Feed your beef

The type of feed fed to the cattle will determine the quality, flavor, marbling and grade of your beef. The main feedstuffs fed to cattle include:

  • Hay (grass, legume, or grass-legume mix)
  • Grain (corn, oats, barley, wheat, rye, and triticale)
  • Silage (corn [referred to as “insilage”], barley, winter wheat, rye, winter rye, triticale, oats, pasture grass)
  • Total Mixed Ration (TMR) – fed to dairy cows and contains a mix of primarily alfalfa hay, barley/corn/oats grains, and corn silage.
  • Grass, the cheapest and most efficient “feed” that can be “fed” to cattle. All you have to do is plant fence posts, and determine how many head you need to stock your pastures with!

So how does each feed impact the flavour and quality of your beef?


If properly grown, cut at the right time hay, cattle fed, cow food(while plants still have high nutrient content, before mature and dry), properly cured and carefully stored to prevent weather damage, hay can be excellent feed for cattle, supplying all necessary nutrients. Legume hay has more protein than grass hay, and some grasses have more protein than others. Good grass hay that’s cut while green and growing can have a higher protein content than legume hay cut late. For optimal quality, hay should be cut before it is fully mature (before legume bloom stage and before heading out of grass seeds). If you cut hay when about 15 percent of the plants have bloomed, you get better volume and still have good quality. Good hay is green and leafy with small, fine stems.

Native grass hay has energy values comparable to legumes if harvested at the same stage of maturity, but about half the protein. Legumes such as alfalfa may have 50 to 60 percent total digestible nutrients (TDN), whereas mature grass hays have 45 to 50 percent TDN. Grass hay can be lower in phosphorus and is always lower in calcium than alfalfa, but a combination hay made up of alfalfa and grass is better for beef cows than straight alfalfa hay.

The amount of hay needed for an animal varies depending on age and size, body condition and so forth. Evaluate the condition of the animals and decide whether they are wasting hay or cleaning it up. If hay is unpalatable (i.e., coarse or moldy) or wet, some waste will occur even if cattle aren’t getting enough to meet their needs.

Graingrains, cattle feed

The microbes in the rumen of a cow eating only forages are adapted to digesting primarily cellulose. IF this animal were to ingest a large amount of starch containing feeds (much like you eating a large amount of candy on Halloween) it would be a shock to the system. However, the microbes in the stomach have the ability to shift and adapt to digesting starch as a portion of the diet. Given an adjustment period – switching the animal’s diet from primarily forages to concentrates – the microbe population adjusts and the animal is able to utilize that energy more efficiently on a diet that includes high-energy feeds like cereal grains.

Cattle digest cellulose from forages into fatty acids for building blocks

When this switch in diet is done rapidly, the pH (acid) of the rumen is disrupted, causing a condition called acidosis. This may be what many people refer to when claiming that feeding cattle corn makes them sick. This is something that cattle farmers try to avoid, but when it does occur, acidosis can be corrected by adding more forage to the diet and paying close attention to the transition in diet. Corn does not make up 100% of the diet. The diet of cattle is usually a mixture of many feeds, mixed in the correct proportions to give the animal what it needs for its stage of growth or production.

Cattle digest starches from grains into fatty acid building blocks

So to wrap it all up, yes cattle do eat corn, many other cereal grains. They love these feeds. Don’t believe me? They will run you over for it. These feeds are good for them because they are a great source of digestible energy for cattle growth, reproduction, weight gain, and any other metabolic processes.


Although high-quality silages alone can be used to finish cattle, they are often fed with grain. The higher the quality of silage, the lower the quantity of grain will be required. A decision on the proportion of concentrates or grain to be used in the diet will depend on:

  • target growth rates required (and the ME content of the diet required to achieve it);
  • the quality of silage available;
  • the relative costs of silage and grain;
  • the quantity of silage available;
  • the availability of equipment and feeding facilities to handle high silage/ low grain diets; and
  • whether the length of the finishing period (‘days on feed’) is an important consideration.

Silage as a supplement to pasture

Pasture silage

Good liveweight gain responses have been observed where high-quality silage has been used to supplement poor-quality pasture. A study in Australia showed that liveweight gain increased by 0.8kg per day for each kg of silage DM consumed, when finishing steers. Silage supplements can not only increase animal production per head, but can also reduce pasture intake, allowing an increase in stocking rates. A study showed that silage feeding reduced pasture consumptions by approximately 1.1kg per kg of silage intake. The balance between stocking rate and area set aside for silage production is an important consideration in beef grazing systems.

