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The Cattle Connection

The cattlemen's connection to timely topics, current research, and profitable management strategies

Controlling Feed Costs to Allow Profit

Posted by Travis Meteer - Nutrition

One of the largest costs for cow-calf producers is feed costs. Costs associated with feeding the producing beef cow represent over sixty percent of the total costs in a cow-calf production system and are the largest determinant of profitability for beef producers. Despite recent moderation in corn price, elevated co-product and hay prices continue to persist. Thus, the key to unlocking profits remains reducing feed costs.

Extending the Grazing Season

The best way to reduce winter feeding costs is to extend the time cattle are out harvesting their own feed. This includes cornstalk grazing, grazing cover crop mixes, or stockpiled fescue. All of these help reduce the costs associated with feeding stored feeds.

Feeding Hay

The traditional method of winter feeding has been feeding hay. Feeding hay is popular due to ease of handling and simplicity. The most common hay feeding method is ad libitum (unlimited access). Unfortunately, it is one of the most expensive systems. At current prices, feeding mixed hay-good or alfalfa hay-good free choice will result in cow costs of $3.00 and $4.00/cow/day respectively.

In most cases, hay is packaged into large round bales and fed in some type of feeder. Many different designs claim to reduce hay waste, thus prompting research in this area.

A field trial conducted by Oklahoma State University and The Noble Foundation looked at hay feeder design and associated wastes. Four different feeder designs were evaluated: cone, sheet, ring, and poly. Hay waste for the feeders as listed in parenthesis: cone (5.3%), sheet (13.0%), ring (20.5%), and poly (21.0%). Costs were analyzed as well. They assumed a hay price of $116/ton or $70/bale. Assuming a producer with 30 cows will feed 180 bales in a season, the costs associated with hay waste were $667 (cone), $1,638 (sheet), $2,583 (ring), and $2,646 (poly) per season. It is easy to see that improved feeder designs like the cone-shaped hay feeder can save producers money by reducing hay waste.

Feeding hay, although easy, is costly to cattle production. Wastes during harvest, storage, and feeding result in very high costs. Working to eliminate waste is the key to making hay feeding viable.

Cornstalk Feeding

An alternative to feeding hay is utilizing crop residues. High prices received for corn and soybean commodities have demanded a shift in acres away from hay and pasture to row crop production. In a 2012, Illinois planted an additional 1,800,000 acres of corn compared to 2001 (NASS, 2012). Obviously, there is an abundant supply of cornstalks in Illinois.

Grazing cornstalks is the preferred method of harvest because it is lower cost. Cost of fencing and making water available is always cheaper per acre than costs associated with feeding baled cornstalks (machinery, fuel, storage, nutrient removal, etc.). Grazing cornstalks is a no-brainer for low-cost cattle feed.

In many cases, corn fields are not fenced and water is not available. Cornstalks can be harvested from the field by baling. Baled cornstalks are normally 3-5% CP and 45-54% TDN. It is important to sample and test for nutrient analysis as variability is high. Supplementation is necessary to balance rations using baled cornstalks. Corn co-products such as CGF and DDGS work well for supplementing cornstalks. At current prices, feeding good cornstalk bales free choice and supplementing 5 pounds of CGF and 5 pounds of cracked corn would yield a cost of around $1.85/cow/day.

Cornstalk quality is crucial. Poor quality will result in poor intakes and even more waste than normal, which is high. Cornstalk bales that are damp and moldy, excessively dirty, or contain a high percentage of stalk will not result in adequate performance.

Cornstalks are a viable solution to high-priced hay. They will provide some nutrient value, but mainly serve as a roughage base that needs supplemented with co-products and corn grain. Thus, the prices of these supplements will determine the economic advantage or disadvantage on your farm.

Corn Silage

Corn silage has been used for cattle feed for years, but in the recent biofuels era corn silage use has diminished. Increases in co-product feed prices relative to corn price and high hay prices make feeding corn silage very attractive.

Corn silage is very palatable forage. Cows consume good quality forage at 2.5% of body weight. This means a 1400 lb. cow will consume 35 lbs. dry matter or 100 lbs. as-is of corn silage. As a result, limit-feeding corn silage and supplementing protein would best match cow requirements. Using poor quality forages, corn silage and protein supplementation is a proven winter feeding strategy. Feeding corn silage ad libitum will in most cases result in overfeeding.

At current prices, feeding corn silage ad libitum would result in a cost of around $1.90/cow/day ... and some really fat cows. To best utilize corn silage, cut it with some corn stalks to add dry matter and use CGF for some additional protein.


There are many different ways to feed cows in the winter. Feeding hay is the most costly. Utilizing crop residues, cover crop grazing, and corn silage are the best fit options this year. No matter your feedstuff choices, be sure to balance with a vitamin/mineral package and consider ionophores. Least-cost ration formulation and reducing feed waste are vital to taming feed costs and unleashing profits.

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