For beef cattle, the cheapest and the most common mode of feeding is pasture.  However, pasture is an ever-changing commodity.  The quality is above requirements in early spring grass, and is poorer than required in late summer and stockpiled forages.  Hays and other stored forages are variable in their quality, and in drought years are expensive and short.  What we will address in this article is the supplementation of the forage available to maximize the nutritional value of that forage. 


Supplementation is simply supplying nutrients to the animals that are needed but not available or not in high enough quantities in the forage being consumed.  Forage of course is the pasture, hay, silage or other stored roughage source being consumed by the animal.  We generally supplement for one of four reasons. 

  1. The first is forage quality.  With early grass, the protein content may be above 20%.  Generally the amount of grass is limited, but the sugar content and the protein are very high.  We can supplement this grass with a high fiber, low protein type of feed to stretch the grass and improve the gains by feeding about 1% body weight during this period.  As the grass continues to grow and becomes plentiful, the protein content drops to about 14-18%, supplementation will increase the carrying capacity of the grass, but is no longer needed from a nutritional standpoint. 
  2. The second reason for supplementation is to obtain a better performance.  Many times we have average forage, that will sustain our cattle, but it does not support the gain, maintain the milk production nor replace the body condition that we desire.  In these cases we supplement to improve performance. 
  3. The third reason we supplement is to extend forage quantity.  This is either to increase stocking rates or to supplement in times of drought or seasons of the year when forage is normally short (winter).  The supplementation used during these times will vary according to the forage availability and will be discussed later. 
  4. The fourth and most common reason for supplementation is simply as a management tool and has nothing to do with forage quality or availability.  The cattle are called up and fed daily (or periodically) to allow the visual assessment of each animal.  Even if this is the only reason you use supplementation, read on.  The proper selection of the feed with which you are supplementing may make the difference between this supplementation being an expense and being a moneymaking investment.


This seems like a foolish question.  We are supplementing the animal, of course.  Not wanting to split hairs, but we are actually supplementing the bacteria within the rumen.  These ruminal microbes are what break down the grass and other forage or fiber source into products the cows can digest.  The rumen or the first stomach of the cow is a fermentation vat.  The byproducts of that fermentation are absorbed through the wall of the rumen.  The rumen fluid and some solids pass down the digestive tract and these are digested by a stomach and intestine that works very similar to ours.  The ruminal bacteria become a primary source of protein for the cow.  The cow cannot digest fiber any better than you or I, without the use of the fermentation found in the rumen. 


If we look at cattle raising as a business, then the only reason to supplement is economics.  The things we have to consider are the price of land, the price of labor, and the cost of inputs such as equipment, fuel, minerals, feed, and fertilizer.  Once we figure our cost of operation and our ROI (return on investment) without supplementation, we may very well find that the lowest input gain is not necessarily the cheapest or most profitable gain. 

When deciding whether to supplement or not, we need to consider the beef price……. What is it worth to put on extra gain?  We need to have some idea of the increased performance we can expect from supplementation.  We need to consider if we are able to increase stocking rates, thereby being able to sell more total pounds of beef per acre.  We need to consider, besides the increase in pounds of beef sold, how much does it add to the value of the animal by upgrading the quality of animal that is going through the ring.  It is obvious that feeding does not improve on the genetics of the animal, but a muscled, fast growing animal will bring more per pound than a thin, no luster animal. 


Supplementation may be broken down into five main areas:

  1. Year round;
  2. Seasonal
  3. Strategic
  4. Enhancement
  5. Replacement.                                                                 

These will be discussed separately.

Year Round 

The one type of supplementation that should occur continuously is that of minerals and salt.  Our forages are deficient in minerals and of course salt.  Vitamins are important during the times of year that green forages are not available.  The fat-soluble vitamins (A, D and E) are stored in the liver for some time, but still should be supplemented in the mineral salt mix to prevent any overt deficiency. Minerals should be fed in a covered trough to prevent rain and wind exposure.  Although we treat our minerals with special products to prevent their setting up, and becoming hard if they get rained on, if they stand in water for 2-3 days and then the soupy mix is allowed to dry out, it is going to be like a chunk of concrete and the animals won't be able to get anything out of them.  The mineral feeders should be placed near water or congregation (socialization) areas.  More thoughts on mineral supplementation are found below.