Maize silagemaize silage, corn silage, silage, cattle feed, feed mixture

When fed with urea and minerals, maize silage can support up to 1 kg a day or higher liveweight gains. It can also sustain high liveweight gains when fed in combination with pasture. Again when fed as a supplement, the liveweight gain achieved will depend on the quality and quantity of silage and the availability of pasture. Supplements of maize silage can mean a significant increase in stocking rates, whilst maintaining a similar liveweight gain per head. A study in Australia showed that on irrigated pastures, providing a maize supplement of 2.4 kg DM/ head/ day allowed a doubling of the stocking rate and increased the liveweight gain from 1.4 to 2.7 kg/ hectare/ day.

Beef producers need to not only consider production per hectare but also production per head when finishing animals to market specifications.

Protein supplements when feeding low-protein silages

When feeding maize, sorghum and whole crop cereal silages it is important to consider the risk of inadequate levels of protein in the diet. If they make up more than 30 per cent of the diet and the protein levels fall below seven percent DM then a protein supplement will likely be required.

The level and type of protein supplement will depend on the age of the animal, and the contents of the various dietary components. In a UK study it was found that the crude protein content of the maize silage was considerably higher (10.7 per cent of DM) than seen in typical Australian maize silages (6.5 per cent of DM). This higher content was sufficient for a liveweight gain in steers but younger cattle required supplementary protein. This can often be supplied as protein nitrogen through lucerne hay or less effectively, urea. Research shows that supplementary nitrogen received as protein nitrogen achieves higher liveweight gains than non protein nitrogen such as urea.

Mineral supplementation when feeding silage

If silage is a major proportion of the diet and mineral levels are low, producers need to assess the mineral status of the diet and determine whether a mineral supplement is required.

Mineral content can be influenced by soil type and fertiliser application. Strategic use of fertiliser may improve the mineral status of the forage so that purchasing mineral supplements may not be necessary.

Silage as a drought (or long-term) reserve

Silage can be a drought strategy on some beef properties. Studies have shown that it is an effective strategy when grain and roughage prices are high. When silage is only used as a drought reserve economies of scale are more difficult to achieve as overhead costs can be high when spread over a relatively small tonnage of silage.

Silage costs will be lower where it is used as part of the ongoing production feeding strategy and where it is made and fed in most years. The drought reserve can be intergrated into the normal silage production with larger quantities reserved in good years.

Although many will argue that the quality of any food in a drought is unimportant as any feed is valuable. high quality silage will allow for full production feeding, providing greater management flexibility in a drought. Silage kept as long-term drought forage reserve must be well preserved.

Silage feeding and meat quality

Diet can influence the fat deposition in a carcase which reflects the energy content of the diet. Studies have shown that the fat content of the carcase increases with the ME content of the diet. Observations from a number of studies investigating the effect of silage quality of carcase traits and meat quality said the following:

  • With mixed silage/ grain diets, carcase fat colour, meat colour and marbling in yearling steers (mean carcase weights 210-220 kg) were not influenced by proportion of silage in the diet.
  • Where maize silage has been used as a supplement to pasture, fat colour, meant colour and marbling were not influenced by maize silage supplements (mean carcase weights 213-263 kg).
  • No taste panel tests have been conducted to appraise the eating quality of meat produced from silage fed animals. However, measurements of the physical properties of the meat from animals in the experiments showed no treatment differences. In addition, overseas studies have shown acceptable eating quality for meat from animals finished on silage-based diets.
  • Studies in Australia (mean carcase weight 241-252 kg) saw that where silage and grain were compared as supplements to pasture, showed there were no effects on fat colour, meat colour or marbling.
  • If animals are maintained on a poor-quality diet prior to slaughter, muscle glycogen resources can be low, and the risk of dark-coloured meat is increased. This applies to any low-quality diet, including low-quality silage.

Grass vs. Alfalfaalfalfa, cattle feed

Alfalfa (green or fed as hay) is good feed for calves or young cattle, lactating cows and pregnant cows in late gestation. But they don’t need straight alfalfa because they don’t need that much protein, and rich alfalfa with no grass or other forage to dilute it can cause digestive problems, diarrhea and bloat. A mix of grass and alfalfa is usually safer and healthier than straight alfalfa. On alfalfa pastures, feed a bloat preventive to keep from losing cattle.

Don’t feed dairy-quality alfalfa hay to beef cattle. It’s much richer than they need, and the risk for bloat is great. It’s also the most expensive alfalfa. For beef animals, feed first-cutting alfalfa if it’s the only roughage source, since it contains some grass and can be an ideal ration. The second or third cutting is just alfalfa — it grows back faster than grass. It has more protein than needed and should not be fed by to beef cattle by itself. It is an ideal supplement, however, for poor-quality forages such as dry pastures, poor hay or even straw. Cattle can do well on a mix of straw and alfalfa.

