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Feed For Thought

Through much of the prairies and the rest of the country this fall and winter there has been a tremendous feed crunch. Some areas have been able to produce and sell excess feed, but often feed price and trucking costs prohibit the efficacy of this solution. A lot of cows have moved to locations with feed, and many more are now feeding on the big pasture in the sky.

Despite the late hour, there are still a lot of things that can be done to alleviate the current feed shortage in an affordable manner, and several planning steps that can help reduce the chance of a future occurrence.


Perhaps the greatest return on investment in the current feed situation is to feed test. Depending upon where you live a feed test can be usually be submitted through your local feedmill or provincial agriculture office. They also will often have sampling tools such as a bale corer that they will lend. It is extremely important that you collect a representative sample across your feed sources, and that each feed source is tested separately (not all jammed into a single bag). For example the brome/ alfalfa hay should be tested separately from the barley straw. Cores from several bales from the same source can be mixed and a good sample will result. Testing can get fairly complex, but a good basic test for Moisture, Energy (TDN), ADF, Protein, and Cal:Phos ratio is a good place to start. If possible it is also a good idea to weigh some sample bales. This can give you a pretty accurate picture of just how much feed you really have. 100 bales is a lot different amount of feed at 1,200 pounds than 1,500 pounds, and also at 60 per cent TDN than at 50 per cent TDN.


By itself a feed test is essentially useless, so if you are not really handy with ration balancing talk to a nutritionist and have them run a quick ration for you. Most of us think we have an idea of how much to feed, but ration balancing can unveil surprising results. As well, the major benefit of ration balancing is that it can help us identify opportunities to source cheaper feeds and perform a few nutritional tricks.

Identifying nutrient availability in the current feed supply through a ration balancing process enables us to look at good alternatives, such as feed grain, screening pellets, distiller’s grain, straw, or other products. I know some producers that even feed bread to their cows. A ration balancing exercise lets you shop around for the nutrients you need at a price you can afford. Many cows are overfed Ration balancing and novel feeds go hand in hand. Not every beef cow must be fed hay. There are many good products available that have limited use to mankind without first passing through a ruminant.

One trick we have used quite successfully is to feed lower quality forages with a higher level of protein. The increased protein tricks the rumen and the cow into believing she can take in more feed than the traditional 2.5 per cent of body weight. By increasing intake of a lower calibre feed (more feed), she is then able to extract the amount of nutrients she requires for function and fetal growth. This can be done with supplement tubs, alfalfa, distiller’s grains, or other sources of protein. Caution is recommended, but it is worth investigating.


No matter how good the idea is, or how much we know that we should most of us are not going to put cows through the chute and condition score, but it can save a lot of money on feed. If you can visually sort young cows and skinnies and manage them separately from the main cowherd you can save significant amounts of feed. It takes a lot of feed to get a cow to gain a full body condition score, so that she can calve and rebreed and there is no need to add condition to a cow that is already in good shape. There is a lot of great information on body condition scoring available online.


Many producers are either already on their winter grazing or will be going on shortly. The greatest piece of advice if you have not already done so is to invest in a really good electric fencer and restrict access to feed. This methodology can reduce waste by huge amounts. Restricting access to three to five days worth of feed can greatly reduce lost feed, and 15 minutes to move fence every few days requires much lower labour than rolling out feed every day. We have found that feeding a supplemental bale or two on the final day will encourage animals to really clean up any leftover grazing. In our system that works well, as we usually take a tractor to move fence anyway. Restricting access is like adding 15 per cent more bales to your stack, and you will cycle more nutrients.


Work by Alberta Agriculture has shown huge savings in nutrients by feeding in simple bale feeders. Research conducted has shown that a simple “soup bowl” shaped trough can virtually eliminate losses. Remember that we are feeding nutrients, not raw tonnage. Using feeders is like growing your bale stack and improving your level of available nutrients.

Wind protection is also a great way to save feed. Most of us are aware of what wind chill does. The radio regularly announces that it is “-20C feels like -30C.” NRC requirements show that when the temperature drops below -15C that intakes can be stimulated to increase between eight to 25 per cent. Stopping the wind can have a huge effect on the effective temperature and the feed pile. This does not mean cows have to be corralled, but some form of wind protection should be available.


Droughts are created as much by planning as by Mother Nature, and their impacts are avoided in the same way. It is easy to talk about reducing livestock numbers and if the majority of your costs are variable in nature, this is relatively easy to do. If you carry a high debt load and require specific and ongoing levels of cash flow to service debt on fixed assets, simply reducing numbers becomes a bit more difficult to do.

Planned grazing can greatly increase the amount of forage available, particularly in dry years. This does not necessarily mean that you have to move cows every day and intensively rotate a pasture. Something as simple as moving from the “set it and forget it” five month grazing plan to moving cattle once a month can result in big increases in forage production and nutrient quality. The take-half/ leave-half principle applies here, and pastures with grass will always grow more grass than the ones that are grazed to the ground. Available forage may also add some marketing flexibility to obtain higher prices. Calves do not have to be sold “when the grass runs out” and market timing can result in significant price premiums.

Extended grazing programs can also improve the amount of feed available. A small amount of carryover pasture or crop aftermath can stretch the feed pile out a few days or even several months, and it all helps.

One product I particularly like is crop or moisture insurance. We use moisture insurance in our operation as it provides lower payouts but more flexibility than crop insurance. In the event of a drought it is possible to receive a payment that allows for maintaining cash flow while reducing herd size, and also provides a source of cash to purchase outside feedstuffs.

Longer-term solutions also include mapping out your nutrient availability versus your cowherds requirements. Matching these together can also greatly reduce feed shortages, but that is fodder for another article.

A great source of information on feed testing, ration balancing, body condition scoring, feeders, fencing, etc. is

Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from

Vermilion, AB. He can be reached at [email protected]or (780)853-9673. For additional

information visit

About the author


Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from Vermilion, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected] or (780) 853- 9673. For additional information visit



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