Winter supplementation for beef cattle

Supplement:  Something added to complete a thing, make up for a deficiency, or extend or strengthen the whole

Among some beef producers the word has a negative meaning.  However, if taken for what it really should be it can be an effective tool to help increase stocking rate, forage utilization and at the end of the day productivity.  If you look at it from a human perspective, many of us take our vitamin supplements, because we feel that through our lifestyle, diet, age or a combination of any of the above we need to supplement what we are not getting.  The same is true for beef cattle.  In the context of this discussion, I will focus on feed supplements since we all know we should already be supplying a good quality mineral to the herd.

Feed supplements should be used to make up for any deficiencies that are not being met by the basal diet alone.  Supplement does not mean ad lib feed for the herd, supplement should be making up what is lacking in the diet.  When commodities were cheap, many producers probably overfed, however, with rising inputs we have to be a bit more efficient in our management.  When a producer calls wanting to know what supplement to use or get, often the answer is a series of questions, and we don’t ask those questions to be nosy, rather we want to know what our target is and what we need to do to achieve the final goal.

Know your goals:   A high lactating beef cow 60 days post-partum will have much different requirements than a dry cow, which will be much different than a stocker that needs to gain 2.5 lbs/daily.  Is the operation trying to increase the stocking rate?  These questions need to be addressed in order to determine the need to supplement and to determine how much.  Data from Texas show that with most supplements will reduce forage intake by 0.6 lbs of forage for 1 lb of feed.  By supplementing the group you can effectively increase stocking rate.

Know your base feed:  Whether it is stockpiled grass or hay, know what it is and know the quality.  Random pasture and hay samples can be used to help you determine what your base line is.  Dr. Lemus, MSU Extension Forage Specialist has a great article on this topic here  Remember what the word supplement is, we need to make up what is lacking.  By having an understanding of what is lacking it is much easier to calculate what we need to feed, and it would be more efficient.  A hay or forage that is 10% CP 55% TDN requires less supplement to meet requirements than hay that is7% CP and 47% TDN.  Remember nutrients will cycle back into the soil via feces and urine, so rather than overfeed, we need to supplement and hit that target.  Additionally, by testing the base feed, we can also determine what nutrient will be the most limiting.  If protein is the nutrient of need, do we need to buy soybean hulls?  Probably not.  Conversely, if TDN is the nutrient in need, do we need cottonseed meal as much?

When choosing a supplement there are many factors that need to be considered.  Factors such as availability of the feed, commodity storage capabilities on the farm, handling characteristics of the feed, and convenience all play a role in a decision.  With many operations limited by time and help (since many producers do have real jobs that supplement their cattle job), convenience and handling are big items.  Additionally, farm demographics tell us that the average cattle producer is not large (30 head or so), therefore, we can hypothesize that they probably don’t have the storage capabilities to handle bulk loads.  One option is the availability of winter annuals, especially in South MS.  Winter ryegrass is an excellent feed source and can effectively be used for supplementation through controlled grazing.  In some cases producers have even shifted their calving dates to take advantage of this forage for their beef herd.

In closing remember supplementation is a tool to increase productivity and efficiency.  It should work in conjunction with existing forage and should work to strengthen the whole.

As always you can reach me at or 601-403-8777.  Thanks for reading!