Alternative Forages and Sample Wintering Rations for Beef Cows

Factsheet - ISSN 1198-712X   -   Copyright Queen's Printer for Ontario
Agdex#: 812
Publication Date: October 2016
Order#: 16-051
Last Reviewed: December 2016
Written by: Christoph Wand - Livestock Sustainability Specialist/OMAFRA; Anita Heeg - Feed Ingredients and By-products Specialist/OMAFRA

Table of Contents

  1. The Cow Nutrition Problem?
  2. Forage Strategies
  3. Conclusion

The Cow Nutrition Problem?

Beef cow feeding costs are the largest expense for the cow-calf sector. An Ontario ‘benchmark’ project determined that in 2006 and 2007 feed costs were 62% and 63% respectively, of the overall operating costs for the high profit farms (Ontario Beef Cow Calf Summary — Cow Calf Analysis Program, 2006 and 2007). Cow feed has a large impact on the cow’s health, so costs and nutrition must be balanced. Cow producers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with new feeds, their nutritional parameters and feeding strategies to benefit their operation. This factsheet presents options for reducing feeding costs while supplying a healthy ration to the cow.

This factsheet is written using common units used by the beef industry. The use of imperial measurements represents the industry standards.

Forage Strategies

Forage is the foundation of a cow’s ration. There are numerous aspects to consider when formulating in properly stored forages.

Stored Forage Shortage

In the event of a stored forage shortage, there are a number of strategies that can be implemented to substitute or stretch forage resources. The most important is to substitute other straws, stovers and residues for hay. The extent to which this substitution can be used is a function of the straw quality and the cow’s stage of production.

Table 1 ranks some common alternative forages (as well as a few other feeds) in terms of nutrient analysis on a dry matter basis, including forage digestibility and crude protein levels. Neutral detergent fibre (NDF) is a measure of how well a feed stimulates rumination. Rumination is an important part of the process by which cows digest food. Paying attention to the effective neutral detergent fibre (eNDF) as a percentage of total neutral detergent fibre, may become important to the beef cow/calf sector as it has in the dairy sector, as alternative forage sources are investigated. Sufficient eNDF will stimulate chewing, salivation and rumination, promoting a healthy pH in the rumen to maintain feed intake levels.

Table 1. Forages and their nutritional analysis based on dry matter basis.

% TDN % CP % NDF % eNDF
Alfalfa Hay — early bloom
62 19.9 39.3 92
Alfalfa Silage — early bloom
63 19.5 43.0 82
Orchard grass Hay — early bloom
65 12.8 59.6 98
Orchard grass Hay — late bloom
54 8.4 65.0 98
Corn Silage — 45% grain
72 8.7 43.0 81
High Moisture Corn1
93 10 9 0
Corn and Cob Meal1
82 9.0 26.0 56
Corn Stalklage
55 6.3 68.0 81
Wheat Silage — dough
57 12.5 60.7 61
Wheat Straw
41 3.5 78.9 98
Barley Straw
40 4.4 72.5 100
Soybean Straw1
42 5.0 70.0 100

Note: CP = crude protein; TDN = total digestible nutrient

Source: Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle, 7th Revised Edition 1996, Appendix Table 1A, except those denoted as 1 which are from the Nutrient Requirements of Small Ruminants, 2007, Table 15–11.

A long-term trend in Ontario has been the conversion of forages to crop land. According to Statistics Canada Census of Agriculture, long-term increases in soybeans, wheat and corn changed from 28%–57% from 1976–2011. This overall reduction in forages makes the use of residues or other forages in beef rations critical.

Producers can use various strategies for cattle feed and nutrient management, but crop management can be effective also in dealing with a forage shortage.

