We all face those times when our cattle can’t cut it on an all-forage program. It might be a summer dry spell when pasture growth all but withers away. It might be in the dead of winter when hay quantity or quality run low.
Even when forage supplies aren’t lacking, we often want a daily boost in gains that’s beyond what’s possible on a high roughage plan. That’s where extra feed supplementation comes in.
It may be creep feed for nursing calves, backgrounding calves for sale, growing cattle in a stocker program, developing replacement heifers, maybe prepping bulls for breeding season. Or it might be for putting more condition on breeding stock for sale or adding body condition and/or milk production to brood cows.
Supplements need to be offered in limited quantities or they’ll be overconsumed if offered free-choice. And we know the rumen operates more efficiently if nutrient intake can be “evened out” throughout the day. So how can you deliver it so each animal receives an appropriate amount – without spending time and money hand-feeding and without fighting boss cows getting more than their shares?
3 better ways to limit extra feed intake
Self-feeding supplements solve many hand-feeding drawbacks, especially the high labor aspect. Here are three options:
1. Bulk dilution: We typically think of intake limiters as something we add to rations in small amounts to decrease consumption. This is different.
We add a high percentage of a bulky ingredient to limit intake by “rumen fill”. For example, you might add 80% of relatively low-quality hay (chopped or ground) to 10% corn and 10% protein supplement.
The trick is get the proportions right so that daily nutrient intake is close to requirements. This can take some trial and error effort.
2. Pass the salt: Adding salt is a common, economical ways of limiting intake. Because there are practical limits to the amount of salt cattle will eat, it can be used to restrict consumption of highly palatable feeds such as grain and supplement.
In such instances, daily voluntary intake of salt will be approximately 0.1 pound salt per 100 pounds body weight for most cattle classes. For example, 300-pound calves will consume about 0.3 pounds of salt daily; 700-pound yearlings – 0.7 pounds; 1,400-pound cows – about 1.4 pounds.
The hitch is: Not all cattle read the textbooks and follow the thumb rule. Just like humans, animals vary in salt preference. You’ll need to be on top of feeding management – bump up salt levels when total intake is too high, and lower it when total intake is too low.
Cattle on salt mixtures drink 50% to 75% more water than normal – about 5 gallons of additional water for each pound of salt. So keep plenty of clean fresh water available.
If only salty water is available, cattle will often refuse the supplement or may be forced into a toxicity situation. Salt content of water is usually measured by total dissolved solids, including calcium, magnesium, sodium chlorides, sulfates and bicarbonates.
Be careful using salt-limited supplements when water contains above 5,000 parts per million of TDS. Water testing should be available through your state university.
3. Try commercial products: Most commercial feed companies have one or more products to do the job. Many have patented approaches via meals, blocks and liquids.
Too expensive, you argue? Before concluding that, remember that years of research have taken a lot of the guesswork out of the process, and you can expect more consistent, reliable results. Your feed rep can tell you how to use the products without trial-and-error learning.
Commercial products aren’t simply high-salt alternatives. They come with many other key required nutrients.
Purina, for instance, has documented that spreading supplement intake throughout the day increases animal grazing time by 15% to 20%, and enhances pasture utilization. Overall forage utilization is improved as cattle rumen bugs operate more efficiently.
Harpster is a beef cow-calf producers and retired Penn State animal scientist.