December 2016
Feeding Facts

A Stressful Season of Cheer

This is my favorite time of the year. I enjoyed Thanksgiving. It’s a time we spent with our family around food. It’s a time when we generally slowed down a bit and reflected on the happening of the past year.

It is also a time that starts Christmas celebrations and a season of giving. My wife, Jackie, and I have five children, so you can see this has always been a joyous and special time for us.

This Thanksgiving was a bit more stressful. We faced the same challenges as many of you. The challenges of a severe drought like we are currently experiencing made things very stressful. We faced decisions and challenges that were not the norm; challenges and decisions that most definitely affected our finances and operational profitability.

Not only were we faced with the challenge of the drought but also with the lowest livestock and grain prices we have seen in several years. The dramatic decrease in prices made the decisions even tougher. The decisions to keep, cull, sell early or buy more feed were unique to each operation. I will not try to give the answer, but offer suggestions that may help you weather this dry storm.

First, determine the carrying capacity of the feed or hay you have on hand along with the carrying capacity of your forage if there is any left. This will give you an idea of how many animals you actually need to try to survive with. If you have more animal units than you can supply feed for, then start culling and selling unproductive animals.

Second, after you have culled these unproductive animals, evaluate your feed resources and, hopefully, you will have enough feed and hay resources to get through the winter. If not, then determine if it is wise and profitable to buy supplemental feed and hay. Remember, with cattle, it is nearly impossible to replace hay with feed. So, try to locate additional hay or forage for a base to supplement your current supplies. There is an abundance of hay to our north and west. You may want to consider purchasing some of this hay to give more forage to get your livestock through the winter.

As I stated earlier, it is nearly impossible to totally replace forage with feed, but supplemental feed can help stretch forage supplies. High-fiber feeds can replace a small portion of hay, but not entirely. Poor-quality hay is better than none. Even wheat straw will work for the fiber portion of the cattle’s diet. It must simply be supplemented with nutritious feedstuffs to help the animals meet their nutritional requirements.

Creep feeding calves will take some of the nutritional demands from the cow. Calves also require less fiber and can be fed more nutrient-dense feeds. Calves also gain weight very efficiently at lighter weights, so this could help return more dollars at weaning.

An area that could offer the most financial return during the drought and low cattle prices is backgrounding cattle or stockering. The most depressed cattle prices seem to be in freshly weaned calves. Consider buying these calves or, if you have a cow-calf operation, taking your weaned calves to high weights before selling them. Currently, yearling calves are bringing more per pound than it costs to put that pound on with current feed prices. Therefore, every pound you add puts more money in your pocket.

One thing I want to caution you about as you are determining your supplementation program. Look carefully at the tag on the supplement. Supplements containing non-protein nitrogen or urea generally tend to make cattle consume more forage. So, if you are already short on hay, these supplements will hasten the disappearance of your hay stores. If you feel you need a protein supplement for your herd and are short on hay, look for an all-natural supplement or especially one that doesn’t contain NPN or urea.

As you consider options for your cattle operation, always remember that cattle are ruminants and require forage and fiber for their digestive systems to work properly. My first priority is to supply this nutrient and then I can supplement to meet their nutritional needs.

As I close, I hope each of you can take time to spend some quality time with family and friends during the holiday season, and I hope you can show some kindness to make someone else’s life better. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Stephen Donaldson is AFC’s animal nutritionist. If I can help any of you, please get in touch with me and let’s succeed together. You can reach me at 256-476-5272 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..