The old adage "One man's ceiling is another man's floor" often applies to agriculture. When one segment, grain production for example, is doing well, another segment, like cattle feeding, struggles and vice versa. That's just the way supply and demand seems to work.
In many areas, the overabundance of rain this spring and summer has caused small grains to suffer quality issues. While that's bad news for cash grain growers, it's an opportunity for cattlemen to pick up reasonably-priced small grains – barley, milo, oats and wheat – for feed.
The latter is most commonly grown for the cash market, and is the most nutrient-dense.
Let's review use of wheat in cattle rations and explore strategies for feeding wheat that didn't make grade for the cash market.
Feeding factors to consider
Keep these four factors to keep in mind:
* Nutritional value: Being nutrient-dense, wheat generally exceeds corn grain in protein value and is very similar in energy value. But there are differences due to type and variety. For example, hard red winter wheat averages about 14% crude protein and 88% total digestible nutrients.
Hard red spring wheat values are 17% and 89%. Durum wheat averages about 16% and 85%.
Corn grain typically comes in at about 10% crude protein and 90 % TDN. Like all cereal grains, wheat is deficient in calcium, but has adequate phosphorus for all types of beef cattle.
The "rub" with feeding wheat comes from its high starch content and rapid fermentation rate in the rumen. Feeding too much or increasing the level in the ration too quickly can lead to serious problems with acidosis or bloat or founder.
However, when properly processed and fed at recommended levels, wheat is well utilized in cattle diets. So, attention to detail is a must.
* Processing: Wheat's tough seed coat requires that it must be processed for good ration utilization. A coarse roll is preferred to increase exposure to the digestive process without creating too many fines. Excessive fines greatly increase risk of digestive upset.
* Limits: While experienced feeders often push wheat levels higher, a safe upper limit is probably about 40% of the ration. Reaching that level should be accomplished slowly over time, making sure that cattle are adapting well and stabilizing their intake at each increment. (See sidebar.) To go over 40%, it would be best to add grains with a slower rate of ruminal fermentation like dry rolled corn or whole corn.
* Additives: Ionophores have been effective in alleviating the digestive upset and overconsumption issues often associated with wheat diets. Improved feed efficiency is an added benefit.
Adding common buffers has improved cattle performance in some trials. Sodium bicarb, at 3 to 4 ounces per head daily, may help buffer the rumen against acid buildup. Adding finely ground limestone also buffers acids in the lower digestive tract of cattle. Keep total calcium ration levels at 0.7 to 0.9%
Beware of quality problems
Kernel sprouting is a common problem when wet humid conditions occur during and after seed head formation. That's good news for cattlemen. Sprouted wheat has almost the same nutritive value as sound wheat on a pound for pound (not volume) basis -- assuming that the sprouting is not accompanied with molds or mycotoxin problems.
In Washington State University trials, there were no significant differences in feedlot performance or carcass characteristics when cattle were fed 50% sound wheat, 50% "low-sprout" wheat (9% sprouted kernels), or 50% "high-sprout" wheat (58% sprouted kernels).
Test weight or "bushel weight" is often a concern when buying "substandard" wheat for feed. The common bushel weight for wheat is about 60 pounds.
Numerous feedlot trials indicate that performance is seldom affected adversely as long as wheat weighs at least 56 pounds per bushel. Feed conversion decreases below that level.
Any signs of mold in wheat should be followed up with a harmful mycotoxin test. Even when results are positive, it's usually possible to feed that grain at a reduced safe level. This is especially true for ruminants.
Cattle are less susceptible to mycotoxins than swine or poultry. University of Minnesota research suggests that cattle growth and health are unaffected at relatively high vomitoxin levels (21 parts per million of DON). It's always wise to avoid feeding affected feedstuffs to young, reproducing or lactating animals.
Here are a few management tips for feeding wheat to beef cattle from experts at North Dakota State University:
* Limit wheat to 40% or less of the ration in backgrounding and finishing diets.
* Limit durum to 30% or less of such ration.
* Ionophores should be used with wheat-based finishing diets to improve feed efficiency and reduce acidosis risk.
* Buffers such as limestone and sodium bicarbonate may help alleviate or prevent digestive upsets.
* Adapt cattle to wheat-based diets incrementally; starting with low levels (10 to 15%) and then gradually increasing to 30% (durum) or 40% (hard wheats).
* Wheat should be coarsely rolled or cracked -- not finely ground – for optimum performance.
* As a beef cow supplement, hard wheat levels should be kept under 5 to 6 pounds per head per day. For durum wheat, keep it under 3.5 to 4.5 pounds.
* When used as a supplement, feed wheat every day, not every other day or every third day.
* Do not use wheat in creep rations or self-feeders. Rapid starch fermentation rates raise risk of acidosis, founder and/or bloat.
* Damaged wheat (sprouted, frosted, drought-stressed and vomitoxin-infested) can be fed after careful inspection and laboratory analysis of the condition and quality of the grain.
Harpster is a beef cow-calf producer and retired Penn State animal scientist.