One of the best opportunities to create more forage will be via the planting and harvesting of annuals after the current winter wheat crop for winter feed. Since winter wheat is harvested in July, there are opportunities to plant alternative forages in late July and August. Early summer is the time to plan for the following:

  1. Wheatlage — Consider harvesting wheat intended for grain as whole plant silage. The Prairie provinces have tremendous experience in using cereal silage to obtain maximum feed energy-yield-per-acre forage, the way Ontario uses corn silage. This would require harvest at the soft dough stage and cut at about 65% plant moisture. Awn type cereal varieties are not recommended due to the potential for awns to lodge in the palate of livestock. At the soft dough end point, feed values of about 63% total digestible nutrient (TDN) and 12% crude protein (CP) can be expected. Also, taking this crop off before grain endpoint offers a longer growing period for a potential double forage crop.
  2. Oat/pea/cereal forage mixtures planted after wheat — this mixture can be used as silage crops for haylage replacement (no grain development). Figure 1 shows data on the performance of a few forage types in plot work. Including legumes such as peas and different cereals allow the stand to be tailored for protein content and agronomic advantage respectively. Keep in mind the most important measure of forage quality is digestibility or energy, and this in turn is a function of maturity. High protein tests, as a result of legume inclusion, must not be confused with superior feed quality of youthful, immature forage. The best way to determine its quality is by using the energy parameters on feed tests such as TDN and Net Energy which are independent of CP.

A coloured bar graph that shows how land in Ontario is allocated between conventional crops and forages.

Figure 1. Beef per acre calculations based on laboratory analysis of forage plots after winter wheat. OMAFRA 2013.

The results are by fertility rate (lbs nitrogen per acre) for the various forage crops, each reported at their optimal seeding rate (lbs per acre) as demonstrated on 2012 plots by forage type. Specifically, oats and barley reported here were seeded at 70 lb and 90 lb per acre respectively, and the oat/pea mix at twice that rate across the varying nitrogen applications.

Until more tillable acres in Ontario are used for perennial forages, the ability to meet forage needs will be strongly associated with using harvested cash crop land to supply forages. Producers will need to be aggressive in finding forage alternatives, but also in creating forage supply by double cropping or using higher yield forage for both grazing and stored feeds.

Forage Replacement Strategies — Commodity and Hay Rations

The idea of using commodities, such as corn grain or distillers’ grains, in beef cow rations is not new. Several studies have shown that dependent on market prices, using corn grain, corn gluten feed or distillers’ grains, the cost of a pregnant cow’s wintering ration can be reduced when displacing hay. Producers can benefit from finding a way to use these products in cow-calf operation rations, especially in cases where extra protein is needed such as with poor quality hay. Consider commodities with protein content above 20% which can be used in any ration where grain is used, in addition to a protein source.

Some ration ideas and associated limitations are given in the tables below. Table 2 gives example rations to replace 28–30 lb hay intake per 1,400 lb cow per day. We are assuming mid-bloom grass hay at 57% TDN and 10% CP. In addition to the ingredients listed, all rations should have mineral included. This can be mixed in with the grain, fed free choice or mixed in a TMR.

Table 2. Example dry cow rations with hay substitution

Cow Management Stage Ration # Ingredients Specs*
Mid-Gestation (2nd Trimester) 1 (Ration using 10 pounds of hay, straw and grain) 10 lb hay
10 lb wheat straw
3 lb ground corn
2 lb ground canola
54% TDN
7.5% CP
Mid-Gestation (2nd Trimester) 2 (Ration using 15 pounds of hay) 15 lb hay
7 lb ground corn
52% TDN
9.8% CP
Late Gestation (3rd Trimester) 3 (Ration using 20 pounds of hay) 20 lb hay
5 lb ground corn
56% TDN
8.8% CP
Late Gestation (3rd Trimester) 4 (Ration using 20 pounds of hay) 20 lb hay
5 lb DDGS**
56% TDN
12.0% CP***

* Nutrient content based on 28 lb intake equivalency

** Dried distillers' grains with solubles

*** Ration protein content somewhat higher than required

Table 3. Comparison of corn grain and dried distillers' grains with solubles (DDGS) nutrient profile book values. All nutrients expressed as percentages, on a dry matter basis (adapted from NRC, 2007).

