty high, and optimum for feedlot cattle, but probably not so practical for either feeders or replacement heifers and bulls! As discussed above, the primary reasons for that is to avoid too much fat deposition in and around the reproductive tracts of either animals, which will impair fertility, milking ability and calving ease (latter two being crucial for heifers).
    • Breed and Type: Breeding plays a significant role in determining feed rations. Dairy cattle have higher maintenance requirements than beef cattle, and so need to be considered differently. The kind of formulation used for lactating dairy cows in a dairy milking system is more complex than one for beef cattle, thus the formulation for dairy cows is usually separate from that intended for beef cattle. However, there are some feed rations out there that account for dairy cattle requirements, except they are not as precise or individualized as a feed formulator for each individual dairy cow would be. That said, breeding, more within beef than dairy, plays a role in what requirements need to be met and how.
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      • Dairy cattle breeds comprise of Holstein, Jersey, and Brown Swiss, to name a few. In a feed formulation, Simmentals are also included with dairy because the NRC (Nutritional Research Council, 1996) had listed several research trials that showed how these cattle, despite being classed as a beef breed, needed the same level of energy to meet maintenance requirements than other beef breeds. Fleckviehs are similar to, if not the same breed, as the Simmental.
      • Beef cattle breeds (aside from Simmentals) are generally lumped into three categories: British-type, Continental, and Exotics.
        • British breeds include Angus, Shorthorn and Hereford. Typically, these are your average "range" cattle or those cattle that have lower maintenance requirements and thus are considered better converters of feed into milk or muscle. However, some changes in breeding have also made a lot of continentals sufficient "range cattle" too.
        • Continental breeds such as Charolais, and Limousin may require more "pampering," or rather the need to give more supplementation in energy and protein when on a roughage or grass-only diet. But, if hay and grass quality is quite poor (more below in the feed and ration creation sections), then both will need some "pampering" to do more than just survive on grass alone.
        • Exotics include the Brahman-type cattle like Santa Gertrudis, Nellore, and Sahiwal, and composites like Brangus and Braford cattle. The first group is linked separate because they need a little higher maintenance requirements than either the non-Simmental Continental group and the British-type group.
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    Understand how current environmental conditions will affect feed and nutrient requirements of your cattle. In terms of assessing your animals themselves, hair depth, hair condition, and hide thickness are related factors associated with changes in environmental conditions, especially going from summer to winter and vice versa. The next section below also discusses how changes in climatic conditions, no matter how sudden or gradual they are, should be accounted for when determining how and what to feed your animals.
    • Hair depth. Length of the first layer of hair (the finer, softer hair close to the skin) should be more pronounced in the fall and winter than spring and summer when it is shed out and a light hair coat is worn. This is to allow the animal more external insulation against the cold. Depth isn't needed numerically, just whether it's as "summer" or "winter."
    • Hair condition. This just asks if the hair coat is wet, muddy, or snow-covered. All can compromise insulating qualities of the hair coat, and thus the threshold temperature of the animal and that animal's maintenance requirements.
    • Hide thickness. The thicker the hide, the greater the external insulative qualities, and vice versa for thinner skin in cattle. Herefords and Devons are known for having thick hides. Other beef breeds, from Angus to Shorthorn and Charolais to Gelbvieh are considered average. Dairy breeds and Zebu/Brahman cattle have thinner hides, but what's interesting is that Holstein-Friesians have much thicker hides than Jerseys.[4]
      • Note that with dairy cattle being classed as "thin hided" cattle is that most dairy cows are raised in a controlled environment (barn) and not outside, so they are mostly unable or lack opportunity to grow a winter coat like beef cattle are that are housed/raised outside. The referenced link above to skin thickness in cattle notes that Friesians (Holsteins) have 6.0 mm thick skin, whereas Jerseys have skin that is 5.46 mm thick (Dowling, 1955).

Part 2
Assess Your Operation & Its Environmental Conditions

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    Consider the type of operation you own/manage. Usually it is thought that cattle raised in a dry-lot or "feedlot" environment would need to be viewed differently in their feeding requirements compared with cattle on pasture, and there is some truth to this.
    • Cattle in a dry-lot have their feed harvested, stored, and brought to them compared with cattle on pasture who have to find it themselves, and may actually be more picky about what they eat (depending on pasture system set up), than the choice they have with the bale of hay. Cattle in a dry-lot also have mud to contend with, and if straw or sawdust is not offered as bedding, this will affect their consumption and requirement levels. Pastured cattle usually do not have this problem, and if they do, it's only briefly when they need to get a drink of water.
    • But as far as consumption levels, nutrient requirements and any other factor mentioned above are concerned, the difference between feeding cattle in a drylot versus grazing them on pasture is minimal to insignificant.
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    Location, location, location. Your location plays a very big role in feed availability, as well as environmental stressors (directly related to climatic conditions) your cattle may experience. The types of winters and summers you get, length of grazing season (which translates into length of feeding period, no matter if it's winter grazing triticale, stock-pile grazing native forages, or feeding alfalfa hay bales in a sacrifice, drylot corral), average ambient temperature, and other environmental factors will depend on what you can feed your cattle and how much they're even expected to eat.