To avoid bloat, feed alfalfa with a high-fiber feed, don’t let alfalfa leaves build up in a feed bunk, allow plenty of space for all animals to eat at once (so some won’t overeat), and never let hungry animals eat leafy alfalfa or they’ll load up the rumen too quickly. Be cautious using wet alfalfa pastures or feeding wet alfalfa hay. Lush alfalfa (especially if it’s just a few inches tall and very palatable and tender) can quickly cause bloat, especially in early morning if there’s dew or frost on the plants.

Make sure alfalfa hay is not moldy or dusty. Some molds can cause respiratory problems or abortion in pregnant cows. Avoid stemmy, coarse alfalfa. Protein and nutrition is mainly in the leaves, so stemmy hay is less nutritious and low in protein. Cattle won’t eat it well; coarse stems are hard to chew.


There are two kinds of feed — forages, high in fiber (more than 18 percent) and low in TDN; and concentrates, low in fiber and high in TDN. Concentrates are dense, with more energy (more TDN) for their volume. They are also more expensive than forages, but have a higher percentage of easily digested carbohydrates.

Concentrates include corn, oats, barley, grain sorghum (milo) and wheat; dried distillers grains and corn gluten; wheat bran and beet-pulp (by-products of food processing); protein supplements such as oilseed meals; and liquid supplements (these usually contain molasses and urea, a synthetic protein, along with minerals and vitamins).

When feeding concentrates, remember that not all grains weigh the same. Feeding by quarts or gallons can get you in trouble. Weigh feeds, find out how much your scoop or bucket really holds in terms of weight for a particular feed, and recheck it when changing feeds. Making a change in a steer’s ration without adjusting for weight, for instance, may lead to digestive problems.


If pastures are dry and hay quality is poor, cattle may not get necessary nutrition unless you add supplements. Many cow herds must be supplemented through winter. In northern areas, this means full feed if grass is frozen, snowed under or dried up; in southern climates it may just mean a supplement for what is missing in forage. In the Southwest, supplements may be necessary when hot or dry weather causes grass to become dormant and lose nutrition.

Supplements are sometimes needed not just because forage has become low in nutrients, but also because cows are eating less. As fiber levels increase with deteriorating forage quality, more of the woody part of the plant is left. As this type of fiber builds up in the rumen and slows down passage of feed through the animal, less space is left in the digestive tract. The animal cannot eat as much feed per day. So cattle are eating feed of low nutritional value and less of it. They lose weight unless supplemented.

What to Give as a Supplement. Cows without enough energy milk poorly and don’t breed back. But a high-energy, grain-based supplement is inefficient, expensive and detrimental to cows on poor pastures. Do not feed highly palatable grains and concentrates — cows will just hang around feeding areas waiting to be fed, spending less time grazing and increasing the amount of supplement needed. Because grain supplements are more palatable than dried-up grass, cattle want the supplement instead and eat less grass.

Grain supplements change the rumen microbe population, reducing the ability to digest fiber. If you supplement pasture with grain, cows eat less grass (wanting grain instead). Protein supplements more effectively augment poor-quality grass pasture.

With a protein supplement, cows will eat as much as 50 percent more low-quality forage or even 70 percent more poor-quality hay, but they must have adequate forage to supply the carbohydrates for energy. If you are wintering dry pregnant cows, this increase in feed consumption can enable them to maintain body weight. Always use natural protein (such as alfalfa or other high-protein plant matter) to supplement low-quality forages. Nonprotein nitrogen sources such as urea are not utilized as effectively by cows eating low-quality forages.

If you have a lot of protein-deficient pasture, choose supplements high in rumen-degradable protein like soybean meal, cottonseed meal or distillers grains. But if cows need more energy, use supplements composed of bran feeds that increase energy without limiting forage use. If short on grass, use traditional supplements based on cereal grains, which decrease the cow’s forage intake without reducing total energy.

Alfalfa hay is an economical protein supplement for cows in late pregnancy or after calving. Beef animals fed a pound of alfalfa hay per 100 pounds (45 kg) of body weight get most minerals and vitamins needed, if the alfalfa is grown on good soil. Alfalfa has a high level of calcium, important for young cattle and lactating cows. It’s a good source of carotene (which cattle convert to vitamin A), vitamin E and selenium, unless the alfalfa was grown on selenium-deficient soils.


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