Corn (%) DDGS (%)
Dry Matter
88 90
9 29
Energy (TDN)
88 92
Fat (ether extract)
4.3 10.6
Fibre (NDF)
9 43
0.3 0.8
0.12 0.4
Physical Form
whole kernel, dry ground, dried product
Limitations to Inclusion
starch (acidosis) sulphur, phosphorus, fat

Adapted from National Research Council, 2007.

The advantage of using distillers’ grains with soluble (DDGS) or wet distillers’ grains (WDG) is that it contains the concentrated protein, fat, mineral and fibre content of the corn by a factor of three when the starch has been fermented. The resulting co-product is moderate in protein (24%–27%) and still energy dense due to the fat content and the highly digestible remaining fibre fraction (NDF) allowing them to be beneficial in hay reducing rations. This product has the added benefit of being pre-ground, higher in protein with less acidosis causing potential than ground corn. Corn gluten feed is similar to DDGS or WDG in many ways, when DDGS is similarly priced to soybean meal. This makes it economical to use DDGS in gestation rations, especially when forage quality is poor. Table 4 gives an example of a few rations that might be commonly fed to young animals and cows and a comparison for when DDGS is used or not.

Table 4. Mid and late gestation rations for cows and heifers with or without DDGS.

Ration Conventional With DDGS
2nd Trimester
1400 lb cow
28.5 lb grass/legume hay 17.0 lb grass/legume hay
5.0 lb corn or DDGS
3rd Trimester
1,500 lb cow
32.0 lb grass/legume hay 20.5 lb grass/legume hay
5.5 lb corn or DDGS
700 lb Heifer
@ 2 lb/day gain
13.5 lb grass/legume hay
5.0 lb ground corn
13.5 lb grass/legume hay
4.9 lb DDGS

Source: Ration produced with CowBytes Beef Ration Balancer v4.6.8, Alberta Agriculture.

These could be implemented with lower quality hay than suggested here as protein is not limiting. Mineral premix not included.

When using barley, it should be valued at about 90% of corn as an energy source, while wheat is equal to or slightly higher than corn. Grain should not exceed one-third of the total ration. For example; a diet for a 1,400 lb beef cow that was 28–30 lb of hay/day can be changed to 20 lb of hay plus 5 lb of grain (5/25 × 100 = 20% grain). The upper limit for grain would be 15 lbs of hay plus 7.5 lb of grain (7.5/22.5 × 100 = 33% grain). This latter scenario requires that the grain be divided into at least two feedings per day, or the use of a TMR (total mixed ration) delivery and good management. Keeping the hay replaced at one-third rather than half will also help keep the cow from feeling hungry.

Any time that energy and protein should be supplemented to the beef animal, whether calf or cow, Ontario cow-calf producers should consider grains, corn-based DDGS and other commodities. In some market environments, the extra protein contained in DDGS compared to corn alone can be purchased for little extra cost. This fact combined with the reality that ruminants eat through this pre-processed, higher fibre co-product has potential for any commodity feeding program and including many cow-calf operations.

Top Nine Cost and Labour Saving Feeding Strategies

  1. 'Test and Supplement': Reduce Nutrient Oversupply — The beef industry relies on the "Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle, Seventh Revised Edition, 1996"as the basis for ration formulation software and nutrition recommendations. This allows for the ability to compare feed analysis and feeds (ration formulation) with animal needs (requirements) to make informed decisions. The reality is that cows are unaware as to when their requirements are met and continue eating high quality feeds. This is true for energy, protein, various vitamins and minerals. It will become more essential to match animal requirements with feeds delivered while avoiding ‘filling the feeders’ as a matter of routine. This specifically is why a test-and-supplement approach is routinely advocated. Combined with the flexibility of total mixed ration (TMR) delivery strategies, it mitigates unnecessary and expensive over-supplementation of energy, protein or any of the expensive macro minerals such as phosphorus and some vitamins on a farm-by-farm basis. Sampling forages is a critical step in determining their value in a feeding program. Pastures can also be sampled to help producers understand their forages’ mineral content and to investigate the relationship between their sward management and forage quality, in this case pure orchard grass.