    • There are crops that are more available to some producers than others depending on their location. Lespedeza, for example, is a forage introduced from Central Asia that is adapted to grow from Missouri and parts of the more moist Great Plains east to much of New England and south to Florida and Texas. You won't find this forage growing further west in Montana or north in Alberta or British Columbia. This primarily because of moisture limitations and freezing winters. Alfalfa, on the other hand, is found all over North America. Corn can be grown as a feed in much of the United States and now even the southern and a few central reaches of Canada (especially Ontario, and into the Prairie Provinces) because of the ideal heat units available for it to get 8 to 12 feet tall. Where it can't be harvested as grain, it can be used for winter grazing cattle, or harvested as silage.
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    Climatic conditions and corresponding environmental factors. The climate you live in (directly relating to your location [see above]), and the seasons you experience, no matter how short or long or pronounced they are, have a real deciding factor on the feeding of your animals. Environmental stressors are what you are going to be most concerned with because the climatic conditions you are or will be experiencing will affect how and what you need to feed your animals. The following list are what needs to be considered (from CowBytes5 from Alberta Ag)[5].
    • Current temperatures. Nutritional requirements, and how much cattle eat, can be greater or less than average if the temperature is at -20ºC or 30ºC. If, for instance, a thin cow is trying to keep warm at -20ºC, she will eat more and need more energy. If a heavily-moderate-conditioned cow is even grazing in 30ºC weather, she will eat less and may even experience some heat stress (see below). Critical or threshold temperature for a cow is between 20ºC (upper) and -7ºC (lower). Generally speaking, a cow is expected to have a 1 percent increase in maintenance energy requirements for every degree lower than 20ºC. This if she is in moderate condition.
      • Previous month's temperature. Sometimes this is good to know because it takes time for a cow to acclimatize to a new or different temperature experienced now than the month before. Higher temperatures mean cattle will eat less, and lower temperatures indicate cattle are going to be eating more, generally.
    • Night cooling. This is only accounted for in hot summers. If night cooling is a factor, then intake is reduced by only around 10 percent. If not, intake is reduced a lot more (around 35 percent) because cattle are almost unable to dissipate heat accumulated during the day.
    • Wind speed (average). The higher the wind speed, the more the insulating capabilities of the hair coat and body condition is going to be compromised, especially in cooler seasons like autumn and winter. Wind can have a greater affect on weight gain and animal performance than ambient temperatures alone.
    • Mud in lot. A muddy lot can decrease dry matter intake levels by 15 to 30% especially when there's quite a bit of mud in the lot. The extent and duration of the mud can make determining dry matter intake difficult.
    • Heat stress. Heat stressed animals have an increase in maintenance energy requirements because they are trying to dissipate excess heat built up from ambient temperatures greater than 30ºC. According to the NRC, a 7% and 18% increase in maintenance requirements is expressed when the animal is showing rapid, shallow breathing, and when the animal is open-mouthed panting, respectfully.
      • Prolonged heat stress can be lethal. Over-conditioned, lactating, and dark-haired cattle are more susceptible to heat stress than any others. Animals can quickly develop heat exhaustion and heat stroke if other precautions are not taken like allowing animals access to shade, regular access to drinking water, and abstaining from stressful activities like castrating, vaccinating, dehorning, branding, weaning or even transporting during the heat of the day. If any processing of cattle needs to be done in the summer, it should be left for the cool of the early in the morning or late evening. [6]

Part 3
Assessing Feeds Available

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    What feeds are available? You have a wide variety of different types of feeds to choose from for your animals, from different types of hay to by-products to grain. What you choose to feed depends on your operation/cattle, location, your finances, and personal preferences, The main feed types (and the kind of feeds found in such feed types [note: not all are listed here]) are:
    • Mix (combination of hay, silage, grain, supplement, mineral, salt, by-product, salt, vitamin, etc.)
    • Hay (grass, legume, or grass-legume mix. Pasture available for grazing may be also included in this feed type even though pasture isn't sun-cured harvested forage like hay is.)
    • Grain (corn, oats, barley, wheat, rye, and triticale)
    • Silage (corn [referred to as "ensilage"], barley, winter wheat, rye, winter rye, triticale, oats, pasture grass)
    • Straw (cereal grain chaff baled; barley, oats, triticale, rye, wheat usually. Legume/pulse straw include pea, flax, lentil. Also includes greenfeed)
    • Chaff (similar to straw)
    • By-Product (distillers grains [wheat or corn, wet, dry, solubles], wheat middlings, brewers yeast, bakery product, corn gluten, cottonseed meal, soybean meal, alfalfa pellets/cubes, barley malt sprouts, beet pulp, canola meal, canola cake, oat hulls, etc.)
    • Supplement (usually in the form of protein as a percentage with a mix of other minerals and grains. Also includes non-protein nitrogen [urea] that can be used for cattle older than 6 months old).
    • Salt (block or loose form. Most blocks are 95 to 98% salt and 5% or 2% mineral respectively.)
