Evaluating Supplementation

Making the Right Choices

BY Dr. Stephen Blezinger | | Comments (0)

There are a world of supplements available for the cattle producer to use.  These can include mixed feeds, range cubes, range meals, intake limited supplements, tubs/blocks, liquids fed in closed top troughs (lick tanks) or open top troughs, basic commodities and so on.

Many producers, over the years, will find one specific type – one that he is most comfortable with – and will stick with it no matter what the forage conditions are.  More importantly, he may hang on to this method no matter what the economic conditions are.  This can have severe effects on his profitability.

This article discusses supplementing beef cattle, various types of supplementation and some comparison of the economics.

A Fore Thought

One of the most basic considerations that should be made – which many producers do not consider – is what labor is required in providing different types of supplements to the cattle herd.  Generally, products which do not require as much labor are more expensive (this is not always the case).  Secondly, there are supplement forms that are less expensive to buy, but the producer has more initial expense (ie. storage, handling, feeders) to get set up and ultimately to feed.

For instance, liquid feeds are commonly delivered by the local dealer either at your request or on a “keep full” basis, which means he is responsible for monitoring the level of the tanks and keeping feed in these tanks.  Subsequently, use of liquid feeds does not require a lot of labor.  Similarly, limit-fed products are commonly fed in large self-feeders.  These supplements are delivered by the dealer or feed company in an auger truck.  So, once again, this form does not require a lot of labor on the producer’s part.

Let’s go through some of the supplement types to evaluate a few some of the considerations for each, aside from the actual cost:

Supplement Type              Considerations

Liquid Feeds Requires purchase of feeders (lick tanks, open troughs) for the product to be fed
Generally requires about one tank for every 40 cows (4 wheel tanks)
Dealer can deliver product directly to tank thus reducing producer labor
Generally a good source of protein, fat, phosphorus, trace minerals, and vitamins
Not high in energy
Moisture content commonly ranges from 55-65%
Normal feeding range is 1 to 3 lbs. per head per day.
Often requires inclusino of urea (non-protein nitrogen) to meet the protein guarantee.
Tubs Dry, molasses based products which also include other conventional, dry ingredients
Tubs can range from 50 to 250 lbs. on average.  Other sizes may be available
Can be purcahsed at the local feed store like other feeds or
larger quantities can be delivered to the farm.
Intake can range from .5 to 2 lbs. or more.
Intake is regulated by hardness.  Hardness is controlled by manufacturing process.
“Cooked” tubs require heating and are generally harder and contol intake better.
“Chemical” tubs harden based on chemical reactions of components in the mixture.
These are normally higher in moisture and softer, allowing higher intake.
Sold already packaged in plastic non-returnable ‘tubs,’
metal 1/2 barrels, biodegradable containers or cardboard boxes.
Plastic tubs and metal barrels can accumulate and thus
have to be disposed of.  Dealer or manufacturer may have a return policy
Conventional Dry Feeds The standard for years.
Includes range cubes, range meals, limited-intake
products, etc.
Can be hand fed or fed in self-feeders of various designs.
Most commonly used form of supplement.
In bagged or bulk form.  Bulk
forms require a storage facility of some type.
All types should be fed in
feeders or troughs of some type.
Ground feeding is not recommended due to
waste.  Product
waste and loss should always be avoided.
Feeding of bagged supplements can be a problem with cows
crowding around, pushing to get at feed.  Poses an injury hazard.
Self-fed products must be carefully formulated and monitored
to ensure proper consumption
Commodities/By-products Generally the most labor intensive
Requires storage facility of some type.
Requires troughs or bunks in which to feed cattle.
Not many commodities are well balanced alone in meeting
nutritional needs, which can result in over or under feeding
of some nutrients.
Generally the least expensive when bough in truckload quantities.
Can be purchased in smaller quantities as well as in bagged
form in some areas, or from some dealers or feed companies.


Comparing the Economics of Supplementation

As discussed, the method of supplementation varies depending on facilities, equipment, labor and other factors.  Economics are also a major factor.  While some means of supplementation are less expensive than others, it is often related to how it has to be handled or what is needed to handle.

For example, the cow-calf producer could feed a simple blend of Soy Hull Pellets and Corn Gluten Feed (~16% protein, fed at 6 lbs. per head per day to provide 1 lb. of crude protein) at a cost of around $350.00 per ton or $1.05/head per day.  But to get this done, he must have a way to store bulk commodities (doubtful this can be purchased in bags) as well as a way to feed.  Feeding may be accomplished with a tractor and front end loader, a trip hopper mounted in the pickup or on a trailer, feed troughs which allow space for all cattle, etc.  Other options may be as simple as using 5 gallon buckets.  This sounds cheap but is very labor intensive.  To feed 100 cows in this manner would require 600 lbs. of feed per day.  At about 25 lbs. per bucket this would require 24 buckets.  This method also exposes the producer or his labor force to dumping buckets in the middle of a group of cows and risk being knocked down and stepped on.

There are numerous considerations aside from the cost of the supplement, which can vary greatly.  In many cases, supplements that appear too expensive may ultimately be the best value.  Conversely, commodities, such as whole cottonseed may appear relatively inexpensive.  However, since you often have to buy a full truckload (22-24 tons) at one time, you tie up a significant amount of money for a potentially extended period of time.  Right now, in much of the Southern United States, whole cottonseed may cost around $360.00 per ton.  For a 22 ton (44,000 lbs.) load this would total $7,920.00.   If feeding 4 lbs. per head per day to 100 head, this would last 110 days.  So, the question becomes, can you tie up almost $8,000 for this period of time or do you need to spread this expenditure out over this period of time?  Economists refer to this as the “opportunity cost” – what else could this money be used for if it was not tied up for almost four months?  Again, this requires individual analysis.  Other considerations include storage.  Can you store this volume of product effectively, keeping it dry and insect and critter-free, for this period of time?  These are all questions that have to be answered to make an informed, accurate decision.

