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Choosing The Right “Energy-Feed” For Grazing Cattle

Bill Smith, PhD There are many times when it is economically sound to feed additional energy to grazing cattle. The 2 most common situations where feeding additional energy is warranted are; 1) When forage quality is inadequate to allow for optimum cattle performance (supplementation) and 2) when forage supply is limiting cattle performance (substitution). When confronted with either of these grazing situations, the source of supplemental energy that we feed can have either a positive or negative effect on performance. Our goal should be, to maximize the utilization of the feed we already own (forage). We want to choose a supplemental “energy-feed” that complements the utilization of this forage and not make the mistake of feeding an energy feed that actually hurts our forage utilization. If forage is limited and hay is readily available and easily fed, it can help meet these energy needs. As a general rule, hay seems to work fine for grazing cattle up to around 7.0 lbs. per head per day for mature cows. When we are trying to maximize use of standing forage, hay can interfere with grazing when fed over 7.0 lbs/head/day. Many times, cows will lie around the feeding grounds and not graze adequately when fed as little as 6 – 7 lbs of hay. The cows total daily energy intake will actually be decreased in this situation. When hay is not the answer, there are numerous “energy-feeds” available to consider which come in two general categories, 1) Starch and 2) Digestible Fiber. The starch feeds are the grains, corn, milo, wheat etc. These are high energy feeds that provide large amounts of energy in small packages but have a negative effect on forage digestibility and forage intake when fed above 2.0 lbs a day. That can be a problem. It is not good economics to feed a supplemental feed to grazing cattle that has a negative effect on 90% of the diet (forage). In times of extreme drought and very limited forage, feeding grain can very well be the most economical option. In these situations, we generally confine our cows and bunk-feed fairly high levels of grain, no longer considering her a grazing ruminant. The better sources of supplemental energy for grazing cattle are the digestible fibers, including dried distillers grains, corn gluten feed, wheat midds, soybean hulls and others. These energy feeds are mainly supplying energy from highly digestible fiber and fat which, unlike the starch from grain, does not ferment rapidly in the rumen and interfere with forage digestibility and intake. These ingredients can actually help increase forage digestibility and forage intake. They don’t have the negative effect on forage utilization we see with starch from grain. Many of these individual “energy feed” ingredients don’t come in an “easily-fed” form for grazing cattle. They also may have some mineral imbalances that need attention. This is where the manufacturer of nutritional products can add value to these ingredients by providing proper nutrient formulation and producing a physical product (cube, block) that can be easily fed to grazing cattle. Feeding additional energy to grazing cattle can be economically beneficial when the right source of energy is fed.
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