Sample of orchard grass in a plastic bag showing amount to be collected.

Figure 2. Recommended sampling size.

  1. Institute Limit Feeding — For successful limit feeding, there must be enough bunk space for each animal in the group to eat at the same time. If bunk space is limited, the timid animals will not get their required feed intake. Several sources suggest that limit feeding can reduce wastage, and reduce excess consumption of feed without affecting performance. This is because the cow herself is a natural buffer who can increase or decrease resource usage by altering body fat stores, liver wastage and waste heat production. Beef cows and heifers each require 65–75 cm (26–30 in.) of bunk space, compared to less than one-third of that amount with self-fed (free-choice) systems.
  2. Implement Ionophore Use — Including ionophores at higher levels that are used as a coccidiostat can reduce feed usage as well. By making rumen fermentation more efficient, the cow can harvest more feed energy as metabolites for her system, rather than have that feed energy blown off as methane. This technology must be implemented carefully either through a supplement pellet, or via a TMR system. Either way, it would be best to discuss with a nutritionist or feed industry professional before proceeding.
  3. Use Corn Silage — Corn (and other grains or by-products) can be used very effectively to partially replace hay. Depending upon the price of corn silage, it may be cheaper than hay at times. In this case, corn silage could be maximized in the ration. This ration would use low quality forages to bulk them, a protein supplement to address the protein shortfall, and then be delivered on a limit-fed basis. Another challenge can be acidosis from the overfeeding of grain, especially since it typically requires processing for cows. As a result, the ration should be kept to about one-third grain.
  4. Evening and Afternoon Feeding — No one seems to fully understand it, but late feeding has successfully pushed calving into the daytime for many producers. The time of day a cow is fed affects when the cows calve. As a result, feeding management can affect overnight labour needs on the farm. It is advisable to start afternoon or evening feeding about 4–6 weeks before calving to create this effect.
  5. Alternate Day Feeding — There has been a reasonable amount of research and enough farm experience to recommend alternate day feeding as a means to use feeds of differing qualities or characteristics without using TMR mixers and associated costs. For example, if the theoretical ration required half poor hay and half better haylage, it would be best to use a TMR. A close second option if only big bales are available, is to feed all of one type one day, all of the other type the next (or two and two, but not more). The poorest strategy is to put some bales of each type out each day because of the dominance issues in the herd that will result in some animals being underfed. Similarly corn silage or grain could be fed every second day as well.
  6. Calving Season — There has been a significant amount of research and discussion on how the time of calving affects winter feed needs. Additional research and information can be found on the OMAFRA website.
  7. Reduce Cow Frame Size — The number one predictor of intake across cattle types is size and weight. The point is, the bigger the cow, the bigger her feed bill. Consider better use of terminal sires on smaller (not small) cows to keep calf yields up while keeping winter cow feeding costs down.
  8. Reducing Wind and Mud (Manure) Stress — The extra feed energy required in a windy, wet lot is much higher than in a dry, wind-sheltered lot. Cold-stressed livestock that have poor coat condition need more feed in a maintenance state than their unstressed counterparts. Wet wintering sites and wind can almost double energy requirements (or weight loss) for cows. More information on dealing with cows and cold stress can be on the OMAFRA website.


Decreased amounts of forages in Ontario are compelling beef cow producers to implement new feeds and feeding strategies to their operation. Replacing traditional hay with readily available forages and quality commodities will serve to decrease the cost of feeding and will make the cattle sector more profitable. It is important to remember to test feeds and especially home-grown forages for minerals in addition to protein and energy parameters, and use these values with the advice of a nutrition advisor to develop a targeted supplementation strategy that avoids over-feeding of ingredients or nutrients.

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