    • Vitamins (vitamins A, D, and E sold in various forms as a feed-mix supplement)
    • Minerals (Macrominerals are calcium [Ca], phosphorus [P], sodium [Na], chloride [Cl], potassium [K], magnesium [Mg], and sulphur [S]. Microminerals are cobalt [Co], iodine [I], iron [Fe], molybdenum [Mo], manganese [Mn], copper [Cu], zinc [Zn], and selenium [Se]. Mineral bags with Ca, and P are usually sold as a ratio, as 1:1 or 2:1. Less common are mineral sold as greater than 2:1, though 7:1 is still appropriate for cattle. Macrominerals are labelled as a percentage [%], while microminerals are labelled as mg/kg or parts per million [ppm].)
    • Milk (for calves only. Cow's milk, or milk replacement formula in powder form)
    • Fats (tallow, sunflower oil, canola oil)
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    Find where you can obtain one or more of the above feeds. Various feeds and feed types are obtained either through purchase from other producers, the local feed store, or that are made yourself (provided you have sufficient money, land, equipment, labour, and time to do so).
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    Have your feed tested. Do not test your feed right after it has been harvested, although there's nothing wrong with sticking in a probe in a hay bale to test for moisture, as is often done (or should be) when making hay. The best time to test your feed is right before or when it's going to be fed to your animals.
    • If the feed sample is taken right the first time, then you only need to send samples in once. But if not, like if you just did a hand-grab from a hay bale or took only one sample from one hay bale and not a selection of several out of 80 or 200 bales, then you might have to re-take and re-send in the sample again.
      • The only other time you would need a second sample taken is when you haven't finished feeding all your feed out to your animals before they went to pasture. If the bales are prone to weathering (i.e., they're not stored in a shed or under a tarp away from the elements), some quality may be diminished over the extended time they are kept outside, so to ensure that they still have some nutritive value left when they're going to be fed again, take samples again to have them tested.
    • Forage samplers, probes, or corers, which are long hollow tubes designed to "core" into a bale of hay, straw, green-feed, haylage, etc., or a packed silage mound, are the best to use to get a sample from deep into the bale or pile that cannot be taken from the surface (i.e., a "hand-grab" sample). Bale corers have widths that vary from 1/2 or 3/8" to over 1" or 1-1/8". Typically the larger diameter ones work best especially if you have hay or straw that is more stemmy. Where these large corers will cut through the stems, the smaller diameter samplers might slip past them and give misleading results when the samples are sent in.
      • Talk to your local agriculture extension specialist, forage association, or feed store to see where and if you can buy, borrow or rent a forage sampler. Samplers range from $200 to $500 if you wish purchase one.
      • Take at least 10 to 20 samples per "forage lot," or the silage or hay that came from one field. That means taking a sample from at least 10 or 20 bales that came from that same field to get a representative sample. For silage, that means at least 10 or 20 samples from the same pile.
      • Core each bale 12 to 15 inches in. The cores should be taken from the string- or netting-side of the bale, not the flat side, and pushed straight in (parallel to the ground), not at an angle. For silage, samples taken from 3 to 5 feet in. Make a slit in in the plastic before pushing the probe in so that the slit can be easily fixed with silage-plastic tape (found at your farm store where silage plastic is sold).
      • Options are to bag each sample, or to collect a set of samples from one lot in a clean, dry 5-gallon pail so they can be mixed and stored in plastic bags. Squeeze all the air out when you put the sampled forage in the bag, and send it to your local feed lab.
        • When you are asked what values you want, you will need protein, energy, fibre, fat content, and all minerals and vitamins, if applicable. Near-infrared spectrometry (NIRS) is much more accurate at getting mineral values than wet-chemistry, so make sure you have the feed lab use that analysis for your samples.
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    Test your feed using other methods. Sight and smell are much less accurate means of judging quality feed, but ones that are still often used and sometimes just as reliable.
    • Smelling the feed determines how dusty, moldy, or even smelly the feed can be. Hay and straw that are a little dustier and/or smell or look moldy may be lower quality, however if this is only appearing on the outside, the inside should be better quality.
    • Mold and dust are unavoidable, especially if bales are stored outdoors, or forage is baled up wetter than it should be. Moldy hay will have to be fed to cattle, but it can reduce palatability or reduce feed intake to the point that cattle may refuse the feed altogether. Certain fungal molds can produce mycotoxins which can cause health problems like infertility and abortions in breeding females. Since not all molds produce mycotoxins, the ones that do produce amounts that can be unpredictable.
      • Silage that has a putrid smell to it is obviously feed that is getting spoiled. Not only will it smell like rotten bananas, but it will has have a dark, slimy look to it instead (and feels slimy when handled). Like with moldy hay, this can reduce palatability. Good silage has a brownish colour that gives a sweet, fermented smell and, if tasted, the grains have a tangy, sharp, almost sweet taste.
      • Grains with mold can be cause for concern too. They'll have the same musty, moldy smell like hay, and may have potential for the same problems.
    • Hay, especially, that looks green is usually an indicator of good quality. But, green hay can still be had when it's tested to be as good quality forage as straw. Higher than normal precipitation with high temperatures, cutting mature forages, poor soil fertility, and improper curing and/or storing of bales can impact hay quality, even though the hay may look green and is not that stemmy.
    • Usually stemmy hay or hay with a lot of stems is deemed poorer quality hay than that with more leafy material. The reason is that stems are often less palatable and retain less energy and protein than leaves do. But, if hay is harvested during a time of a lot of moisture and a lot of heat, even hay with less stemmy material is going to be poorer quality than you'd think.