Basic Comparisons

One of the best ways to start is to do a very simple comparison of the cost of the basic nutrient you need to provide.  In general the most basic nutrient we are concerned with for a cow-calf operation is protein.  To start off with let’s consider some basics.  Here are some givens based on background work the producer has done:

1)   He has a herd of 100 head of crossbred cows averaging 1,200 lbs.  The cows are all pregnant, and the calves were weaned on September 1.  Average calving date is February 1.

2)   He has been very fortunate and baled a lot of hay this summer, so he has more than adequate forage availability.  Currently, pastures are in so-so condition but still getting some grazing.  Depending on fall moisture conditions he plans to start feeding hay on November 1.  However, he may need to start supplementing prior to that date.

3)   He had his forages analyzed and has found that his hay tests 88% dry matter and 6.5% protein on a dry matter basis, so just a little short of what his cattle will require daily.  For his cattle in the late second and third trimester, their daily dry matter intake and protein needs are about 24.0 lbs. and 1.85 lbs., respectively.

4)   Based on the forage analysis, when he gets ready to feed hay, to meet the dry matter intake requirements (24 lbs.) he will need to feed 27 lbs. of hay per day (24 lbs. / 88% = 27 lbs.).  With an average of 6.5% protein, this provides 1.56 lbs. of protein from the hay.  This creates a difference of .29 lbs. of protein (1.85 – 1.29 = .29 lbs. of crude protein).  Since crude protein is not 100% digestible, it is suggested to increase this by 33% so the amount to feed becomes .38 lbs. (.29 * 1.33 = .38 lbs.).

5)   To make this easy and to give his cattle a little more “fudge room”, he is going to up the protein feeding rate to an even .4 lb. of protein.

6)   Also, he has lots of storage as well as a tractor and front end loader.  He also has plenty of troughs.  He does not have an overabundance of time since he also has a job in town.  Thus, convenience is a definite plus.

To work out the amount of actual supplement he needs to feed, he sets up a table to calculate what his supplement feeding rate needs to be in order to deliver the required amount of protein.  This table would look like the following:

Feeding rate (lbs.)             Protein content (%)

1.0                                                                40

2.0                                                                20

3.0                                                                13.3

Based on what is available from local feed providers, he can purchase the following:

a)    20% All-natural range cubes @ $475.00 per ton (2 lbs. per head per day, hand fed, producer pick up).

b)   32% protein liquid feed @ $380.00 per ton (2 lbs. per head per day, self-fed, store delivered).

c)    24% protein tubs @ $550.00 per ton (1.5 lbs. per head per day, self-fed, producer pick up)

Basic cost analysis for each of these supplements:
Product             Protein Content     Cost/ton($)       Amt Fed      $/hd./day     Lbs.       Cost($)
Range Cubes              20.0                     475.00                2.0                 .475            .40         1.18

Liquid Feed               32.0                    380.00                2.0                 .38              .64           .59

Tubs                          24.0                    550.00                1.5                 .41              .36         1.14

Several conclusions can be drawn from this comparison:

1)   Of the three supplement types, liquid feed is the least expensive per head, per day.  This is true in terms of cost per ton, cost per head per day and cost per lb. of protein (about ½ the cost).

2)   Not only is the liquid feed the least expensive, it is also less demanding on his time since the dealership will deliver the feed for him.

3)   The downside is that the liquid feed will require him to purchase feeders, the number depending on how many pastures he has.  These feeders can run from $200 to $250.00 each.  If he has to purchase 2 ($500.00), this will created a cost of $5.00 per head.  These feeders are normally pretty durable, so should last him several years.

4)   One difference between these supplement types is the moisture content.  Cubes are about 90% dry matter, liquids 65% and tubs can vary, ranging from 75 to 90%.  Cubes and tubs are typically the higher of the three in terms of energy (Total Digestible Nutrients or TDN, Net Energy, or however you prefer to compare) on an as-fed basis.  In herds where the animal’s body condition is not the best going into the winter, where hay is of a particularly poor quality or a combination of the two, it may be advisable to feed one of the other supplement forms or possibly a combination.   However, for this example, we assumed no additional energy supplementation was necessary.

Some things to keep in mind when making these comparisons:  First, with the changing of feed and grain prices, these numbers are a constantly moving target.  In many cases, if there is a reason to believe that prices may increase (they generally do in the fall with the increased feeding demand), it makes sense to talk to your dealer or feed company about contracting at least part of what you will need.  This way the producer can lock in at least some of his costs over a given period of time.  By only contracting a portion of supplement needs this helps control costs if the uncontracted feeds/supplements increase in price but also allows for a cost improvement if that portion decreases in price.  This is a decision based on the producer’s tolerance for risk in either direction of market movement. Second, since the markets do move fairly constantly, it may be of use to return to this exercise from time to time to determine if the decision made is still a good one.  At the very least, it may be useful to perform this analysis prior to the feeding and supplementation season and then at least once more about midway through.

Finally, remember to take labor and labor costs into consideration. Even if the producer is doing all the work himself, time and effort has a value which should be factored in.

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