Northern beef producers should grow and make field-pea forages a part of their weaned steers’ diets, says Vern Anderson, North Dakota State University animal scientist. Peas are higher in energy and protein than grass hay and can provide faster gains, his recent research shows.

“Cattle love peas; pea forage is very palatable,” Anderson says. Providing 15-16% protein, the nitrogen-fixing legume can be harvested as hay or ensiled. It’s often planted with a cereal grain like barley or oats.

Anderson studied how pea hay, pea-barley hay and field-pea residue stacked up against grass hay when fed to 156 head of mixed crossbred steers from weaning to finishing. The four treatments each served as the forage part of rations that included barley, corn, distillers grain and supplements. (Pea residue was the forage remaining after dry-pea harvest.)

Right after calves are weaned, that’s a tough time to get them to start on feed. But they jumped right in. Calves that were fed peas tended to eat more for the first two or three months after weaning – up to a pound more a day. And average daily gain is ½ lb/head/day advantage for peas in the ration,” he says.

Pea-barley hay showed the greatest amount of intake – 24.66 lbs dry matter/head/day – vs. pea hay at 23.81 lbs, pea residue at 23.13 lbs and grass hay at 22.70 lbs. Gains were highest on pea hay, at 4.27 lbs/head/day, and pea-barley hay, 4.13 lbs, while pea residue showed 3.66 lbs and grass hay, 3.6 lbs.

Pea hay showed the greatest feed efficiency.

At finishing, when the cattle were on very-high-energy diets, Anderson saw just a slight advantage – one- to two-tenths of a pound – with pea hay over the other treatments.

“Because of the advantage in gain, we saw heavier carcasses with peas in the ration by close to 45 lbs/head. That’s worth a lot of money … roughly $90/head,” Anderson says.

He feels more producers should grow peas. “We’re so tuned in to producing one crop a year. If we use peas as a cover crop, then we have this forage available to us.

“It is a very-high-quality forage. It can make a difference for calves as shown in our research, and possibly for lactating dairy cows or growing heifers or any other animal that needs the energy and digestibility of the forage to perform well.”

Peas could be planted early in spring, alone or with a cereal grain, and harvested as hay or haylage. A short-season soybean or sunflower or other forage crop could be planted behind it for fall harvest, Anderson figures.

Or peas could be grown after winter wheat, barley or a pea crop. “Peas are so cold-tolerant they will continue to grow down to 25° above zero. When we get a killing frost at 30° or 28°, peas don’t care. They just keep growing.”

For more on Anderson’s research, visit