      • Also, forage species has a lot to do with quality. Hay obtained from dried up wetland, riparian or slough areas tends to be lower quality than hay from field with timothy, fescue, brome, alfalfa, clover, sainfoin, or trefoil.
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    Use feed analysis results to determine how good (or poor) quality the feed is. Pay attention to NDF (neutral detergent fibre), ADF (acid detergent fibre), TDN (total digestible nutrients), and DE (digestible energy) values for energy (carbohydrate/sugar) and fibre content, CP (crude protein) for protein content, CF (crude fat) or Ether extract (fat) for fat content, and Ca (calcium), P (phosphorus), K (potassium), S (sulphur), Mg (Magnesium), Na (Sodium), and Salt (NaCl) for macrominerals, and Fe (Iron), I (Iodine), Co (Cobalt), Cu (Copper), Mn (Manganese), Mo (Molybdenum), and Zn (Zinc) for microminerals.
    • All of these nutrients will be discussed more in the next section below.
    • Energy content and protein are especially important to pay attention to when considering which diet or what feed will contribute to weight loss or weight gain, meet requirements for lactating cows or growing calves, or be at maintenance requirements. Ideally, energy and protein should be at the optimum requirements, never too much nor too little.
      • If you're seeing tests that of a feed that exceeds or falls short of requirements, consideration will be needed to limit the amount fed and/or include another feed to offset the amounts.
    • "Macrominerals," also called "major minerals," are minerals that are needed in large quantities or concentrations in the diet, usually on a per-gram (or per-ounce) basis. "Microminerals" are also called "trace minerals," and are needed in smaller concentrations, often as parts per million (ppm), milligrams (mg) or nanograms (µg).

Part 4
General Feed Ration Creation Considerations for Your Cattle

Note: Creating a feed ration is very complex according to many things that have been mentioned in the aforementioned sections above. A rough estimate on how much feed to give your cattle and how well it will be for them nutritionally can be done by hand, but you are better off working with a dairy or beef nutritionist or veterinarian and have a feed formulation software program available to you so you know exactly what to feed, how much to feed, and how it will impact your cow herd. Please contact your local extension beef specialist or veterinarian for more information.

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    Separate your cattle, if necessary, based on body condition score, weight, sex (with exceptions), reproductive status, and stance in the pecking order. All of these types will have different nutrient requirements especially if you have a herd that is diverse in different types of cattle. Lactating cows won't do well on a ration that is suited for dry, mature cows. And growing steers and heifers could have a ration that could make a mature bull a little gain more weight than he needs going into the breeding season.
    • Ideally a herd should be as uniform in nutrient needs as possible. It makes planning out what to feed and how to feed it easier. There's no avoiding having different groups of cattle to consider, like a group of bulls, a larger group of cows, some replacement heifers, and stocker steers, but to have a mix of cows especially that are in varying stages of lactation and gestation can make planning out rations harder than it needs to be. Dairy herds are like this to deliver a year-round supply of milk, but beef herds don't need to be.
    • Body condition score is a really good indicator of where your cattle are in nutrient needs. You may have a herd that is a mix of normal to fatter conditioned cattle or thinner cattle. If so, you may need to consider separating into groups so that the thinner cattle can meet their nutrient needs. As mentioned in the Assessing Your Cattle section above, some thinner cattle in the herd may be a sign that there is a lot of competition for feed and the bigger/fatter bossy cattle are getting too much of the good stuff, and the thinner animals the exact opposite. But, you could also have cattle with different nutrient needs. This is especially true if you have a herd with a mix of breeds, regardless if it's a breeding cow herd or a backgrounding steer herd.
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    Calculate the average dry matter intake (DMI) for your cattle. Average daily intake on a dry matter (DM) basis is a way to figure how much forage a cow will eat per day when that forage has all the water taken out of it. Dry matter weights are taken when a feed is sent to a lab and "cooked" or roasted until it's nothing more than crispy plant material. DMI, though, does not reflect how much a cow will eat per day on an as-fed (with a certain amount of moisture in the feed) basis. DMI is a way to take out the variation of moisture content of the feed so that how much a cow, bull, steer, heifer or calf will eat can be calculated based on the quality of the feed and the animal's nutrient/energy requirements.
    • Typically, then, the higher the quality of the feed, the more the animal will eat. In other words, if the feed is lower in fibre and higher in energy and protein, a bovine will consume more of it.
    • Lactating and growing cattle will eat more per their requirements than a mature bull, or a dry mature cow.
    • Numerically, the amount a bovine will eat is on a percent body weight basis. The average rate of consumption is subjective. Many publications state "average" percent body weight consumption as between 2.0 and 2.5 percent of body weight. But many agree that the lowest percent body weight an animal should consume is 1.0 percent (straw and low-quality feeds), and the highest at 3.0 percent (excellent quality forage).[7].
    • In order to calculate the estimate of a bovine's average daily dry matter intake, use the following formula:
      • Body weight (in pounds [lb] or kilograms [kg]) x 0.025 = Daily Dry Matter Intake.
      • For example: 1500 lb cow x 0.025 = 37.5 lb DM forage per day.
