by Courtney Llewellyn

It’s more than likely that feed costs will continue to rise in 2022, and if the past few growing seasons are anything to work off of, baling quality hay won’t always be an option. Fortunately, beef cattle, like humans, can adapt to different foods to get what they need.

In their “Beef: Beyond the Basics” series, North Carolina Cooperative Extension devoted an entire session to alternative feeds for beef cattle. Bladen County Extension Director and Livestock Agent Becky Spearman spoke about the nutritional considerations for beeves: water, protein, vitamins, minerals and energy. They all need to come from what the cows consume.

“Obviously, grass is the lowest cost and the most nutritious,” Spearman said. And when feeding hay, you need to test it and then determine feeding strategies based on the quality of the hay. “Do you need to supplement for protein or energy or both? That depends on your hay quality,” she said. “When do you need to supplement? What do you supplement with? What is most cost effective? There are lots of things we can supplement with, but some of them you probably can’t afford and still be profitable.”

Spearman noted there are several classification of alternative feeds that could be used as supplements:

  • Co-products have attained primary ingredient value (soybean meal or cottonseed meal).
  • Byproducts have great potential, but some factors may limit their use, and they may be underutilized (soybean hulls or corn gluten feed). Spearman said in last few years, farmers are using these more, especially as feed costs rise.
  • Waste products – but certain factors greatly limit their usefulness (broiler litter, cotton waste or potato waste).
  • Waste materials, which have little proven value as feed and are primarily a result of a disposal problem from another industry.

“Things to think about when you’re trying to choose an alternative feed include moisture content, nutrient content and the variability of some products – you may have to test each feed batch to make sure we’re meeting feed requirements,” Spearman said. Local availability and seasonal availability (stability), limited inclusion rates (you may only be able to add 5% – 20% of a product to the cows’ diet), handling and storage, health side effects (the potential for toxins, dust, mineral imbalances, etc.) and convenience also need to be considered.

The price or value of the nutrient content is also critical. “Free is not free,” Spearman stated. “That produce may only have a small amount, it may not have long shelf life – there’s typically a reason something is free.” The big question: Is this alternative feed worth it for your farm?

Before you try anything new, though, make sure you talk to your Extension agent or nutritionist to make sure that the daily ration still gives your cattle everything they need.

Some byproduct feeding options include cull vegetables, which can be cheap or free, but consider their moisture content (about 80% – 90%) and that spoilage can be an issue. They’re usually adequate to high for total digestible nutrients (TDN) and adequate for crude protein (CP).

A second option is bakery products (bread, crackers, chips, cookies, cakes, donuts, etc.). These are high energy feeds, high in starch and fat, which could cause a rapid pH drop of the rumen, lead to acidosis, scouring and reduced feed intake (since they’re high in fat). Do not feed bakery items free choice.

Nuts and peanut products – more available in the South – are high in fat and may have some issues with spoilage. The same can be said of peanut butter, which is also high in protein but high in fat.

There are several cotton byproducts that can be used. Whole cotton seed (with 90% TDN, 24% CP and 24% fat) needs to be fed by hand and male infertility can be an issue of too much being consumed. Cotton gin byproducts can serve as a hay replacement, and they’re best when fed with whole cottonseed, but they’re often bulky and dusty.

Another option is wet brewers’ grains (with 66% – 72% TDN and 25% – 30% CP), but farmers need to consider the hauling, storage and shelf life of this feed, as it is a wet product.

Corn gluten feed (with 80% – 87% TDN and 18% – 24% CP) contains high levels of sulfur and phosphorus, and it’s sometimes burned, which lowers the feeding value and palatability for cows.

Many alternative feeds can’t be distributed as easily as the more traditional ones, so consider the advantages of hand feeding versus self-feeding – labor is a major factor in their value.

Spearman also said to use good feeding management practices with alternative feeds: minimize feed wastage, use adequate feeder space, don’t let cows get hungry, test your hay, balance rations and monitor body condition.

When buying different feeds, know what you’re investing in. Consider the price in dollars per ton; the moisture (DM%) content; and the nutrient content (CP% and TDN%).

Byproducts can be used in very simple, one-ingredient applications or in complex multi-ingredient rations. Spearman concluded that alternative feeds have a great potential to reduce feed costs, but increased management is almost always necessary to make them work.