Generally, seasonal supplementation is used to maximize the effectiveness of the forage, or to improve its availability to the animal.  One example of this has been mentioned.  By supplementing early grass with a high fiber energy source the high protein level of the grass is enhanced and better utilization of the forage results in better gains by the animals.  Another example will be discussed later, but involves supplementing with protein when grass is mature and the protein content is less than is needed. 


One example of strategic feeding would be when calves are backgrounded prior to going to a feedlot.  Another example would be increased feeding prior to synchronization in a seasonal breeding program.  Feeding during the seasonal breeding might also be considered strategic supplementation.  This type of feeding is meant to improve the results and performance of the animal during a specific dynamic period. 


Supplementation for enhancement would be supplementation that improves performance or gain over that which occurs on normally available feeds.  The two most common times these are used are creep feeding calves and feeding animals when readying them for a show or sale. 


When you hear the word supplementation in the context of supplementing beef cattle, this is the type of supplementation most people would think of.  It is the supplementation with stored forages (generally hay) or grains, which are used in times of low pasture availability. 


Six methods of supplementation will be discussed. 

  1. Mineral supplementation
  2. Protein supplementation
  3. Energy supplementation
  4. Stored forages
  5. Removal of animal units
  6. Creep feeding. 

Mineral Supplementation

Minerals should be fed continuously.  The voluntary intake of minerals will vary from season to season.  During dry weather the consumption will decrease to almost nil in some cases.  During normal conditions, and especially when feeding spring grass or winter pasture you should expect voluntary consumption by adult animals of approximately 0.2 - 0.25 pounds of mineral per day.  Most free choice mineral supplements are set up with that level of consumption in mind. 

Salt and minerals should always be available.  Most people understand this and, as such, they keep both salt and minerals available.  There is a fairly large amount of research that indicates the free choice consumption of individually fed minerals is not sufficient to correct deficiencies in the diet.  Cattle do not "know" what minerals they need.  The only mineral they are attracted to is sodium.  Therefore we can use salt (sodium chloride) to attract the cows to the mineral.  This means that we should not feed salt separately, but it should be fed in the mineral mix.  The cows will eat the mineral to get the salt they are craving. 

When selecting minerals, we should select for the macrominerals needed first and then the trace minerals, vitamins, additives, etc.  The macrominerals are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium and sulfur.  Calcium may or may not be deficient, depending on the amount of lime you have applied to your land.  Phosphorus may be deficient in unfertilized land, but most land that has had some routine fertilization probably is not deficient, or at least not extremely deficient.  Potassium is generally a non-issue in beef cattle.  There is generally more than enough potassium in green or stored forages to more than meet their needs.  Sulfur is most important in times when urea is being used as a source of protein.  There is a small amount of sulfur required by the animal, basically for the growth of the rumen microbes.  Over supplementation with sulfur may contribute to polioencephalomalacia.  Magnesium will be deficient in winter pastures and early spring pastures.  Generally a high magnesium mineral (12-14% Mg) is recommended during these times.  To be totally correct, magnesium may not be deficient in these forages from a % of dry weight perspective, however the potassium content is so high it affects the relationship of potassium with the magnesium which must be kept within a certain ratio to prevent health problems. 

When we discuss minerals for beef cattle, we generally discuss either a 1:1 or a 2:1 mineral.  This is simply the ration of Calcium:Phosphorus.  Unless your pastures and hays are deficient in phosphorus, a 2:1 mineral is sufficient for most beef programs.  This is particularly true for replacement animals that need more calcium for bone formation.  Keep your minerals fresh.  Don't over buy.  The vitamins in the minerals are affected by the trace minerals and start to deteriorate fairly soon.  We use a specially formulated vitamin A and anti-oxidants in our minerals to decrease this vitamin degradation and to extend the storage life of the minerals.  If you are storing minerals longer than three months, you are probably storing them too long. 

Trace minerals are deficient in almost all of our forages.  We feel copper is the most drastically deficient trace mineral followed by zinc and manganese.  Iodine, cobalt and selenium are included at levels that with normal levels of consumption, meets the total requirement for beef cattle. 

Chelated minerals are minerals that are tied to an organic carrier, which protects the mineral from degradation or binding in the rumen and generally aids in the digestion and uptake in the small intestine.  These minerals are generally used when there are high levels of minerals or nitrates that might tie up one of the trace minerals.  They are also used in embryo transfer situations where there have been field trials that indicate there may be an increase in embryo quality with the use of chelated minerals.  For most commercial beef cattle operations, these are not economically feasible or warranted. 