    • To calculate how much a cow will consume on an as-fed basis, find out first what the moisture content of a feed is. For example, grass-hay is typically at 18% moisture. To get the dry matter content, subtract by 100: 100 – 18 = 82% DM. So, to find out how much a 1500 lb cow will eat on an as-fed basis per day, calculate it out this way:
      • 1500 lb x 0.025 = 37.5 lb DMI; 37.5 lb DMI / 0.82 DM = 45.7 lb hay as-fed.
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    Utilize feed tables to get a general idea of the nutrient content of many different kinds of feeds. Various beef and dairy publications through magazines (BEEF magazine for example), agricultural extension services via universities, colleges, and government agricultural ministries, and books on ruminant nutrition, will or should have feed tables available through the Internet for you to look at.
    • These are only general nutrient content values for many feeds that are listed. For specific nutrient content of the feed that you have on hand, look at the contents on the feed bag and/or send in a sample to a feed lab to have it tested.
    • Generally, these tables will give you a good idea of what feeds to consider as supplementation or alternatives for your animals. Please take note, though, of the particular feeds may or may not be available in your locale.
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    Determine the desired average daily gain for your cattle. Growing cattle are those were you will want to have a desired ADG to target for, ranging from 1.5 to 3 pounds a day. Stockers should have less of an ADG than finishers because they are growing more than putting on fat. ADG is determined by energy content of the diet.
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    Determine the energy content of the diet per your animals' needs. Energy content is expressed in terms of TDN (total digestible nutrients) or DE (digestible energy). As mentioned in the previous step, ADG for growing and finishing cattle is determined by energy content of the diet. ADG is less important for mature cows and bulls, though when needing to understand how much energy in the diet is needed for dry, pregnant cows in the middle of winter versus lactating females in summer is certainly important. Energy needs can be exceeded (to a certain extent, and as long as fibre needs are also met) for all classes of cattle in order for them to meet their maintenance and productivity requirements. Maintenance energy needs should be exceeded if a cow is too thin, but energy has to be cut back if that cow is over her desired body condition score.
    • The rule of thumb of energy requirements for breeding beef cows, in order to maintain their body condition score through winter, is 55-60-65: 55% TDN for mid-pregnancy, 60% TDN for late-pregnancy, and 65% TDN for after calving. [8] Energy requirements for dairy cows is more different because TDN isn't used to determine energy requirements so much as net energy (NE) is.
    • Replacement heifers and stocker cattle should be fed a ration where energy is around 65 to 70% TDN so that they can achieve a rate of gain at around 1 to 2 lbs per day or higher, depending on the animals' breeding[s]. At minimum, for growing cattle, TDN value should be no lower than 55% for maintenance and some growth. Any lower would mean loss in body condition, and possibly stunted growth. But on the flip side, diets that exceed 80% TDN can lead to problems like acidosis if there is not enough fibre to counter the effects of acidosis.
    • TDN and DE are evaluated on a DM (dry matter) basis.
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    Look at fibre content of the feed. Cattle are ruminants and cannot subsist without sufficient fibre in the diet; if fibre was minimal (less than 15 to 20% of the total dry matter ration), damage to the rumen wall would result, as well as other problems like acidosis. Optimum fibre for cattle all cattle should be at 40 to 50%. Lower quality feeds see fibre levels climbing up to 65% of DM ration or higher, potentially causing impaction and reduction in nutrient uptake. There are no rules of thumb for fibre content of different rations for different classes of cattle.
    • Fibre in feed tests are expressed as neutral detergent fibre (NDF), or acid detergent fibre (ADF). NDF refers to fibre that is insoluble in neutral detergent and includes cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. It includes all plant cell wall material that is only partly digestible. Typically as NDF increases, DMI (dry matter intake) decreases. ADF refers to fibre (largely cellulose and lignin) that is insoluble in acid detergent, and comprises of the highly indigestible portions of plant material, generally the lignified material. As ADF increases, digestibility of feeds decrease.[9][10]
    • Effective NDF (eNDF) is the amount of NDF that stimulates chewing and rumen motility. Long-stemmed forages stimulate more chewing and ruminating which stimulates more salivation. As salivation increases, so does buffering capacity of the rumen. Buffering pH in the rumen is important for dairy diets and finishing rations because it helps reduce rumen pH levels from dipping below what's acceptable (i.e., pH 6 or higher). The higher the eNDF of a feed, the greater the buffering capacity of the rumen.
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    Evaluate and determine protein requirements of your cattle in correlation to protein content of the feeds. Typically, younger and lighter-weight cattle have higher protein requirements than older, heavier cattle. Lactating cows also require more protein than dry cows. Also, dairy cows need more protein than beef cows regardless if both are lactating or dry. Protein content in feeds and for livestock are denoted as crude protein (CP).
    • A rule of thumb for feeder/stocker beef cattle is the 14-12-10 rule: 14% CP for weaned calves 550 to 800 lbs, 12% CP for calves 800 to 1,050 lbs, and 10% CP for feeder cattle 1,050 lbs to finish (1350 to 1400 lbs).
    • A rule of thumb for an "average" (British-Continental-mix cattle excluding Simmentals, generally) pregnant to lactating/suckling beef cows is the 7-9-11 rule: 7 percent CP for mid-pregnancy cows, 9 percent CP for late-pregnancy cows, and 11 percent for post-calving nursing cows.
