Cattle Feeding Basics: Getting Real About Roughage

Feeding cattle right means meeting a variety of nutritional needs. In this first part of a series, we look at providing cattle with the right roughage to thrive.

by Ashleigh Krispense
PHOTO: JPDC/Adobe Stock

Building your own homestead takes time and effort. Small-farm success doesn’t just magically appear overnight. Likewise, raising your own cattle requires a commitment. You not only set up the facilities and make that initial purchase, but over time you must ensure good health, desired productivity and a quality life for them. 

Cattle have some basic requirements, namely shelter, clean water and the appropriate feed to meet their various nutritional requirements. Nutritional needs will vary between animals, so it’s important to understand not only what your animal needs now (whether it’s a young calf or an older cow), but also what it will require to reach your desired goals later.

For instance, if you choose to raise a fat steer to butcher, you might want it to gain a certain amount of weight per day. In the cattle world, according to local rancher and longtime cattleman Todd Krispense, this is known as rate of gain. Todd also shared basic nutritional needs that cattle have (alongside clean water), which should be met within the appropriate feed ration.

These needs are:

  • Roughage 
  • Protein 
  • Energy
  • Vitamins and minerals

In this article, we’re taking a more specific peek at how our farm produces its own roughage for feeding cattle.


Cattle require some form of “roughage” in their feed rations, which helps aid their digestive systems. This can come in the form of hay, grass, or even other feed such as milo or corn stalks. On our farm, we raise, swath, bale and feed our own brome hay and prairie hay (Bluestem grass). 

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Grass is generally quite high in protein content during its vegetative state, Todd shared. Once it reaches the reproductive state (when the seed head comes on), the plant begins to focus its energy into producing the seed head, sucking both the energy and protein from the plant itself. This in turn offers the cattle less nutrition as they eat it.

Once grass has reached this point and “gone to seed,” Todd suggests considering supplementing cattle with extra protein and energy sources to maintain good body condition. 

Harvesting Roughage

Generally, the brome grass will reach maturity around the first of June, while prairie hay comes a little later in the season, usually around the early part of July. A swather is used to cut and crimp (break up) the grass, which is then laid behind it in a row on the ground called a “windrow,” and left to dry.

Sometimes, a tractor and large rake implement will be used to turn the windrows over to allow for more airflow and faster drying. A rake might also be used to pull several smaller rows into one larger windrow, making it easier to bale later. 

Once the grass has reached about 10 percent moisture, it’s ready to bale. While some experienced farmers or ranchers might be able to gauge the moisture content by simply feeling a handful of grass, you can also get a moisture reading from a monitor inside the tractor that hooks to a baler. 

Once dry, a tractor and baler will follow the windrow through the pasture, picking up the loose grass and compacting and rolling it tightly into a large, round bale inside the machine. After it reaches the desired size (round bales average around 1600 to 1800 pounds), the end gate of the baler lifts up and the bale rolls out onto the ground.

Eventually, the pasture will be dotted with round bales just waiting to be picked up and hauled back to the farm for later feeding.


When it comes to storing a large quantity of bales, my husband, Kolton Krispense, suggests not stacking them up but rather placing in rows (end to end) and leaving space to walk between the rows.

This allows sun and airflow to reach the bales easier. It also prevents moisture from just sitting in between them, causing mold and rot.

Feeding Tips

As you get ready to feed your round bales, Kolton recommended using a tub grinder or bale processor to grind them into smaller pieces that are easier for the cattle to digest. If you don’t have easy access to a grinder, in some places there are even hay grinding businesses that will come to your place and grind the hay for you. They have the set-up needed to lift the bales right into the grinder and then shoot the chopped hay into your desired location. 

Good sources of roughage needn’t be limited to long-stemmed hay, either, so be open to other options such as corn or milo stalks.

While this setup seems to work for our farm, not everyone has access to their own swather, tractor, baler, etc. So it can be helpful to find a good source of quality feed that is local enough that you can haul or pay to have it hauled to your homestead. If round bales seem to be too big for you to handle or too large of a quantity of feed at one time, consider small square bales, which are usually anywhere from 60 to 70 pounds. 

As you journey more into the world of cattle care and feeding, look for a trustworthy, local vet, rancher or cattleman that is willing to answer questions and help you set up a proper feeding plan. 

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