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Reducing costs of delivering feed to cattle

Kenneth C. Olson
SDSU West River Ag Center Beef Specialist
Ken Olson |
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Winter supplementation of beef cattle is an important economic and production decision that producers make each year. Supplementation is often necessary to overcome nutrient deficiencies to allow adequate cattle performance. However, supplementation is an expensive input cost. The initial decision is the correct kind and amount of feed to use as the supplement, with the goal to provide the needed nutrients at the least feed cost. After this, opportunities to reduce other costs of supplementation should be considered. One option that can have a major impact on input costs is how often supplement is delivered. Reducing the frequency that supplement is delivered can reduce fuel, labor, and machinery costs. The important concern is creating the right balance between frequency of delivery and cattle performance.

The major nutrient content (protein or energy) of the supplement being delivered determines whether or not supplement can be delivered less frequently than daily. There is a great deal of flexibility with frequency of protein supplementation, but not with energy supplements. Numerous studies have evaluated differences between daily, three times per week, two times per week, and once a week supplementation with protein. This research has indicated that supplementation frequency does not significantly affect cow body weight or body condition score when cows were supplemented with natural protein based supplements such as cottonseed meal across a range of frequencies from daily to once per week while grazing low-quality forage.

Although infrequent supplementation works well with protein supplements, it is not effective with energy supplements. The most typical feedstuffs used to supplement energy are various grains, such as corn or barley. The primary constituent of grains is starch, which is an excellent source of energy, but starch interferes with digestion of fiber from forages and ultimately decreases forage intake. Additionally, increasing amounts of supplemental starch proportionately increases the magnitude of the negative effect.

As a result, increasing the amount of grain fed at infrequent feedings increases the interference with forage utilization. It also is more disruptive of digestion when it is not fed daily. The problem is that the rumen organisms do not have the opportunity to adapt to the starch in the diet because it is not available every day. In fact, excessive amounts of starch in cattle that are not adapted to high-grain diets can lead to serious digestive disorders such as bloat or acidosis. Research in Montana using first-calf heifers grazing winter range indicated that heifers only gained half as much weight (69 vs. 142 pounds) when supplemented with corn grain every other day compared to those fed corn daily. The heifers supplemented daily gained body condition, while those supplemented every other day only maintained body condition.

Use of fiber-based byproduct feeds such as soyhulls and sugar beet pulp will lessen the negative effects of infrequent energy supplementation compared to starchy feeds, but they should still not be delivered less frequently than daily unless they are being supplemented at extremely low levels.

Another consideration associated with infrequent supplementation is its influence on variation in supplement intake among individual cows in a herd, which is influenced by the amount of supplement provided at each feeding. This, in turn, is directly related to frequency of supplementation. Daily supplemented cattle have a smaller amount of feed allocated per head and the dominant cows will typically consume a larger portion of supplement than their allotment and the timid cows may not consume their required amount, if they consume any. By providing supplement on a less frequent basis, there is a larger quantity of feed delivered, which gives all cows an opportunity to consume supplement as the quantity is too large for the dominant cows to consume in a short period of time.

For example, if feeding 100 cows a 30 percent CP range cube at two lbs/head/day, then 200 pounds of range cubes would be distributed every day. In this situation, the timid cows may wait until feeding has finished while the dominant cows may have the feed nearly eaten by the time the others have made their way to the feed. If supplement is delivered every three days, the amount of feed provided would increase to 600 pounds, which in most cases, if fed on the ground would mean the feed would be delivered over a larger area and the timid cows will have more of an opportunity to consume their allotted amount of feed without competing with other cows. Results from the previously mentioned research trials support this. There was less variation in supplement intake and performance among cows in herds that were supplemented less frequently than those that were supplemented daily.

To determine the feeding frequency that works best, calculate costs to deliver supplement. Take into consideration mileage to and from the cows, time and labor to feed them, and equipment availability. For example, if the cows are 15 miles from the feed and it takes one hour and 15 minutes to feed when fed daily; what is the cost to feed those cattle on a daily basis, every third day and once a week, (given you have the necessary equipment available)?

Let’s use $0.50/mile and $10/hour for labor in this example. For daily feeding, the cost to deliver the feed would be $192.50/week ($0.50/mile × 30 miles per round trip × 7 trips/week = $105, plus $10 per hour × 1.25 hours × 7 trips = $87.50, for a total of $192.50). For every third day feeding the cost of delivery would be $60/week. This includes an additional 15 minutes of labor for the added time in loading and unloading the extra feed. For once a week feeding, delivery cost would be $32.50/week with an additional 30 minutes of labor compared to daily feeding. To compare the daily versus weekly feeding on a strictly economic basis, the savings would be $160/week by supplementing once a week. Once-a-week supplementation may not work in all situations, but frequency should be considered as a possibility to decrease input costs and help deal with high feed costs. Greater distances of delivery will increae the probability that infrequent feeding will pay. Customize these numbers and calculations to evaluate your specific situation.

This column was taken from a South Dakota Cooperative Extension publication that was recently written by Adele Harty, Haakon County Extension Educator, and myself. Check the SDSU Extension web site or with Adele or myself to obtain the publication or for further information.


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