Beyond Nutrition: Non-Nutrient Considerations of Byproducts in Cattle Rations

By Cody Schneider, Beef Cattle Nutritionist, Provimi, Cargill Animal Nutrition

Byproducts are nothing new to cattle producers and have become an essential part of cattle raising. Byproducts range from the usual — distillers grains, soybean hulls and corn gluten feed — to the somewhat unusual — candy or fruit and vegetable waste.

Often times though, especially for nutritionists, we get focused on the nutritional aspects the byproducts are fulfilling in the ration and ensuring the ration meets the needs of the cattle. But the benefits of using byproducts extend far beyond that to include economic, health, performance and sustainability gains.

Economics: Feedlot managers and cattle feeders are extremely talented at grinding pennies out of a process because they are often managing very slim margins where pennies can determine profitability of feeding cattle. When feed is the largest expense of raising cattle, it’s at the top of the list for ways to reduce costs. Byproducts can help with reducing overall costs while still providing the necessary nutrition. For this reason, it is important to stay informed about what is available in your geography.

Health and Performance: Health and performance go hand-in-hand. Byproducts can help fill nutritional gaps when other, more traditional feed sources are too expensive or are poor in quality. This is especially important during bad growing seasons — drought or too much moisture — to help keep cattle healthy and productive. Certain wet byproducts help improve palatability of the ration by adding moisture which can help encourage incoming cattle to eat or allow the feedlot to utilize a lower quality roughage source that wouldn’t be palatable in a dry ration without sacrificing performance.

Sustainability: Beef production has gotten a reputation by certain groups of consumers of being bad for the environment. Cattle are uniquely equipped to utilize a wide variety of feed products. The use of byproducts has become a great piece of our industry’s sustainability story as cattle turn these potentially unusable products into high quality protein to help feed the world.

With the growing list of benefits, it is easy to get excited about the availability of byproducts, especially when the price is low. I’ve seen this happen often: I get a call from a producer saying that they can get a load of a byproduct for a really low price. Decisions must be made quickly in order to cash in on the deal. Often time, my first word of caution is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. I find the following questions critical to keep in mind when you have a byproduct deal come your way:

What is the condition of the byproduct? You get a call about a cheap load of distillers grains that were held up on a barge. That’s gold, right? Not necessarily. What weather conditions was the product in? Was it excessively hot or humid? How long was the product in storage? The condition of the byproduct can greatly affect if the cattle will eat the feed.

Will it be palatable for my cattle? Cattle can be very finicky eaters. While we always try to get a proper mix on the feed, cattle can still pick through or refuse to eat if something doesn’t seem right to them. If the color, smell or texture is off, your cattle might not eat it. Byproducts that are wet can aid in palatability, but the added moisture also limits shelf life, and soilage can decrease palatability. Particle size and texture is also important for certain animals. For instance feeding too much of a byproduct with a very small particle size can lead to a ration that is mealy — an off-putting texture for cattle.

Is this byproduct of consistent quality or is it variable? It is important to know the quality and the variability of the product you are buying. The more variable the byproduct is, the less valuable it will be in your ration because consistency is extremely important to cattle. Remember, with cattle, we are actually feeding the microbial community in the rumen and they in turn feed the animal. Ration inconsistency can reduce efficiency, cause changes or limit the productivity of the microbial community in the rumen. This can lead to potential health problems and will limit the productivity of the animal.

Am I sacrificing performance to save costs upfront? Although the upfront price might be low, think about what you could actually be paying in the long run. If the cattle don’t eat the byproduct, or if it’s inconsistent or low quality, cattle may be on feed for longer in order to hit your harvest weight target, costing you more in the end.

Can my system handle this ingredient? Logistics are a big part of any feeding operation. For byproducts, two major considerations are storage and batching. Do you have enough storage space for this byproduct? Or, if it’s a wet byproduct, do you have the right kind of storage to handle it? Depending on how many ingredients you have in your ration already, adding another can add significant time to batching and increase how long feeding takes each day.

How often am I changing my ration to add cheap byproducts? Consistency is extremely important for feedlot cattle so it is important to minimize ration changes. Every ration change is a risk that you might throw certain cattle off feed or cause undesirable changes to the microbial community of some animals. These changes may not always be apparent when looking at intake for an entire pen. Change isn’t only hard on your cattle; it can be hard on your employees and operation when rations and mixing instructions get changed too often.

Byproducts have long been a key component of beef production and will continue to be in the future as we adapt to changing markets, weather conditions, byproduct availability and new byproducts. As the dynamics of byproducts change, it’s important to continue to work with a nutritionist to help ensure you evaluate all considerations — nutritional or otherwise — to get the most benefit from utilizing byproducts in your rations.

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