Meeting winter nutritional requirements for the beef herd can be challenging and requires some thought and planning to be done properly and economically. Protein is especially vital for the digestive process and must be supplemented correctly in order to get the most out of your forages and cows.

Glenn Selk, an emeritus extension animal scientist with Oklahoma State University, explains in a recent Cow/Calf Corner newsletter the importance of supplementing protein based on forage quality. Protein is necessary for the multiplication of microbes in the rumen, which are largely responsible for the digestion of cellulose in harvested forages.

“Higher quality forages are more readily digested in the rumen and have a higher rate of passage through the digestive tract of the cow than do lower quality roughages,” Selk notes. Cattle can eat more of these higher quality forages and receive more total digestible nutrients from each pound consumed.

Selk explains that low-quality feed, when paired with the adequate amount of supplemented protein, have improved digestive rates compared to cows with inadequate protein that consume the same quality forage.

The table below shows the drastic difference in pounds of 40 percent protein supplement required daily to meet nutrient requirements depending on forage quality and stage of production for an 1,100-pound beef cow; high-quality forage requires less per pound per day than lower quality feed.

“Larger cows and cows that have above average milk production will consume more forage and need more supplement to match their requirements,” Selk notes. Protein helps with digestion, but it also provides energy to the cow. An energy deficiency results in weight and body conditioning loss and is more likely in winter weather conditions. Selk explains that energy requirements can be met with about double the feed rate of lower protein supplements.

Knowing forage quality is the key to ensure you are supplementing your cattle properly. Failing to match the known quality of your forage to the supplement being fed can be costly.

Michaela King

Michaela King served as the 2019 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern. She currently attends the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and is majoring in professional journalism and photography. King grew up on a beef farm in Big Bend, Wis., where her 4-H experiences included showing both beef and dairy cattle.