Winter feeding is far and above the most labor-intensive, cost-prohibitive portion of running a beef cattle operation. E.M. Tiffany was almost certainly imagining unrolling hay in January mud when he penned his phrases on the “discomforts of agricultural life.”

At the 2020 KOMA Beef Conference in Dewey, Oklahoma State University extension beef specialist Earl Ward outlined some solutions for producers whose protein supplementation has exceeded their cost and labor expectations.

“Forty percent of our total cow cost comes from feed,” Ward said. “If we’re going to save money, feed costs are our biggest opportunity.”

Range cubes are the most common winter feedstuff in eastern Oklahoma, and Ward attributed some of that popularity to an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. With rising production costs, he said, the kind of supplement cows are receiving may matter less than costs and benefits associated with it.

“The reality is that regardless of what form it is in, protein accomplishes the same goals in a cow’s diet,” Ward said. “Different types of protein supplements work in different ways and at a different cost — you have to figure out which ones fit right for your operation.”

For maximum profitability, Ward said producers need to fine-tune supplementation programs to be able to pinch every penny out of each cow every day. Identifying the difference between feeding and supplementing is the first step to streamlining winter feeding.

“Supplementing means that I have a forage base and I’m adding additional nutrition that the forage doesn’t supply,” Ward said. “Feeding means that I’m just throwing feed out there to cover my bases.”

Providing an unneeded supplement or the wrong supplement will only increase costs without adding any benefits. Feeds that work together with forages by stimulating appetite and increasing forage intake and rumen health is the ideal option in beef operations.

Is a supplement needed?

Determining if and when to supplement can be relatively easy, especially for producers who frequently monitor their cattle using body condition scoring.

“We look at body condition score, and if we see that start dropping, we immediately know supplementation is needed,” Ward said. “Determine your animals’ nutrient requirements, the nutrients they are receiving from hay and the difference between the two is their nutrient balance.”

In this scenario, a positive nutrient balance means no additional supplementation is needed, while a negative requires supplementation. While visual assessments of cattle can be a great tool, visual assessments of hay quality can be incredibly inaccurate. Ward encouraged forage testing as well as body condition scoring to get the most accurate nutrient balance possible.

“With hay, looks can be deceiving,” Ward said. “Be sure to get a forage analysis done every year.”

Which supplement should be fed and how much?

While cubes are the most common method of protein supplementation, they are not only option for beef producers. Liquid feeds, lick tubs, forages and small grain grazing are all options available to Oklahoma producers throughout the cold season. For Ward, the quantity and quality of feedstuffs are two areas that should be paramount during deliberations.

“The first thing to consider when you are looking at these supplements is moisture content,” Ward said. “Hay and cubes normally test around 90 percent, so per ton you would get around 1,800 pounds of dry matter.”

Liquid feeds, for example, would have considerably lower dry matter percentages around 60 percent. Determining dry matter percentage is important for converting protein percentages into pounds of protein available for each cow and the price per pound.

“Cows require pounds of protein, not percentages,” Ward said.

For liquid feeds and lick tubs, cows have a maximum daily consumption of 1 to 3 pounds, so calculating the protein available to them per day based on their consumption can help determine if those sources meet their requirements.

When calculating cost of protein supplementation per cow per day, a 36 percent cube proved to be the most cost effective at an estimated 38 cents per cow per day. Liquid feeds came in around 74 cents with corn costs at $1.14, lick tubs at $2 and alfalfa at 50 cents.

“You might get a really good buy on alfalfa or you might not be set up to utilize liquid feeds,” Ward said. “The end decision on which protein choice is right for you depends on all of the factors surrounding your operation, not just the cows’ nutritional needs.”

Ward also cautioned producers to factor labor and convenience into their decisions. Dry feeds require more labor to distribute but they also allow more control over daily consumption and closer cattle monitoring.

Liquid feeds and lick tubs appear pricier in some of these calculations, but their pricing includes ingredients like balanced minerals that may not be present in dry feeds.

“Quality of ingredients is a big deciding factor in supplementation,” Ward said. “Every feed mill in Oklahoma makes a 20 percent cube but they are not at all the same formulation.”

Grazing pastures with cool-season small grains for two to four hours three times a week could also be a sound strategy, Ward said. In those scenarios, additional dry feeds would be unnecessary.

“If you have a way to cultivate small grain pastures and allow your cattle access to those, they act as a standing supplement,” Ward said. “In those scenarios, you would want to have between a quarter and 1 acre per cow available.”

Evaluate cow performance

The final step for sound supplementation is to look for cattle thriving under optimum nutrition. If nutritional requirements are being met, cattle should show consistent body condition scores and high reproductive efficiency.

If those qualities begin to slip, then it might be time to start the supplementation cycle all over again.

“You want to let your cows tell you when to start feeding,” Ward said. “If it’s still warm in November and the cows still look good, then you might not want to start feeding because it would just extend your costs.”

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