January 2018
Farm & Field

Protein is the Key

Maximizing Forage Utilization


Protein supplementation helps cattle better digest lower quality hay. SWEETLIX EnProAl poured tubs provide a labor-free option to get needed protein to cattle.

Ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.) have the unique ability to utilize materials inedible by humans (grasses, forbes and other roughages) and convert them to highly nutritious meat products for human consumption. This is made possible by the symbiotic relationship between rumen microbes and the ruminant. The ruminant’s ability to convert inexpensive, underutilized roughages to high-quality meat and milk is its main advantage over other commercially raised livestock (pork, poultry, etc.). Given that forages are among the least expensive feeds available, it goes without saying that anything we can do to maximize forage intake and/or utilization is going to positively affect economic returns.

Unfortunately, not all forages provided to ruminants are going to be of the highest quality. Unfavorable weather can set back hay harvests resulting in overmature or rain-damaged forages. While species variations exist, in general as a plant matures, it converts from a vegetative (leafy) state into a reproductive (stemy) state. When a plant is in the reproductive state, the plant’s nutritional resources are focused on producing reproductive structures (flowers, stem, seeds, etc.) instead of leaves. Nutritional quality decreases due to an increase in indigestible fiber (stem) and decreased nutrient content (less leaves). The total loss of quality is dependent on the type of forage. Grasses mature faster than legumes such as clover or alfalfa. Thus nutritional quality of grasses such as Bermuda grass, orchardgrass, prairie grass or fescue drops faster than legumes such as clover or alfalfa. Indicators such as stem size and stem softness as well as the presence of seed heads or flowers can help to gauge forage maturity. Hay containing large amounts of mature seed heads will be of low quality.

Low-quality forages don’t always come in the form of low-quality hay. Cereal grain crop residues such as corn stover are another source of forages utilized readily by ruminants containing high fiber, but they are relatively low in other nutrients. Additionally, pastures and rangeland also often offer low-quality forages for grazing due to various conditions. These conditions include, but are not limited to, forage overmaturity due to rapid growth spurts or insufficient stocking rate, excessive presence of low-quality plants (i.e., weeds) and poor environmental conditions such as drought.

When it comes to bulky, high-fiber, low-quality forage, intake is limited by the amount that can fit in the rumen at one time. The faster the bulky forage can be digested and moved out of the rumen into the lower gastrointestinal tract (rumen turnover), the faster more forages can be consumed. Quicker rumen turnover time is advantageous in that more nutrients can be processed by the animal in the same amount of time. More nutrients mean more building blocks, thus improving overall animal performance.

Protein is a key to optimal fiber digestion and intake. Ruminally available protein is a limiting factor in fiber fermentation. Remember, the reason low-quality forages are lower in nutrition is because they contain higher amounts of fiber. Recall that, in feeding a ruminant, one is actually providing nutrients for the rumen microbes. Protein is a key component for microbial adhesion to fiber needed to begin the fiber digestion process. Protein is also needed for the enzymes responsible for breaking down fiber. Additionally, inadequate dietary protein depresses animal performance; in turn, depressing appetite and further hindering animal performance. For all of the stated reasons, protein supplementation improves forage digestion and increases forage intake.

Just as you and I like three regular meals and between-meal snacks throughout the day instead of one huge meal, rumen microbes respond better to small regular doses of protein rather than slug feeding once a day or less frequently. Research repeatedly shows that regular daily supplementation of protein yields better results than less frequent protein supplementation. Studies conducted at Kansas State University reflect this. In one study, reducing supplementation frequency resulted in cows losing more weight during the winter. In another, daily supplementation was shown to improve forage intake and digestibility as opposed to twice a week supplementation.

Research shows that it doesn’t take much protein to have a positive influence. Supplementation with limited amounts (less than 2 pounds) of a high-protein supplement increased digestibility and intake of lower quality forages in numerous studies.

When it comes to providing supplemental protein to cattle for the purpose of stimulating forage utilization and intake, there is no better method than the use of self-fed SWEETLIX EnProAl poured blocks.

SWEETLIX EnProAl technology results in high-quality supplement blocks with consistent hardness and intake. This results in cattle consuming small, regular doses of ruminally available protein throughout the day, every day. This continuous delivery of protein to rumen microbes results in optimum fiber utilization and helps improve rumen turnover.

SWEETLIX EnProAl weather-resistant blocks can be used under even the harshest winter conditions. These blocks don’t require special feeders and will not blow away or spoil as opposed to commodity supplements such as soyhull pellets or dried distillers’ grains. Just roll them off the truck bed or trailer and forget them. These highly palatable protein supplement tubs are also an excellent source of magnesium to aid in the prevention of grass tetany in early spring pastures.

 In summary, dietary protein is a key factor in the digestion and intake of low-quality forages. Research confirms a regular, daily intake of even a small amount of protein helps aid forage digestibility and increase rumen turnover rate. SWEETLIX EnProAl self-fed poured block supplements deliver 1-2 pounds of supplementation daily in a convenient, weather-resistant, no-waste form. SWEETLIX EnProAl offers a wide variety of protein supplement products in multiple product sizes to allow the greatest amount of flexibility for cattle producers.

For more information, contact your local Quality Co-op or SWEETLIX at 877-933-8549 or visit www.sweetlix.com.


Jackie Nix is an animal nutritionist with Ridley Block Operations (www.sweetlix.com). You can contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 1-800-325-1486 for questions or to learn more about SWEETLIX mineral and protein supplements for cattle, goats, horses, sheep and wildlife. References available upon request.