Each fall, winter cow feeding and supplementation questions roll in. Oftentimes the questions pertain to determining the most economical option that meets cow nutrient requirements. With the multitude of products and options available, this can be a daunting task. Additionally, no two situations are alike, no two years are identical and there is no one size fits all product. Adjustments to the winter feeding program may needed from year to year-based on forage quality and availability.

Here are some tips to help work through the task of selecting the right supplement.

  1. What is the quality and quantity of the current forage base? This helps identify nutrient deficiencies and select the appropriate supplement. Frequently protein is the first limiting nutrient, but do not discount energy. The only way to determine deficiencies is by having a sample analyzed. For a list of laboratories, check out the Feed and Water Testing Laboratories publication. Once a forage analysis is completed, nutrient needs can be assessed.
  2. What nutrient status are the cows currently in? Cows in a body condition score 5 need to maintain, greater than 6 can maintain or lose a slight amount of condition, but cows that are less than 5 need to gain condition. These factors along with weather play a role in energy requirements. Consider sorting cows into groups if there are distinct body condition score differences, specifically providing a slightly higher quality diet to the thinnest cows. For a short video on body condition scoring cows, go to Annie’s Project: Body Condition Scoring – Beef Cows video.
  3. What supplement options are available and what equipment is required for handling? Some options are cheaper than others, but if equipment has to be purchased to store or handle the product, it soon becomes less economical in the short term. If the product is something that will be available in the future or the equipment can be used for other purposes, then it could be considered. Protein supplement options that are commonly available include range cubes “cake”, molasses lick barrels, by-product feeds such as distillers grains, alfalfa hay, etc. For more information on protein versus energy supplements, check out Annie’s Project: Protein and Energy Supplements video.
  4. Compare options on a cost per unit of nutrient basis, while considering equipment needs. For example, if protein is deficient, determine the price on a cost per unit of protein basis. This will allow an equal comparison between feeds. This calculation is $ per ton ÷ % dry matter ÷ % crude protein. An example is distiller’s grains at $160 per ton. It would be $160 ÷ 89% ÷ 29% = $620 per ton of protein. Alfalfa hay at 15% protein at a cost of $90 per ton would be, $90 ÷ 89% ÷ 15% = $674 per ton of protein. Molasses lick barrels at 22% protein at a cost of $110 per 250 lb barrel would be $880 ÷ 75% ÷ 22% = $5,333. These products vary greatly in price per ton of protein, but consider all factors involved with storing and feeding. The same calculation can be used for comparing energy supplements using total digestible nutrients (TDN). To compare multiple products, use the feed nutrient comparison calculator https://www.sdstate.edu/files/feed-nutrient-comparison-calculator.
  5. Select feeds that do not require new capital investments for equipment to handle the feeds, unless it will pencil out in the long term. Keep in mind delivery costs and labor associated with each feed. Remember that protein supplements do not have to be delivered on a daily basis. See the publication on Reducing Costs of Delivering Feed to Cattle—Supplementation Frequency.

Taking the time to look at the economics and evaluate a winter feeding program can pay off greatly by ensuring the cattle nutrient requirements are met with the most economical feed options while optimizing performance. No two situations are alike and not all supplements work for every situation, but taking the time to find the best alternative will be beneficial to the bottom line.

Source: Adele Harty, iGrow