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Grain, Byproducts Are Options for Cattle During Drought

July 17, 2017

With much of North Dakota experiencing drought conditions, many producers are or will be facing shortages of summer pasture and forages for fall and winter feeding.

In addition, the forage shortages have caused the prices of purchased hay to escalate. As a result, cattle producers are exploring many options to maintain the health and well-being of their herds.

“An option that warrants serious consideration is to source and secure cereal grains or byproduct feeds to serve as energy sources for cow herds,” says Carl Dahlen, North Dakota State University Extension Service beef cattle specialist. “Not only can these feeds provide needed energy for herds, they also may be purchased at a significant cost savings, compared with buying hay.”

Compare Prices and Protein
Energy and protein are two key nutrients that cattle need. To determine whether to pursue specific alternative feeds, producers should compare the nutrient content and price per unit of energy and protein of the alternative feeds and traditional feedstuffs.

To make that comparison, calculate the dry matter of the feedstuff and multiply by the nutrient content of interest, then divide the purchase price by the total pounds of nutrient. For example, average-quality hay might contain about 53 percent total digestible nutrients (TDN), a measure of energy in feeds.

If this hay has a dry-matter content of 90 percent and can be purchased for $125 per ton, the cost per pound of TDN is 13 cents per pound (2,000 pounds per ton times 0.9 equals 1,800 pounds of dry matter times 0.53 TDN equals 954 pounds of TDN per ton; $125 divided by 954 pounds equals 13 cents per pound of TDN), notes Karl Hoppe, area Extension livestock systems specialist at NDSU’s Carrington Research Extension Center.

If the hay price creeps up to $150 per ton, the cost would be nearly 16 cents per pound of TDN. In comparison, with corn prices currently under $3.25 per bushel, the price per unit of energy equates to 7 cents per pound of TDN.

This comparison shows that on a TDN basis, corn may be two to three times less expensive than hay as an energy source.

“Evaluating prices of other grains may yield similar advantages, and many cattle have been fed wheat, barley, oats, etc., in times of forage shortages,” Hoppe says.

Distillers Grains an Option
Janna Kincheloe, area Extension livestock systems specialist at NDSU’s Hettinger Research Extension Center, says distillers grains is another option because of its lower energy cost (a little more than 6 cents per pound of TDN for dried distillers grains at $100 per ton). It also is one of the least expensive sources of protein available (20 cents per pound of protein, compared with 87 cents per pound of protein with hay at $125 per ton and 8 percent protein).

“Watching markets and being in close contact with processing plants can result in exceptional deals if markets experience seasonal declines or plant dryers break down and product is available for the price of shipping,” she adds.

Wet byproducts can be stored long term by placing them in a pile and covering the pile with plastic. Covering the pile will result in less storage loss, compared with leaving the piles uncovered.

Another option is to mix the wet byproducts with processed poor-quality forages and make a pile. If enough forage is added, these piles can be driven over and packed in a way that’s similar to how corn silage is packed.

Visit for a list of many alternative coproduct feeds available in North Dakota, current prices of those feeds and contact information for the processing facilities.

Incorporating High-energy Feeds
Here are management factors producers need to consider if they decide to incorporate high-energy feeds as energy replacements in their cows’ diets:

  • Free access to high-energy diets can lead to digestive upsets and founder, so cattle must be transitioned slowly. Start with 3 pounds daily and move up to 7 or 8 pounds of dry feed during a 10-day period.
  • To avoid rumen acidosis, intake limiters, when mixed with corn, have been effective in providing energy without overconsumption when feeding free choice on pasture or in a dry lot.
  • If feeding grains, a supplemental protein source may be needed to meet cattle requirements.
  • Provide access to hay or another forage source. Cattle need some fiber from forage to maintain rumen health. The livestock specialists recommend a minimum of 0.5 percent of body weight as forage.
  • If feeding distillers grains, supplemental calcium will needed to maintain the appropriate calcium-to-phosphorus ratio.

“With high-energy diets and a shortage of forage, cattle will need to be limit-fed because they are receiving the nutrients they need in a much smaller package, compared with eating free-choice forages,” Dahlen says. “The end result will be cows that have all of the energy they need but still don’t feel full.

“To accomplish limit-feeding, facilities must be capable of holding in hungry cows,” he adds. “Sufficient bunk space for cows (around 30 inches per head) or spreading out feed over a large area also is important because all cattle need to access the feed at the same time to avoid competition. If not all cows can access the bunks at the same time, then social dominance comes in to play and thin cows get thinner, while heavy cows get heavier.”

Make Decisions Soon
Many other byproducts and alternative feeds are available for producers to consider during this period of forage shortage.

“Making decisions before pasture conditions deteriorate can have positive long-term advantages for pasture health and productivity,” Hoppe says. “In all cases, determine the nutrient content of the feeds, compare feeds on a cost-per-nutrient basis, and devise feeding strategies that optimize the use of available feed and financial resources.”

Here are two NDSU Extension publications with additional information on alterative feeds:

Source: North Dakota State University