Cattle Feeding Basics: Evaluate Your Energy

In this ongoing look at the basics of feeding cattle, we turn our attention to energy: what it means, what delivers this component and providing it to your herd.

by Ashleigh Krispense
PHOTO: pamela_d_mcadams/Adobe Stock

Whether you’re feeding a couple of calves in a small trough or driving down a feeding lane with a dedicated feed truck, heathy, productive cattle all require a proper feed ration in order to meet the desired goals set before them. 

In my previous two articles, we’ve taken a closer look at two of the basic components of a feed ration: roughage and protein. Today, we’re covering energy in the ration. We’ll look not only at some of the sources for it, but also how our farm produces some of our own sources of energy. 

Energy in 3 Categories

My father-in-law, Todd Krispense, has been working with and feeding cattle for decades. Energy, as he points out, is measured in megacalories and has three basics categories:

  • Net Energy Maintenance: The amount of energy required for cattle to maintain their weight 
  • Energy Gain: The amount of energy needed from the “feed stuff” for cattle to gain weight
  • Net Energy Lactation: Relating to dairy cows, the amount of energy required in the feed to produce lactation and a certain amount of milk 

Examples of sources for energy can be found in distiller grains and corn silage and, as Todd points out, even grain itself. While he shared that distillers can be a good source of both protein and energy, if you’re looking for strictly a higher-level of energy, there are other sources that can offer a greater amount. 

Goals Determine Your Energy Needs

How much energy your cattle will need depends on what your goals are for them. A finishing ration for fat cattle would consist of a higher level of energy and a lower level of protein, Krispense shares. But a growing ration would have a higher level of protein and a lower level of energy. 

As Krispense notes, it’s best to consult a nutritionist that can help you plan out a balanced diet, which can help to avoid over-feeding certain components as well as wasting resources and money.   

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While we don’t produce our own distiller grains on the farm, we do raise our own field corn to be later chopped and put up for ensilage or corn silage. Krispense notes that, although silage is technically considered roughage, corn silage possesses a higher level of energy in it due to the corn grain itself that is chopped along with the plant. 

Growing Corn for Energy

As for the production of the corn, we need to back up to mid/late April. When it comes time to plant, certain hybrids of field corn are chosen with the expectation they will grow taller than their counterparts and produce more tonnage of feed once chopped. How tall they reach depends mostly on the growing conditions, but with plenty of moisture and fertilizer, some varieties can reach 12 to 14 feet tall!

As the summer draws on and the plants grow, they will eventually reach the point that they need to be chopped. In good growing conditions, you’ll need to watch the grain on the plant as it can ripen before the plant dries up. However, with the dry conditions we’ve had recently, the stalks have begun to dry up quicker than normal, making farmers rush to chop the corn before plants have completely dried out.

When the corn is deemed ready to sample, it’s time to take the equipment to the field. A forage harvester (or silage chopper) is used to cut the stalks off near the ground. It drives through the field as large drums with blades spin around on the header, cutting the stalks off. They’re then processed inside the machine by a large rotating drum with knives that chop the corn up into very small pieces (10-11 mm long). The machine throws them into a large, high-velocity blower, which then spits them out the spout and into the waiting silage truck. The spout can be controlled and turned from inside the cab, as it is pointed toward the truck that drives alongside the chopper.

We also run a kernel processor on the chopper to help break up the kernels. This makes the feed more palatable for cattle.

Corn Storage

Once the truck is full of ensilage (chopped corn), it drives to the destination (in our case, a large trench silo) and dumps the ensilage on the ground near the pit. Packing tractors wait nearby to push the load of chopped feed into the pile and pack it in firmly. An inoculant can be applied to the ensilage as it is being chopped to help stabilize the quality of the feed when it is packed into the pit. 

After the fields of silage corn have been chopped and packed well into a pile, a tarp can be spread across the top of it to help keep the rain off of it and air from getting to the top of the pile, reducing spoilage. After the silage goes through the fermentation/ensiling process, it is ready to be mixed into feed rations and fed. 

There’s so much that we can learn when it comes to cattle feed rations that it can be helpful to do your research and find a good nutritionist to guide you toward the right ingredients and ratios to meet the goals you have for your cattle.

Happy feeding! 

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