November 2015
Feeding Facts

It’s a Matter of the Cow’s Design (and Cost)

Every few years, as costs continue to escalate, there is a renewed interest in feeding cattle commodity-blend feeds and abandon feeding hay. Tractors, equipment and even plant nutrient costs make producers feel that hay production just isn’t feasible. Add to that the variable weather conditions we experience in the South and hay production becomes downright frustrating. However, there just isn’t a better alternative for most producers.

The first consideration we must look at is that cattle are designed to be foragers. Ruminants, by design, have been blessed to have the ability to digest cellulose. Cellulose is one of the most commonly occurring compounds in the environment where cattle function. Cellulose is the energy-rich compound contained in all plant species. The unique feature allowing cattle to utilize this compound is their symbiotic relationship with bacteria living in their rumen. It is from these bacteria that cattle receive their nutrition. The bacteria are responsible for breaking down feedstuffs indigestible to monogastrics.

Since cattle are receiving most of their nutrition from these microbes, we need to feed the microbes and foster their health. Forage-digesting microbes flourish in an environment with a neutral pH. Feeding grain and feed stuffs with high carbohydrates pushes ruminant pH to acidic levels and decreases forage digestion. So, in short, cattle are more suited to forage diets. One final thought, cattle fed diets with high concentrations of grain are susceptible to more metabolic disorders and tend to naturally have more hoof and leg problems than cattle fed high-forage diets.

The second consideration to converting your cow herd to an all-feed diet is cost. Producing hay, while more expensive than it was in years past, is still the most economical way to feed brood cows. This past summer, good-quality hay could have been purchased for $80 per ton. That hay along with 5 pounds of AFC Brood Cow Supplement should cost about $2.14 per cow per day for a 1,200-pound cow. If we look at the cost of feeding a commodity blend with no hay to these same cows, it should cost no less than $150 per ton. That would equal a daily cost of about $3.15 per cow. So, as you can see, feeding hay saves about $1 per cow per day.

Additionally, if those cows are nursing calves, the calves will require some sort of extra feed, other than the nutrition they receive from their mamas. After about 2 months of age, they will start consuming hay and supplemental feed. This is the perfect time in their life to start creep feeding.

I will agree with most producers that most of the hay grown in the South lacks sufficient quality to be the only winter supplement fed to cows. The other factor to consider is the increased size of the modern commercial cow requires some sort of supplementation along with hay for them to reach their genetic potential. AFC Brood Cow Supplement is the perfect addition to supplement nutrients. It is formulated to provide additional nutrients and not affect forage digestibility.

The amount of supplement to be fed will vary from farm to farm – depending on hay quality, stage of production of the cattle, breed of the cattle and the weather. Farmers must pay strict attention to the body condition score of their cattle and adjust supplementation accordingly.

While the thought of buying a blended feed seems to make sense from an efficiency standpoint, it has many pitfalls. Costs can run extremely high. It doesn’t fit the physiology of the cattle. Long-stemmed roughage must be fed so the rumen can function properly. High-grain diets tend to decrease the longevity of cattle because of increased feet and leg problems. These problems make feeding only blended feed less attractive.

There are times in commercial cow/calf production where feeding complete feeds may be practical. These times are usually during extremely adverse circumstances such as drought or in times when forage is limited. This should be a practice that is only implemented during adverse conditions.

In beef production in the South, success should follow those who feed good-quality forage with adequate supplementation. So pay attention to forage fertilization, proper hay production and to the cows’ body condition scores to successfully grow and sell calves from your beef operation.

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..