    • Some examples follow (from Beef Cattle Nutrition Series Part 3: Nutritient Requirement Tables:
      • A 500 lb weaned steer with an ADG of 2 pounds per day requires 12.8 percent CP. If he has an ADG of only 0.5 pound per day, he will need 8.5 percent CP. Similarly, if a 300 lb steer where to have an ADG of 3 lb/day, he would require about 22 percent CP. Lower protein available (or lower requirements) begets a lower ADG.
      • An 1100 lb cow with a low milking ability of only 10 lb of milk/day and 2 months post-calving requires 8.9% CP to maintain her body condition. However, if this same cow had a superior milking ability of 30 lb of milk per day, also calved 2 months ago and is having her body condition maintained, she will need around 12.5% CP.
      • A 1400 lb cow with 20 lbs/day of milk production and 6 months post-calving needs 7.7% CP. That may seem like it's less than the others above, because it is, but only because she's well past her peak milk production and is close to weaning her calf. But with her protein requirements when it's been 2 months since she's calved (she's at peak milk), she's needing a whopping 10.3% CP. If she were producing 30 lbs of milk, she'll be needing 11.8% CP.
        • To compare with the lactating cows, an 1100 lb cow that is at the end of her second trimester, and needs to increase her body condition score from a BCS of 4 to 5 (using the Body Condition Scale of 1 to 9), she will need 7.5% CP, to the point where she'll need to be fed to 9% CP soon when she is less than a month or two from calving.
    • Crude protein content should be on an dry matter basis when looking at feed labels or feed tests. Some feed tests also give CP in as-fed, but the more accurate measurement of protein content in the feed is by dry matter.
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    Check what your calcium-to-phosphorus ratios are in the feeds available. Optimum Ca:P ratio should be 2:1, though ratios that are up to 7:1 aren't going to hurt cattle either. However, if phosphorus is in excess of calcium problems could occur from abnormally loose stools to inability to absorb calcium, since too much P can interfere with the body's ability to take in and utilize Ca for cellular and bodily functions.
    • Calcium is really important for lactating cows and heifers. Limiting Ca can cause reduced milk production, but limiting Ca so the cow is forced to utilize calcium from her body rather than depending on the feed she's given before calving will also reduce incidence of milk fever, especially in dairy cattle. But, it can be a double-edged sword because milk fever is also caused by a sudden drop of calcium in the blood after calving, so calcium levels need to be watched closely in nursing or milking cattle.
    • Calcium is a macro-mineral, so the NRC (Nutrition Research Council) suggests that a maximum level of 2% of a DM (dry matter) ration needs to be fed to cattle. However, dietary calcium levels in feeds vary as well as calcium needs in different classes of cattle. Not all cattle need the same amounts of calcium as the other.
      • Calcium is readily accessible in legumes like alfalfa, and oilseed meals are also good sources. Supplemental sources include calcium carbonate, ground limestone, and dicalcium phosphate.
    • Phosphorus is important for all classes of livestock, but nutrient requirements vary according to age, weight, and type and level of production. Deficiencies in phosphorus can cause a condition called pica which results in abnormal behaviours in normally herbivorous animals like cattle, which is a more severe condition coming out of depraved appetite. Cattle experiencing pica will chew wood, soil, and bones, and some serious pica cases have reported cattle eating other animals like chickens or chewing on carcasses, just so they can quench their craving for minerals like phosphorus. Pica also comes from a lack of salt, cobalt, and iodine in the diet.
      • The NRC suggests that the maximum phosphorus level would be 1% of DM ration.
      • Oilseed meals, grain, grain-by products and other high-protein supplements are typically high in P.
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    Analyze the mineral content available. Other than the Ca:P ratio discussed in the previous step, other minerals like potassium (K) and magnesium are important to look at. Other minerals like Selenium, Sulphur, Cobalt, Iodine, and Sodium need to be looked at so they don't go into toxic levels nor are deficient in the diet. This is where supplementation may be necessary with loose mineral and salt blocks or loose mineral-salt mixes. Mineral requirements are as follows:
    • Magnesium (Mg) requirements: Growing and finishing cattle, 0.10% of DM ration; Gestating (pregnant) cows, 0.12% of dry matter ration; Lactating cows, 0.20% of DM ration.
    • Potassium (K) requirements: 0.6% of total DM ration. Maximum level is 3% of total DM ration.
    • Sulphur (S) requirements: 0.15% of DM ration. Maximum must be at 0.4% of DM ration.
    • Cobalt (Co) requirements: 0.10 ppm of DM ration. Maximum tolerable level is 10 ppm, or 300 times the recommended amount.
    • Copper (Cu) requirements: 10 ppm of DM ration. Maximum tolerable level is 100 ppm.
    • Iodine (I) requirements: 0.5 ppm of DM ration, or 1 mg/day for a 1100 lb (500 kg) cow. 50 ppm is maximum tolerable level for calves.
    • Iron (Fe) requirements: 50 ppm of ration DM. 1,000 ppm maximum tolerable for cattle.
    • Manganese (Mn) requirements: 40 ppm of DM ration for mature cows and bulls, and 20 ppm of DM ration for growing finishing cattle. Maximum tolerable level is 1000 ppm.
