Protein program helps range cattle on low-quality forage

Nov 15, 2013
by WLJ

Unlike pork and poultry, beef cattle have a unique ability to convert otherwise unusable fibrous materials into palatable, high quality protein products for human consumption. Because of seasonality and forage availability this time of year, this conversion process becomes more challenging due to most typical grazing situations involving lower quality forages such as stored hay, straw or crop residues. Management and supplementation of these low-quality forages is critical because voluntary intake is normally not adequate to meet cattle’s nutrient requirements due to the low crude protein (CP) content (less than 7 percent), and high fiber content of low-quality forage. This limitation of nutrient intake can negatively affect digestibility and ultimately, overall cattle performance.

In addition to forage quality declines and roughage intake being less than ideal, spring calving cowherds are entering their third trimester, which is when 75-80 percent of calf development occurs. It is during this term that a cow’s nutritional requirements are rising, and will continue to their highest level during peak lactation. Thus, protein, energy, and mineral and vitamin supplementation is critical to maintain or hopefully increase the plane of nutrition so the cow can retain her body condition for lactation and rebreeding purposes. If a cow’s body condition suffers, it becomes much more difficult to bring her back to breeding condition while she is lactating, as nutrient requirements are at their highest.

Supplementing protein can also greatly assist ruminants in their ability to function at optimal levels when fed low-quality forages. Cattle can increase the use of low-quality forage, because supplemental protein provides the ruminally available nitrogen that the rumen microbe populations require. The way protein supplementation benefits the microbes is shown in Figure 1. In essence, microbial growth and fermentative activity increases, which leads to increased voluntary forage intake and energy status, and ultimately, animal performance.

Therefore, if we “feed the bugs” and meet their requirements, we have an excellent chance to meet the animal’s requirements.

Over the years, producers have supplemented protein by using a number of different options. Choosing which supplementation product to use can depend on your type of operation, animal requirements, personal preferences and availability of resources. Table 1 summarizes some options including the advantages and disadvantages to be considered when choosing a supplementation program.

One of the most cost-effective and reliable methods for cattlemen to provide protein is through the use of non-protein nitrogen or “NPN.” Commonly found in the form of urea, NPN supplements are very beneficial for grazing cattle because they provide fiberfermenting bacteria with a source of readily available nitrogen, which leads to the improved utilization of lowquality forage. However, in the past, feeding urea resulted in its rapid breakdown to ammonia, which caused some toxicity issues. Today’s products utilize new technologies including the recent development of methods to “slow release” the nitrogen in NPN, resulting in much safer products. Calciumbound urea (such as Ruma- Pro) and phosphorousbound urea available in the marketplace today are examples of these technological developments, and when formulated in combination with readily available carbohydrates found in liquid supplements, allows for greater use of the nitrogen by the “rumen bugs” and improves the overall effectiveness of supplementation.

To supply additional nutrients to cattle, many producers readily employ selffed or free-choice liquid supplementation programs. Such programs have proven to be an efficient and economical approach for the producer to supply not only protein and energy to their cattle, but also well-formulated vitamin and mineral packages. Combining these nutrients allows for nutritional deficiencies and imbalances to be addressed with a single application, which ultimately serves to lower production cost through decreased labor and equipment expenses, and better consumption control. Liquids also have been useful in TMR-type rations, as they increase palatability and decrease dust, waste and the sorting of feed ration ingredients by cattle.

It is essential to remember when you are exploring the options of protein supplementation programs to have your forage properly tested. Evaluating the protein and energy of your existing forage is an important first step in identifying the nutritional “gaps” that can be filled with a targeted supplementation program. Once you know what you have to work with, you can begin to develop a supplementation program that is sure to be efficient and economical, in addition to improving the use and intake of your winter forage supply. — Courtney Verzosa, Anipro/Xtraformance Feeds