hands full of distillers grains
MANY CHOICES: Distillers grains are one of the many protein supplement options for beef cows.

5 things to keep in mind about winter feed supplements

Determine which winter feed supplement will work best for your cows and your pocketbook.

By Adele Harty and Janna Kincheloe

What’s the best supplement to feed beef cows this winter?

The answer is, "it depends." There are many products and options available. And because no two situations are alike, the same product isn’t the best choice for all cattlemen. Nor is the same product the best choice every year. Adjustments to the winter feeding program are needed from year to year based on forage quality and availability.

Here are five things to keep in mind when trying to decide which winter supplement is the best this year:

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 condition, while those in greater than 6 can maintain or lose a slight amount of condition. Cows that are less than 5, though, 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. Learn more on body condition scoring cows by watching the short video below. 

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 below.

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-pound 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.

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. Find the publication on Reducing Costs of Delivering Feed to Cattle—Supplementation Frequency online.

For more information, contact Adele Harty at 605-394-1722 or email at [email protected].

Harty and Kincheloe are South Dakota State University and North Dakota State University Extension beef specialists, respectively.

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