    • Molybdenum (Mo) requirements: Not established. Copper and sulphate alter molybdenum metabolism, thus arriving at Mo requirements is impossible. However, maximum tolerable level is 5 ppm.
    • Selenium (Se) requirements: 0.10 ppm of DM ration, however the NRC suggests that 2 ppm of DM ration is maximum for all classes.
    • Zinc (Zn) requirements: 30 ppm of DM ration. High-milking beef cows have higher requirements, with milk containing 300 to 500 ppm of Zn. Maximum tolerable level is 500 ppm.
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    Check for vitamin levels in feed. Cattle outdoors on fresh forages typically do not need vitamin supplements unless there are conditions that will cause deficiency symptoms, such as a deficiency in a mineral that is closely linked with a particular vitamin, like Selenium to Vitamin E, or Cobalt to B vitamins. Certain conditions or feeds can limit vitamin availability to livestock, but typically healthy cattle that aren't grazed don't need to be supplemented regularly with nutrients like B vitamins or vitamin C, D, or K. Vitamins E and A are needed if feeds are sourced from soils that are deficient in selenium, and feeds are low quality with poor carotenoids, respectively. Vitamin requirements are as follows:
    • Vitamin A requirements: Variable according to class, age, and weight of cattle. On a dry ration basis, the vitamin A requirements are about as follows:
      • Growing finishing steers and heifers: 1,000 IU/lb (2,200 IU/kg)
      • Pregnant heifers and cows: 1270 IU/lb (2,800 IU/kg)
      • Lactating cows and breeding bulls, 1,770 IU/lb (3,900 IU/kg)
    • Vitamin D requirements: 125 IU/lb (275 IU/kg) of DM ration.
    • Vitamin E requirements: dI-alpha-tocopherol acetate added to dry ration at level of 6.8 to 27.3 IU/lb (15 to 60 IU/kg). Supplementation needed with selenium-deficient soils.
    • Vitamin K requirements: None recommended. Abundant in pasture and green roughage, but deficiency symptoms come about when feeding moldy sweet clover hay high in dicoumarol.
    • B Vitamin requirements: None, because no dietary B vitamins usually need to be supplied to cattle. Exceptions if ruminant system is adversely affected when an antagonist is present, or lack of precursors or other problems related to rumen health affect B vitamin synthesis.

Part 5
How to Feed Your Cattle After Completing Assessments & Ration Creation

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    Feed your cattle accordingly. Once you know the type of cattle you have, their daily intake, their nutrient requirements, and their average daily gain (if you are feeding growing cattle), then you can form a diet based on where you live, what's available and what you wish to feed them. Of course, what you should use to feed your animals is just as important.
    • Hay feeders like cone or cylindrical feeders with slanted slots for the animals to fit their heads through are good for cattle. Hay feeders are ideal for reducing waste and to put large round bales in, and keeps the animals from climbing in and laying down in the feed and urinating/pooping in it further causing more waste.
    • Large feed bunks that are not raised (typically those used in feedlots) are ideal for feeding silage. These bunks reduce waste apart from feeding silage on the ground, and prevents animals from laying in and pooping in the feed.
      • You can limit how much silage is being fed in these bunks, because there's no need to fill it all up. Cattle can get really picky if they're fed too much silage, because they learn to pick through the more coarser material to get at the tastier grains.
    • Use raised bunks for feeding cattle grain or supplemental mix apart from the hay or silage they're being fed to reduce waste and allow them to clean up as much as possible.
    • Loose mineral should be fed in a sheltered unit where rain will not get into the feeder and ruin the mineral, causing it to clump up. Most farm and ranch supply stores sell mineral feeders, but you can make your own with things like an old rain barrel, a suspended tractor tire, a crafted wooden feeder, to even a modified futon or bed frame. You can use these same innovative, reuse/recycle re-inventions for feeding grain or small square bales of hay, especially if the feeder is longer and more open for more cattle to eat from.
    • Salt blocks can be put out on bare soil or grass, but should be put in a container that keeps it off the ground. An old tire rim, modified ATV tire with a flat iron or rubber bottom, or a purchased plastic or metal salt block holder can be used.
    • You can purchase or make your own feeders for holding and feeding loose mineral, salt blocks or grain for your animals. Most farm and ranch supply stores sell the kind of feeders you need, but you can make your own (which may cost you less, not including labour) using various things you don't need to use anymore from your home or around your farm. Use things like one or more rain barrels, an old tire (tractor tire can be set vertical on a frame that stabilizes and elevates it for dispensing pellets or grain at set intervals as its pulled along by a vehicle; or a horizontal-set ATV tire with a rubber bottom for holding a salt block), a re-modified futon frame, large 4" PVC pipe for dispensing mineral that calves or cows can lick from (gravity fed from an enclosed barrel or 5-gallon pail), weeping tile, old flat-bed wagons, or anything else you can think of.
      • You can even just crafted feeders yourself using 2"x4" or 2"x6" wood planks and/or welded steel or iron frames. Just remember that it's solid enough that it can take a lot of abuse from multiple hungry, jostling, feisty 1400 lb muscular bovines (though accidents do happen), but portable enough that you can move it around easily yourself without any trouble. Repairs are never going to be a matter of if (only when). Also remember how much space is needed for each animal and how high or low to the ground these feeders need to be, i.e., 8" space for most cattle, and around 36" high from the ground to the top of the feeder.
