Precision feeding the beef herd: Nutrient analysis of feedstuffs

Beef cow-calf producers can balance rations to precisely meet the nutrient requirements of cows. However, they need to the nutritive value of rations feedstuffs first.

Beef producers across the country have taken advantage of precision agriculture management practices to more efficiently feed cows. Mechanical technologies are available in the form of large bale slicers, mixers and scales that allow cattlemen to mix rations to perfectly meet the nutrient requirements of the cow herd. In order to accurately balance rations nutrient content of the feeds must be know. 

Some producers will utilize published book values of many of the available feedstuffs. However, these values can be poor estimates due to the broad array of environmental factors associated with feed quality, especially for forages. Forages make up the large majority of rations fed to beef cows. The nutrient content of forages can have a broad range due to many factors associated with harvest. Weather, maturity, species content, and harvest methods are some of the factors that lead to nutrient content variation. 

Producers that want to balance rations with precision need to sample forages and submit for nutrient analysis. Forages should be sampled and analyzed frequently through the feeding period. Producers should be consistent in the types and quantities of forage they are feeding and sample every time there is a change of the forage type, such as forages harvested from different fields or other factor that would impact quality. Know the near exact nutrient content allows producers to feed rations that meet the cow’s nutrient requirements without over or under feeding. Over feeding is wasteful while under feeding results in decreased performance. 

Through the use of near infrared reflectance spectroscopy or NIR analysis feed samples can be accurately analyzed for a broad array of nutrient components and a relatively inexpensive cost. Feed samples should be analyzed for dry matter, protein, with some measure of energy using total digestible nutrients or net energy. Many labs provide a large array of analysis for little more cost to also include mineral content, fiber digestibility, relative feed value and relative forage quality. Educators and specialists from Michigan State University recommend balancing rations for protein and energy content. 

For more information regarding the testing of feeds for nutrient analysis, contact me a Michigan State University Extension Ruminant educator at or 906-884-4386.

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