Sources of protein include cottonseed meal, soybean meal, other oil seed meals and urea.  The other oil seed meals are generally not available in consistent amounts or consistent availability.  These supply problems prevent their widespread use.  Urea is a nitrogen donor, and is utilized by the bacteria in the rumen to form amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. 

Generally protein supplementation is at lower levels, 1-4 pounds per head per day.  Protein supplementation is generally done using molasses with urea, high protein range meals or range cubes with or without ("All Natural") urea. The use of salt limiting range meals encourages cattle to eat until their total intake of salt is satiated.  We cannot then expect them to eat mineral when it is offered free choice separately.  Make sure any salt limiting range meal you use as a protein supplement has minerals added at sufficient levels to supply all of your animal's needs. 

The supplementation of protein to is made to low quality forages or hay.  The addition of protein increases the utilization of the hay or forage and depends on a faster passage rate and a higher intake of forage to increase the energy available to the animal.  Use this system of supplementation only when forage is in excess and the quality is poor.  The supplementation of protein will increase the use of forage, not extent the forage.


Energy sources commonly used include the grains: corn, milo, barley and oats.  Molasses is also used, however, keep in mind that the water in the molasses has no more energy value than the water out of your watering tank.  Molasses is a method of supplementation that is free choice and does cut down on labor.  Fats are a good energy source but under most conditions are neither economical nor needed in beef feeding operations.  They are used in some conditioning and show rations.  Grain by-products are another excellent source of energy.  These generally have a higher protein value than grain, they have less starch and more fat in many cases.  As the use of corn and milo for ethanol production increases, the availability of these grains at economical prices may diminish.  Proper formulation of grain by-products with limited or no actual grain has shown to be superior in supplementation of beef calves on winter pastures.  This type of research is being used as guidelines in the formulation of our beef feeds. 

Energy supplementation will replace the energy needed from forage and decrease forage consumption.  Feeding calves on winter pasture at the rate of 1.0 - 1.5% of body weight daily resulted in gains of 0.1-0.6 pounds per head more per day than non-supplemented controls.  This doesn't sound too impressive, except that they doubled the number of cattle per acre in the fed group.  Besides gaining more per calf, they ran twice as many calves. 

For comparison purposes, a pound of Textured Beef Supplement has the TDN equivalence to 1.67 pounds of Coastal Bermuda hay or 1.32 pounds of alfalfa hay or 2.0 pounds of wheat straw. 

When feeding energy sources, generally higher rates are fed than when protein supplements are fed.  We recommend 0.5% - 1.0% of body weight for cows when forage is short.  The amount will depend upon the body condition of the cows and the amount of hay that needs to be spared.  If there is availability of less than one half of the hay or forage needed, and more than 1.0% of body weight needs to be fed, consider feeding twice a day and split the daily allotment.  If this is not possible, use a feed with forage or fiber or filler built in such as our hay replacers, forage extenders or techni-feeds (See more information in this website).  These three feeds are specially formulated to allow feeding once a day at levels up to 2% of body weight with no deleterious effects. 


When we discuss supplementation, many people don't consider hay and stockpiled grass in the discussion.  These are in fact the most commonly used supplements.  How you handle your hay, how it is cut, fertilized, stored and fed, all affects the quality and the value it is to your cattle as a supplement.  Stockpiling grass is an option, but this to should be properly managed.  Taking cattle off of a pasture on July 1st and allowing it to stand until January and expecting that to be good supplement is unrealistic.  Allowing a hay meadow to grow back after the last cutting and then allowing it to go dormant without cutting it is more realistic.  Then grazing the leaves, but not forcing the cows to clean the stems down to the ground is a reasonable way to stockpile coastal Bermuda grass. 

In drought years we feed almost any forage we can find.  Alfalfa, grain stalks, straw, silage, and cotton industry byproducts will all be used this year and in any drought year. If you don't have experience in using these products, and possibly even if you have had some experience, seek some help and advice prior to starting to feed these sources of forage.  Silage contains about 60% water.  You will need to feed almost 3 pounds of silage to equal 1 pound of equivalent hay.  Grain stalks and sorghum hays may contain nitrates and prussic acid.  Have them tested prior to use.  The lower part of the grain stalk will have the highest level of nitrate, if you are involved in cutting it for hay, have them raise the cutter bar above 12" if possible. 


