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Range Beef Cow Symposium
December 9 - 11, 2003
Scotts Bluff County Fairgrounds Events Center, Mitchell, NE

Feeding and managing cows on high grain diets
Steve Paisley, Extension Beef Specialist, UW

Producers should consider limiting feed during times of high hay prices to reduce winter-feeding costs, said Steve Paisley, Extension beef specialist. When using a limit-feeding program, expect behavior changes in the animal and variation in weight gain and loss.
Limit-fed, high-grain diets offer viable opportunities to reduce winter feeding costs among beef cows, according to University of Wyoming Extension beef specialist Steve Paisley. "Many producers have been forced to look at limit-fed diets for their herds in the past year due to high hay prices and low availability. There are some challenges to this type of management, but overall there have been many successes," Paisley reported at the 2003 Range Beef Cow Symposium.

Limit-feeding should be part of a producer’s overall management plan, Paisley told producers. It may not be necessary every year, but it can be a good management tool in drought years.

To evaluate if a limit-fed program is economical, Paisley suggested looking at several types of feed and the prices and availability of each. He cautioned that the feed ration needs to provide both energy and protein.

"If you strictly compare hay and corn, you are missing the protein. You need to add something like soybean meal as a protein source, and consider the cost of that," he advised.

And, when calculating costs, consider the amount to be fed. Corn, for example, has a higher energy value than hay, so it will take much less of it, which can make it cost-effective.

Paisley also emphasized that producers should think beyond corn. "There are several energy and protein sources available," he said, suggesting dried distillers’ grains, dry corn gluten, wheat midds and even beet pulp as examples. "Another way to reduce costs is to evaluate other forages when the price of hay or alfalfa is high. Look at cornstalks, ammoniated straw, sorghum, etc."

Citing several research studies in Ohio, Illinois and Wyoming, Paisley reported that limit-feeding high-grain diets to cows has been shown to slightly increase birth weights of calves. However, the studies found that there were no differences in calving difficulty between limit-fed cows and cows fed free-choice hay. Also, the studies indicated no effect on subsequent rebreeding of limit-fed cows. "We can manage cows easily on limit-fed diets and get those cows rebred," he said.

Paisley cautioned that limit-feeding could increase aggressive behavior among cows, especially at the bunk. And it can lead to variation in weight gain and loss between boss cows, who get more feed, and timid cows, who may not get enough. "It is important to get the feed spread out so all animals have access (24-36 inches of bunk space per cow is recommended).

Another management option is to sort young cows and thin cows into a separate group so they can be managed better. "These cows can still be limit-fed, but you can just monitor them better," Paisley noted.

If implementing a limit-fed diet, Paisley said it takes about six weeks for animals to adapt. He suggested feeding 1 pound (lb.) of grain per day and working up to the maximum level of grain, then reducing the amount of hay fed.

"Feeding an ionophore is also an important management tool to use to increase the safety of the ration," he said. Feeding whole corn instead of cracked corn and being consistent with the amount of feed and time of feeding each day also seem to cause fewer problems with acidosis.

Other tips: Paisley said it is important to watch the cattle closely, monitor their condition and adjust accordingly. "Some cows may refuse to eat grain," he said. Calcium(Ca), magnesium(Mg) and vitamin A may also need to be supplemented with high-grain diets.

Paisley has spreadsheets available to help calculate whether feeds are competitively priced for a limit-feeding program. Contact him at

— by Kindra Gordon
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