      • Innovation, a bit of outside-the-box thinking and know-how with the tools you need (from a circular saw to an open wrench or a hammer), you can make anything you need to make for your animals.
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    Forage should always be priority for any cattle. Forage comes in the form of pasture, hay, or silage. What species that are in the mix depends on your area and what's available. You can have pasture and hay forage that is all grass or all legume or a mix of both. Silage is primarily grass-based.
    • No matter what class or production-type of cattle your feeding, forage needs to be the most important part of the ration. This is so that it stimulates rumination, chewing, and buffering capacity of the rumen.
      • Even feedlot cattle would (and should) have a dominantly forage ration that is largely high-quality silage with grain, grain by-product and other supplement mixed in. Cattle raised for DIY home/backyard slaughter do not need to be on a similar diet, rather free-choice pasture and/or hay (high quality) with 2% of body weight of grain as-fed per day. If no grain, high quality forage is a must for a good finish.
    • Pasture and/or hay forage or fodder is the best type of feed for your cattle, provided it contains enough nutritive value for your cattle to thrive off of. If not, please take note of the nutritive deficiencies and supplement according to your animals needs!!
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    Balance the ration and supply supplementation when necessary. If the hay is too low in quality, supplement with range cubes, grain, protein tubs or molasses licks to satisfy their needs for more energy and/or protein. If pasture or hay is good to excellent quality, there will be less to no need for any supplements to be supplied. However, salt and mineral must be readily accessible to cattle at all times.
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    Keep track of body condition (in terms of weight gain or loss), and general response to a type of feed/forage you give to your cattle. Also keep track of your cows nutritive requirements based on their reproductive cycles. You may need to change what you're feeding when its necessary according to what's available and what's not, and what your animals need.
    • Remember: any drastic changes to feeds needs to be made gradually, like if you are switching from hay to silage or from coarse hay to pasture. This just allows the rumen microbes time to adjust.
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    Keep water and loose mineral accessible to them at all times. Water, salt and mineral is a very important part of a bovine's diet. Water should be clean and clear; if watering out of a dugout, have a piping and dugout-exclosure system that eliminates the animals from going into and fowling the water, and diverts them to a more cleaner system farther away. Salt and mineral should be off the ground and (typically) sheltered from the elements to reduce waste. This more so with loose mineral than blocks.
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    Get a professional opinion about your feeds and feeding methods. A Ruminant Nutritionist (beef or dairy) will help you determine whether you are doing the right thing or see improvements that need to be made to your feeding operation.


  • Mineral is also a must, and should contain not only the micro-minerals that cattle need (Selenium, Copper, Iron, Cobalt, Molybdenum, Manganese, Cobalt, and Iodine), but also the necessary macro-minerals that are lacking or not present in the feed being fed (Macro-minerals include Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Sodium, and Chloride)
  • Always maintain a high-forage diet in your cattle as much as possible. It's a lot cheaper to feed than grain or pre-mixed feed bought at the feed store.
  • Bulls should be on good quality feed before breeding season to keep his weight up. Do not feed too high an energy ration otherwise this will reduce fertility. However, he will need the energy reserves because he will have less time to eat when he's busy chasing after and servicing his girls.
  • Cattle should always have access to clean fresh water.
  • Introduce grain or any high-energy diet slowly (at a rate of only 1 to 2 lb per day) to avoid bloat, grain-overload or acidosis.
  • Body condition score your cows and heifers on a regular basis (mainly 3 times a year):
    • Fall pregnancy checking or start of winter feeding
    • At or slightly before calving
    • 30 days before breeding season begins
  • Keep a current nutrient requirement and feed type table handy to evaluate and decide what feedstuffs are best for your cattle.
  • Test your feed before going into winter feeding. This way you know in advance whether you will need to supplement your cows in the wintertime or not.


  • Don't let your animals go into winter thin. Your feed costs will increase drastically and so will your changes of losing these animals from a) cold stress or b) poor feed.
  • Never assume your feed is good quality simply because it looks or smells good. There are many folks out there that had some animals die on them because their feed was of so poor nutritive value that their animals died of a full stomach. Sure they have lots to eat, but is it of any value?
  • Do not suddenly switch diets on cattle, especially when switching from hay to grain.
    • Acidosis is a common malady, caused when the diet is switched so rapidly that the microflora in the rumen have no time to "switch over." This causes a sudden decrease in pH level in the rumen and encourage lactic acid-producing bacteria to increase in population, further decreasing pH in the rumen. The animal will go off feed, have stinky grey foamy diarrhea, and will even die.
    • Bloat is another malady that is dangerous to cattle when suddenly switched diets. Bloat is when the rumen is unable to release the gases that are formed from the process of fermentation, and cause discomfort to the animal, and even presses on the lungs and diaphragm leading to death by asphyxiation. Bloat needs to be treated immediately to avoid such consequences.
  • Do not let your animals out on lush pasture (like alfalfa or clover) when they are hungry, otherwise they will bloat.
    • Make sure they either are not hungry when putting them out to pasture, or have access to hay when they're on pasture, or both.

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