Drought years cause problems in the plants to do live.  Test sorghum hay and grain stalks for nitrates and prussic acid.  Test corn and sorghum grain silage for aflatoxin.  Test corn and milo for aflatoxin.  Whole cottonseed should be tested for gossypol content and should not be made available to calves less than 600 pounds.  Gossypol is a toxin and in lower amounts may cause infertility.  The infertility effect is greatest in bulls, although it is considered reversible the period of time needed to recover is in excess of 6 weeks. 


Winter pastures may be our best chance of surviving profitably this year.  Long-term forecasters tell us that we will return to normal rainfall pattern about October.  Planting ryegrass that is specially suited for early germination and grazing will be the prudent choice.  We will be handling two such varieties this year.  Talk to Donnie Peters or Jim Ratzlaff at the Sulphur Springs store for more information. 

Winter pasture generally does reasonably well in this area.  It should be used in any year that grass production is low.  Winter pasture is a great way of getting gain on calves and running stocker calves is a way to increase the cash flow and the total sales of your beef enterprise.  As mentioned earlier, supplementation of calves on winter pasture is recommended to increase stocking rate.  Obviously, when the grass outgrows the consumption, supplementation should cease.  Over-seeded hay meadows should be grazed down in the spring or they should be cut to allow the Bermuda grass to come back.  If not, the Bermuda grass will be slowed considerably.  When winter pasture is first coming up, and until you have plenty of grass, limit grazing is recommended to get the most out of the grass.  This can be done by turning in on the pasture in the morning, calling the cattle out to a supplement feeding after 1-2 hours and then shutting them out until the next morning. 


Removal of animals is an indirect method of supplementation.  It doesn't have to be as drastic as selling off your herd.  When we remove animals from the pasture, we are in effect increasing the amount of forage available for those that are left.  This in effect supplements the cattle left on the pasture.

Early weaning may be used to make a large impact on the number of animals left on the pasture.  Once the calf is over 200 pounds it is already in a negative energy balance, unless you are creep feeding.  If you are creep feeding, once the calf is eating well (over 3 pounds per head per day), they can be weaned.  This removes a nutritional drain from the cow.  The requirements for milk production are essentially the same as the requirements for 50% of maintenance.  Therefore, for every 2 calves you can early wean, you conserve enough grass for one more cow.  The other advantages of this system include the fact that the calf is a very good converter at this stage.  Also, you can still keep the calf on your place and market it at the weight you desire.  These calves should do well on a pre-conditioner feed fed free choice.  For smaller calves choose one with 15-16% protein. 


Creep feeding ranks along with mineral supplementation as a practice all cow/calf producers should be doing.  Creep feeding consistently helps you wean heavier calves, improves profits, gives rapid gains with good conversion, gives you a more uniform group of calves by taking the ability of the dam to produce milk somewhat out of the picture and improves cow condition.  Calves that are on creep feed handle the stresses of weaning and shipping better than those that are not. If we creep feed calves, we also are removing pressure from the pasture.  This is not as effective as early weaning, but it does help.  Replacements grow out better and are growthier.    This helps prevent calving problems later. 

I haven't used creep feed before, how do I start?  Generally start feeding creep feed at 60-90 days of age.  Place the creep feeder in social centers such as watering areas, feeding areas, where your mineral feeder is located, etc.  Set the feeder where there is some feed available, but not in excess.  You don't want the feed to pile up, be slobbered on and be exposed to birds and the elements.  The two main points to feeding creep feed are to keep the feed fresh and to always have feed available.  When you start a group of calves off with creep feed, use sack feed first and only put one or two sacks in the feeder.  The small calves will only eat a small amount per day at first.  Generally 0.5-1.0 pound per day to start is all they will eat.  After they work up and are eating more consistently, then you can consider bulk deliveries and filling up the feeder.  Keep the feed fresh and always have feed available.


To make the most of your supplementation dollar, always have an overall plan.  Utilize the proper type of supplementation to complement the forage quality and quantity that is available.  Creep feed calves.  Feed minerals continuously.  Consider early weaning and preconditioning.  Use temporary pastures in times of need and as a source of increased revenue. 

The Co-op is here to serve the producer.  We are here to help you now and will continue to be here in the future.  Our goal is to supply better products at the same price as our competition or the same products at a better price.  We are striving to be the innovators of feeding solutions in the Northeast Texas area.