I've been writing about profitable supplementation several weeks now, so here's an outline, or a roundup, of my basis for supplement programs that involve energy.
It's good to remember that close to 90% of everything cattle consume leaves by way of manure or urine. That means it can be fertility, as well as supplement, although energy is dissipated more than other nutrients. Properly plan-grazed cattle, meaning grazing in high densities, scatter these nutrients with near-perfect precision.
That's one of the reasons cattle managed at high stock density can cure most soil health issues in two to five years, and the improved soil health can cure most plant and animal issues. I call this "The Two-to-Five-Year Plan to Success."
As I've said previously, energy in the form of plant sugar and starch is the most limiting production factor of cattle grazing in the vast majority of the world. Yet energy from sunlight by way of grass and then into cattle is what we are selling.
Gordon Hazard says, "All I’m doing is wrapping grass up in a steer hide." Most of our cattle need at least a little help in this department.
There are five ways to supplement energy in cattle.
1. Soluble protein supplement- usually a legume or a legume seed meal.
2. Energy supplement - usually cereal grain seed or seed by-product.
3. Hay or haylage - in sorghum or corn silage of high quality.
4. Small amount of fat, vegetable oil or by-product.
5. Low/medium quality hay in very small amounts to cattle on washy grass.
Soybean meal is an example of a soluble protein supplement used to supplement energy on grass or hayed cattle. Between 4 ounces and 2 pounds of SBM fed at least three times per week increases the number and health of the forage digesting micro-bugs in the rumen of cattle, sheep and goats and the large bowel of horses, mules and donkeys.
The result of this addition is to increase the available energy from the forage to the tune of 8-18% and increase the animal’s appetite. Small amounts of soybean meal make up the basis for our supplementation program most of the year. We vary the amount in response to the forage quality, cattle fullness and appetite, and manure size and consistency.
Several folks are also adding small amounts (1- 4 ounces per 100 pounds body weight) of apple cider vinegar to water tanks and/or daily supplement to increase available energy. I consider the vinegar to be an add-on to the SBM, not a replacement. Vinegar has several other positive benefits and is cost effective, especially in grass finishing, if it can be purchased at a low enough price.
Energy supplementation using cereal grains to cattle tends to open up a big can of worms in many academic circles, and there are several differences in opinion among quite respected leaders. The truth is that when supplementing cattle with energy, the amount has to be 2 pounds or less per 500 pounds of body weight.
At higher levels of energy supplementation (especially high sugar supplies), the rumen microbes for grass digestion (grass bugs) start dying off and the digestion of grass, hay, or other forage decreases. Then the cost of animal gains go up much higher with this man-made inefficiency.
In 2012, I was introduced to the urine pH monitoring method by Mark Bader of Free Choice Enterprises. Rumen pH levels of about 6.8 (just below neutral) are optimal for forage digestion by cattle. We began using pH paper to monitor steer urine out on the pasture and found that our old rules were correct but also found that low energy and excess non-protein-nitrogen causes many of the low-production problems we had been seeing for years on 100% grass operations. This pasture forage condition results in alkalosis in the cattle, or a high pH.
I found that the supplementation of small amounts of energy in the form of starch and/or sugar on a daily basis before giving cattle a new cut of grass would help normalize the rumen pH and result in higher, cost-effective production.
The problem is that it needs to be done daily. Free choice feeding, if done correctly and closely monitored, may be an option.
Hay or haylage can be a great supplement but it is expensive and often becomes a substitute rather than a supplement.
As for the use of fats and oils, I wrote on this in my July 23 blog. The goal is to increase caloric density. One important factor in making the choice to use oils and fats is price. As with other energy supplements, the key is small amounts to all the animals, plus monitoring.
As I wrote in my April 17 blog, two to four pounds of dry hay per head per day helps substantially with washy grass.
The real cure, however, is more plant diversity and maturity, higher soil organic matter and mineralization, better water cycling, improved soil microbes and energy, and standing dry grass from last year’s growing season.