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Bovine Nutrition and Feeding Rules of Thumb

Here's some basic rules of thumb to remember for general feeding and watering concerns (not in order):
  • Not all cattle require the same level of nutrition as the other. Nutritional requirements of each animal depends on genetics (i.e., type, breed, gender/sex), age, weight, reproductive phase, lactation phase, body condition score, physiological needs, and maintenance requirements.
  • Average rate of intake for maintenance is around 2 to 2.5% of a bovine's body weight per day on a dry-matter basis.
  • To estimate as-fed rate of intake, factor in moisture of the feed into how much feed a cow will eat per day or as a percentage of her body weight. (e.g., A cow will consume 10% of her body weight in grass if it is around 80% moisture)
  • Lactating cows require 50% more feed than a dry cow.
  • The bigger the cow, the more she'll eat.
  • The thinner the cow, the more she'll eat (and more nutrients she will require)
  • Backgrounding cattle (~600 lbs) require half the feed needed for a mature cow.
  • The more milk a cow produces, the higher her nutritional plane and amount of feed she will need.
  • Cows will sacrifice reproduction and production to meet maintenance requirements. (i.e., if you are not meeting energy/protein requirements in your herd, you will find more open cows)
  • Breed and type always plays a role in feeding efficiency and nutrient up-take.
  • Younger cattle need more protein than older, mature cattle.
  • Protein requirements for backgrounding/replacement cattle: 14% crude protein (CP) for 600 lbs; 12% CP for 800 lbs, and 10% CP for 1000 lbs.
  • Protein requirement for beef cows: 7% mid-gestation, 9% late-gestation, 11% post-calving.
  • Protein is not the same as energy. Energy puts on fat: protein puts on muscle. Excess energy gets stored as fat: excess protein gets (usually) expelled as urea in the urine. (Excess protein that exceeds a ruminant's ability to expel it in urine could lead to urea toxicity = death)
  • Ruminant's diet is always deficient in salt and other micronutrients, so be sure to supply a constant supply of salt supplement 24/7/365.
  • Average water consumption per bovine is 10% of their body-weight. Slight variation in consumption goes along with environmental, physiological, reproductive, and maintenance needs. I.e., dairy cows typically consume more water than beef cows.
  • Cows in summer need more water than cows in winter
  • Cows will eat more in colder temperatures than in warm
  • If animals are cold-stressed, their energy requirements will increase, often above what already being fed to them.
  • When you feed a cow, you are actually feeding the microbes in the rumen, not the cow directly.
  • To feed backgrounding and replacement cattle, restrict nutrients so that you focus on growth only, not fat gain. This is more important for British breeds (Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn) than Continentals (Simmental, Charolais, Maine Anjou)
  • Feed what's available to your area, but don't overdo it.
  • If you can to minimize costs for feed and feeding, graze your cattle as much as possible and feed as little as possible.

Feeding Young Calves:

  • Newborn calves have digestive systems equivalent to a monogastric (i.e., human), with a large, well-developed abomasum and under-developed omasum, rumen and reticulum. The rumen isn't fully developed until after they are 3 months old.
  • Avoid milk replacers with crude fibre content higher than 0.5%.
  • Newborns: 2 quarts per feeding for 100-115 lb calf; 1.5 quarts for newborns smaller than 100 lbs.
  • Always read the label for mixing directions/amount of water needed to add.
  • Feed milk replacer twice a day everyday, keeping around 12 hours in between feedings.
  • Increase water/decrease milk replacer as calves get older. Do not decrease amount you're feeding.
  • Start calves on starter and hay when they're about a week or more old. At first they will be more interested in tasting than eating.
  • Do not give in to letting a calf drink its fill of milk replacer. Scours develop if you allow this to happen.

Feeding Dairy Steers to Butcher:
  • Never assume a dairy steer will fatten up and feed as well as a beefer will prior to slaughter.
  • Dairy = milk, beef = meat. Fattening a dairy steer for meat means graining longer, and more often than you would with finishing beef cattle.
  • A diet high in energy (as high in energy as you can get with a grain-based diet) will fatten up a dairy steer more efficiently
  • Consider graining for a bit longer than the average three-to-four month finishing phase for beefers.
  • Jerseys tend to be difficult to fatten up than Holsteins, usually.

A word about grain and by-products:
  • Can be costly, but should never be considered "evil" nor something to avoid.
  • Acidosis is not caused by grain alone; instead it is caused by poor management practices--failing to slowly introduce grain into a bovine's diet.
  • Advantageous to feed as a supplement if roughage currently fed does not meet energy and/or protein requirements of your animals.
  • Supplement if you have: high-producing lactating cows, growing calves on moderate to less-than-adequate quality feed, thin cattle, older cattle, cold-stressed cattle, little to no pasture and you need to stretch out hay supplies, etc.
  • If your cattle are gaining weight/doing well on pasture and/or hay, save feeding grain for later.
  • By-products such as canola meal, brewer's yeast, soybean hulls, wheat middlings, etc., should always be fed as part of a ration, never as a feed.
  • Grain (if needed to be fed as supplement) should be fed at approximately 1% of an animal's body weight as-fed per day, and fed along with hay, silage and/or pasture. (However, remember to introduce grain a little at a time, until you reach the 1% mark)
  • To finish cattle on your own on grain, increase to feeding grain around 2% (or slightly more) of the animals' body weight as-fed per day. Do not limit access to hay, silage and/or pasture.
  • Corn is mostly energy and little protein. Do not feed corn as a means to improve protein intake in your animals' diets.
  • Processed grains (tempered, steam-rolled, dry-rolled, and grinding) are easier for a ruminant to digest and allow for better nutrient uptake than whole/coarse grains.
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