Greg Lardy: Make informed decisions about protein supplementation

Greg Lardy

Many ranchers in the region utilize dormant forages, crop residues, or other low-quality forages for a portion of their forage resources for winter grazing. If you are planning to utilize these kind of forages in your winter grazing plans, protein supplementation may be necessary to maintain beef cow productivity, ensure healthy calves at calving time, and ensure the cows return to estrous quickly following calving.

Dormant forages, crop residues and other low-quality forages are typically low in protein and vitamin A, as well as minerals such as phosphorus. A variety of factors including cow condition, cow nutrient requirements (calving date, milk production, cow size), previous forage and pasture management, and weather will determine when and if protein supplementation is required. There are many different products available for use as protein supplements. Alfalfa hay, oilseed meals, grain processing coproducts such as dried distillers grains plus solubles, and a myriad of commercial products can all be used as supplements. The optimal choice for your operation depends on cost, availability, pasture accessibility, and other factors.

Understanding the nutrient content of your basal forages is a key in making effective and profitable supplementation decisions. Extension personnel and feed company nutritionists have access to diet quality data for dormant native range, grazed crop residues, and other forages in your area. They can help you determine when to start supplementation. Apply knowledge of diet quality, intake and cow requirements to fine tune protein supplementation programs and improve overall returns by focusing on timely supplementation with the right products.

The purposes of protein supplementation are, first, to provide a nutrient source for the rumen microorganisms and, second, to provide nutrients for the cow. The rumen bacteria need rumen degradable protein to efficiently ferment the fiber in dormant forages and provide the cow with energy, protein, and other nutrients. Most oilseed meals and grain processing coproducts contain relatively high proportions of rumen degradable protein.

Rumen degradable protein is what is utilized by the rumen microorganisms. For example, in the case of distillers dried grains, about 60 percent of the crude protein is rumen undegradable or escape protein. This means 40 percent of it is available to the rumen microorganisms. However, research indicates that it still works well as a protein supplement for low-quality forages because the cow is able to digest the remaining protein, break down the amino acids, and recycle nitrogen to the rumen in the form of urea.

Research data from across the country indicate that protein supplements don’t need to be fed daily. In fact, several studies indicate similar animal performance whether supplements are offered daily or as infrequently as weekly. One of the reasons for this is the ability of the cow to recycle urea to the rumen. There are considerable fuel and labor savings in providing protein supplements on an every other day or every third day feeding program.

Many commercial self-fed products (cooked molasses blocks, self-fed liquids, salt-limited supplements, and others) are available which can be used to cut down on supplement delivery costs. These self-fed products are particularly useful in situations where pastures are a long distance from the ranch or farm headquarters and daily supplementation with conventional supplements is cost prohibitive. Self-fed products can also be used to draw cattle into areas where terrain or other limitations might otherwise reduce forage utilization.

In summary, be sure to understand your basal forage nutrient composition, cow requirements, and the economics of protein supplements before initiating a supplementation program. Consult your local Extension personnel or nutritionist for help in making an informed and cost effective protein supplementation decision.