PHOTO: Shutterstock
Heather Smith Thomas
July 3, 2018

To feed cattle, it helps to understand how they digest their food. As ruminants, they have four stomachs, the largest of which is the rumen. Cattle can eat a lot of food in a hurry and then belch it back up for thorough chewing. Microbes in the rumen break down fibrous roughage into usable nutrients. Cattle can do well on a wide variety of forages, but there are some basic things a farmer needs to consider.


1. Adequate Protein

Young, growing animals and lactating cows need more protein than mature dry cows; growth and milk production require protein. A baby calf gets adequate protein from milk. But after its rumen starts to develop, it needs to eat forages, and the forage should contain protein, especially after weaning.

Green grass and legumes (alfalfa, clover, and so on) have more protein than mature grass or straw. Green pasture or high-quality hay that was cut and put up at the right time—leafy and not overly mature—supplies adequate protein for weaned calves or lactating cows. Cattle do well on roughages but need protein to “feed” the microbes in the rumen so they can break down fiber. Mature cattle can eat straw if they have a protein supplement to facilitate rumen digestion.

2. Adequate Fiber

A ruminant is efficient at breaking down fiber, converting it into energy. The rumen functions best and the animal is healthiest when fiber is in the diet. Young calves (before the rumen is fully developed) do well on milk or just grain, digesting it in the abomasum, which functions like a human stomach. However, older animals need more fiber. If they are on lush green pasture or legume hay without enough fiber, they might be short on energy, their manure becomes liquid and, if the weather is cold, they can’t generate enough body heat to stay warm. Fermentation breakdown of fiber in the rumen generates heat and energy. In cold weather, provide more roughage such as mature grass hay or straw.

3. Vitamins & Minerals

Good pasture and high-quality hay will usually provide adequate vitamins and minerals—except salt—but in some situations, cattle need more. Hay that has been stored a long time is short on vitamin A. Feeds grown in deficient soils might be short on copper, selenium and other vital trace minerals. Always provide salt, and ask a knowledgeable cattleman or your county extension agent if you need to provide a mineral supplement to keep your cattle healthy.

4. Clean Feed

Some kinds of mold—especially in grain—can make cattle sick or even kill them. When feeding hay, make sure there’s no mold, sharp seed heads (foxtail, cheat grass, and so on), sharp objects, sticks, wire or other junk baled up in it. If feeding hay on the ground, feed on clean grass and not in the mud. In a pen, use a feeder or feed bunk, so cattle won’t lie on or poop on the hay; otherwise, they’ll waste it. Many cattle diseases are spread via pathogens in feces.

5. Adequate Clean Water

Water is just as important as food; cattle won’t do well without adequate water and might get sick if water is contaminated with toxins or disease pathogens. If cattle drink from a tub, tank or trough, keep it full enough, clean it regularly and make sure it doesn’t freeze in winter or get too hot or mossy in summer.

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.


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