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In most grazing situations energy is the first most limiting nutrient.

Alan Newport, Editor, Beef Producer

June 6, 2013

4 Min Read


It's been 10 years or more since Jim Howell first showed me and explained to me that forage doesn't have to be consumed in Stage II growth, sometimes called "vegetative" growth.

It was an open door to a revelation.

You see, up to that point most of the teaching about grazing in this country said that ideally you want to come back and graze a sward of forage before it gets into Stage III, which is the reproductive stage of growth.

At the time, Jim was explaining to me the importance and value of this new knowledge in environments dominated by cool-season forage, such as his home place in the mountains of central Colorado.

Then came Greg Judy and Ian Mitchell-Innes and Mark Bader saying this was generally true regardless of environment.

Bader, in particular, stands behind some of this knowledge with his unorthodox ration balancing methods which depend more on  body chemistry than nutrient requirements. Bader also is a rare bird who talks about testing the nutritional content of different parts of forage plants.

For example, Bader says the top one-third of a mature cool-season grass plant has the best combination of energy and protein. (By his methods this would be the right combination of hydrogen, oxygen and protein.)

He says the middle third of a grass plant is lower in oxygen and hydrogen (therefore lower in energy) and higher in protein.

The bottom one-third of that lush, cool-season grass plant, Bader says, has still lower oxygen, still lower hydrogen and much higher protein content.

Bader also says many forages, especially cool-season grasses, are low in dietary oxygen and it's dietary oxygen that helps in the consumption or "burning" of energy by the body, sort of the like the air-fuel mixture in a car. Too little oxygen and it is choking on excess fuel.

Warm-season plants in the growing season have a much better mixture of hydrogen, oxygen and proteins, however, Bader's data says.

While the protein part seems counter-intuitive to me, mostly this makes sense to me when I watch cattle graze. If you have never sat and watched them when they go into a fresh paddock you're missing a treat and an education.

I love watching cattle when they enter a new paddock. If it is a sward dominated by mature fescue they eagerly graze seedheads first, the same way I might eat ice cream first if I didn't have 55 years of training that dessert is always the last course of the meal. (Darn you, Mom!)

If warm-season and cool-season forage is there they eat a lot of the warm season forage and some seedheads. In the fall, I see them strip a lot of seedheads from warm-season grass as the first course in new-paddock meal and they always browse tree leaves as one of their first choices if trees are available.

All this leads me back to my realization within the last three or four years that a forage diet for cattle is always lacking in energy, at least for optimum performance. It is worse in cool-season plants than in warm-season plants like the tallgrasses.

I realized this when comparing cattle gains and production and "efficiency" on feedlot, dairy and other grain-based rations with such performances on forages.

Energy! They're after energy. Remember that all the grains of the world are just seeds of grasses or leguminous plants. Energy in the form of seeds/grain is what the cattle are relishing in my pasture now. Back when they lived in big herds the forage was often in various states of maturity before they came back around to graze it.

Energy! As long as protein is adequate it's energy that limits growth and performance and fat deposition. Further, protein is usually lacking only in a forage's dormant season and in continuously grazed forages later in the growing season.

Cattle can convert protein to energy for awhile but it releases excess nitrogen into their systems and causes a lot of problems after a few days or certainly after a few weeks.

Click on the video to watch a short clip of calves grazing seedheads in a fescue-dominated part of my pasture.

Rodger Savory, Allan Savory's son, told me a couple years ago when I met him while he was living in Canada that this knowledge is part of what he and his father have been trying to tell people all along. He said that planning grazing to provide more energy and building up forage supplies so more quality is available and more residual material can be left behind to protect and feed the soil is frequently part of the planning process.

These are exciting times for grazing managers. We have the chance to feed our ruminant animals from the bounty of the land in productive ways we never before dreamed.

About the Author(s)

Alan Newport

Editor, Beef Producer

Alan Newport is editor of Beef Producer, a national magazine with editorial content specifically targeted at beef production for Farm Progress’s 17 state and regional farm publications. Beef Producer appears as an insert in these magazines for readers with 50 head or more of beef cattle. Newport lives in north-central Oklahoma and travels the U.S. to meet producers and to chase down the latest and best information about the beef industry.

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