Feeding Options for Beef Cattle
Updated by Nigel Strutt, Echuca
This note was prepared specifically for the difficult seasonal conditions experienced during 1997 by farmers in south and west Gippsland and reviewed/updated by Nigel Strutt from the Northern Irrigation Region for the 2002 drought (or dry season).It may be necessary to supplement it with technical and personal advice relevant to individual circumstances.
A long dry summer followed by a late autumn break can result in producers going through winter with limited conserved fodder and limited available pasture. For producers with insufficient fodder to get through this winter a number of options are available.
- sale of cattle
- agist cattle off farm
- use of nitrogen fertiliser
- purchase of additional fodder eg. grain or hay
Determining feed requirements
The first step is to sort cattle into different feed and management priority groups eg. cows in backward condition, first calf heifers, bulls, cows in good condition, steers. Low priority groups should be sold or agisted. Groups to agist would be those which do not need constant management. This option would need to be costed against other feed options.(see below). Groups which will need more immediate attention and feed are the cows rearing calves as well as trying to get in calf again. Young replacement heifers will also need attention.
A feed budget needs to be prepared to determine the feed requirement of remaining stock. Subtract from this expected pasturegrowth and fodder reserves. This will give an estimate of the feed deficit. If extra feed is needed to get remaining stock through winter, energy will be the main requirement. Feed alternatives should be compared on their cost per unit of energy (see Agriculture Note AG0592: What feed options are the best buy?). Some options are discussed below.
Pasture growth will be the cheapest source of feed over winter and pasture height has a major effect on pasture growth.. To maximise pasture growth over autumn/winter, fodder supplements should be used to lengthen a grazing rotation and to build up a bank of pasture or 'feed wedge' ahead of the herd. As well as assisting in pasture growth, this will also give some height to pasture so that it can respond to nitrogen fertiliser.
The cost of extra pasture produced from nitrogen fertiliser can be around half that of grain and one third that of hay assuming average responses from the fertiliser and depending upon changing commodity costs for fodder and fertiliser. A typical response time is four to six weeks, so action needs to be taken early to use this option. Nitrogen needs to be used on responsive paddocks and these and other details for using nitrogen fertilisers are contained in Agriculture Note AG0260: Using nitrogen to grow extra feed for cows. If in doubt about the response you would get you could try a trial strip and see what happens.
Purchase of grain
Hay at current prices is a very expensive feed source and grain can be a cheaper source of energy (see Agriculture Note AG0592: What feed options are the best buy). Care and planning needs to be exercised when using grain as a supplement for cattle (and sheep). Assuming the energy value of grain is 12 megajoules (and dry matter is 90%) and that of hay is 8.5 megajoules (87% dry matter), then 1 kg of grain is approximately equal to 1.5 kg of hay in feeding value.
Introducing grain to stock
Grain needs to be introduced gradually into the diet building up to the desired level over several weeks. Grain poisoning and death can occur when introduction to grain is too quick.
Whole grain can be fed however if feeding any cereal grain other than Oats it is best to either crack or roll the grain to reduce wastage. Approximately 20% of the grain will not be digested if it is not cracked or rolled. Grain can be fed on the dry ground (in small heaps or a long trail) preferably behind a single electric wire or along a fenceline. However troughs should be used to reduce waste. Grain could be used to stretch out valuable hay reserves, particularly if used before wet conditions in winter. Oats are probably the easiest grain to feed. There is less need to crush or crack the grain and the husks minimise the potential grain poisoning when being introduced.
Where hay is available a supplement of hay and grain is best, especially when introducing cattle to grain. For example, using 12 megajoule (MJ) grain and 8.5 MJ hay, and assuming the hay is 85% dry matter (DM) and the grain is 90% DM, the 60 MJ requirement for the dry cow in Table 1 can be supplied from 9 kg hay or 4.5 kg hay and 3 kg grain. Farmers considering grain feeding for the first time are advised to get experienced advice (see Agriculture Note AG0564: Hints on feeding grain to cattle).
Most commercial feedlots provide contract lot feeding services for finishing cattle for slaughter. You may need to talk to your Stock Agent/Marketing specialist about how to best use this facility. An alternative is an on-farm opportunity feedlot (see Agriculture Note AG0372: Opportunity lot feeding of beef cattle). In either case, this needs careful budgeting (see Agriculture Note AG0610: Partial budgets: a tool for making better decisions). One way to budget whether feeding is worthwhile is to add today's $/head value to the cost of feeding and any other costs and divide by the estimated final weight. This will give the price in cents/kg liveweight you will have to get just to break even.
Daily stock requirements
A guide to the daily feed requirements of beef cattle is shown in the table below. Requirements are for maintenance unless otherwise stated, except for cows with calves which will be loosing weight. (For a cow in early lactation, total energy requirements of the animal can be greater than it's ability to consume feed energy. At this time it is normal to loose weight).
The quantity of hay in the table assumes all requirements are being met from hay and the hay is of reasonable quality (8.5 megajoules per kg. dry matter). A small square bale is approx. 25 kg. so in the table, 8 kg. is about 1/3 of a small square bale.
|Class of stock|| Energy required each day|
| Kg. hay/head/day|
(no pasture feed)
|Cow (450 kg)* + calf (1-3 months)||90||12***|
|Dry cow (450 kg) middle-late pregnancy||65||9|
|Bulls (700 kg)||70||10|
|Early weaned calf (150 kg) < 6 mths, 0.25 kg/day wt. gain||30||4**|
|Weaner (250 kg) 6-12 mths, 0.25 kg/day wt. gain||40||5.5|
|Yearling (350 kg) 12-18 mths, maintenance||40||5.5|
|Steer (500 kg), maintenance||60||8|
Table 1. A guide to the daily requirements of beef cattle
* British breed cows. Beef dairy cows can have 25-35% greater requirements.
** Crude protein level in diet may limit intake
*** Performance on limit of maximum dry matter intake.
The hay required in table 1 assumes no pasture is being fed. Fresh pasture has a high energy content (11MJ/kg DM) and even a small amount of pasture can significantly reduce the amount of supplement required. For example, 4kg of pasture dry matter per day would reduce the hay required for a cow and young calf in the above table by approximately 50%.
For beef producers facing a feed shortage a range of options are available but the earlier the decisions are made the better (and usually the cheaper the outcome). Each farm situation is different and needs to be considered on its merits.
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