Alternative Feeding Options For the Cattle industry



Concerns of drought conditions going into the summer months coupled with dry weather conditions in 2017 and extended  winter conditions in some areas, have caused producers to try and stretch their roughage supplies. With high hay prices and difficultly of procuring traditional roughage sources, it is important to have an economical alternative to grazing pasture or buying hay. Hot and dry weather conditions can shift very quickly, so being proactive and having a plan in place before drought conditions arise should be incorporated into a producer’s risk management plan. It is important in times like these for  producers to think outside of the box and be open minded to alternative feeds that they may not be accustomed to, if there is a financial incentive to do so. Alternative feeds encompass a host of feed stuffs including forages, crop residues, weeds, grains,  screenings, grain processing co-products, oilseeds, and liquid co-products, just to name a few.

Alternative feeds vary widely in nutrient composition and need to be analyzed before deciding to implement them into a feeding program. When selecting what alternative feeds to incorporate into a feeding program there are several factors to consider. Most alternative feeds are  available in localized areas and are not typically the primary output of a manufacturing process or crop system; however, these  less common alternative roughages typically provide a cost incentive in finishing rations. It is important to consider the  consistency on a nutritional level, availability (year-round or seasonal supply), and shelf life of the product. Generally,  producers can purchase large quantities of feed ingredients cheaper than spot loads. In the case of wet feeds, there is typically a shelf life associated with them. This is a limitation to keep in mind as additional management and resources may be required in handling and storing products that do have a shelf life to ensure product longevity. Consistency of the product is important to measure, if a product is coming from multiple plants it is important to test the product’s nutrient analysis from each source.

Toxins and anti-nutritional factors associated with some alternative feeds are important to take into consideration when  choosing which feed to incorporate into your feeding program. Many anti-nutritional factors can be tested inexpensively and in a timely manner. Nitrates are an example of anti-nutritional factors that can be tested for. Nitrates are typically a concern in forages that have been harvested following a freeze or in drought conditions. Ensiling forages can reduce nitrate levels 40 to 60%. An important note to consider is even though a product may have been through a manufacturing process does not mean that the product does not contain toxins. If the toxin is present at harvest, processing will not void the feed of toxins.

When including alternative forages into a ration, it is important to do so on an equal neutral detergent fiber (NDF) basis, which can be determined through a feed analysis. Forage intake of a ruminant is impacted by the quality, digestibility, palatability and  chemical composition of the forage. Forage quality is highly variable from forage to forage making it difficult to estimate intake. Dry matter intake of cattle consuming low quality, or primarily roughage rations, is limited by physical distention of the rumen. Mertens (1987) suggests that NDF content of forages can serve as a proxy for the physical distention effect in the rumen. In  high concentrate rations, cattle intake is controlled through chemostatic regulation; however, forage is still needed to maintain rumen function and reduce acidosis risk. Forage in a finishing ration maintains rumination and saliva production, thus providing ruminal buffering.

In a feedlot finishing ration there is typically not a large amount of roughage included; however,  when exchanging sources, it is still important to take into consideration how that forage is going to mix in the ration to minimize sorting. Feedlot rations contain a large amount of concentrate feeds in order to maximize cost per unit of energy; however,  there is a fine line in how low we can push roughage inclusion while still minimizing the incidence of acidosis. The greatest driver in why roughage is needed in feedlot rations is the starch from the grain component of the ration. The minimal amount of forage needed is variable depending on the other ingredients included in the ration. An example would be processing method of the  grain in the ration. Less roughage is needed in a ration containing whole corn as compared to a ration that has steam flaked corn. The optimal roughage level in a ration to maximize cost while maintaining rumen integrity is a balancing act between the ration composition (roughage source, grain type, rate of starch digestion, protein type, feed additives) and external factors (DMI, bunk management, weather, animal health, animal type). There are many factors to consider when determining the minimum  NDF concentration needed in a finishing ration. Research helps producers and nutritionists bridge the gap and make  science-based decisions.

Researchers showed that feeding steers a roughage source with a larger particle size at a lower inclusion (5%) in the ration had similar results to feeding a roughage with a smaller particle size at a greater inclusion (10%), with no negative impacts on animal performance or digestibility (Gentry et al., 2016). In a study conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln by Benton et al. (2015), steers were fed either alfalfa hay, corn silage, or corn stalks at two inclusion levels (4 or 6%). Corn silage and corn stalks inclusion in the ration was determined by NDF content of the forages. Corn silage and corn stalks matched the NDF content of the alfalfa at both 4 and 6% inclusion. Results suggest that, regardless of roughage source, cattle fed a greater roughage inclusion (6%) had greater (P < 0.04) DMI and ADG compared to steers fed the lower roughage inclusion (4%). Cattle fed no roughage tended to have the lowest (P ≤ 0.06) final BW and ADG while having reduced (P < 0.01) DMI compared to steers fed 4 or 6% roughage likely due to acidosis.

Utilizing poor quality forages can be a viable option for feedlot producers. In the feedlot, alternative forages such as crop residues can be utilized at 20 to 30% inclusion in a growing ration and 5 to 7% in a finishing ration with no detriment to performance. Often times, in years of drought many farmers have corn that does not produce a significant yield, making silage an economical option to salvage a low yielding crop. Drought damaged corn silage is variable in value warranting a feed analysis; however, typically it ranges 85-95% the energy value and slightly higher protein values (0.5 to 1.0%) of normal corn silage.

In times when feed and forage prices get high, producers often cut additives and supplements from their feed programs; however, this is typically when technology will give the highest return on your investment. Adding an ionophore to your mineral program can help to maximize feed efficiency (4-8% improvement) leading to substantial saving in times of high hay prices. Work with your nutritionist to get alternative feeds analyzed and help determine their value in your operation. The bottom line is that no matter which alternative feed is utilized, the ration must be balanced to meet the nutrient requirements of the animal and economic goals of the producer.

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