Different cattle feed plans are used at the more than 619,000 farms, ranches and homesteads that raise cattle. With 92 million head of cattle nationwide, there's a lot of hungry mouths to feed.

What you feed your beef cattle directly affects the quality of the meat, the marbling of the fat and the overall price at market when it comes time to sell or slaughter your cattle. A solid plan for feeding beef cattle that takes into account their nutritional needs, cost and availability of feed, as well as other aspects of feeding beef cattle, can improve your farm profits by improving the quality of the final product.

Cattle Feed Plans: What Do Beef Cattle Need to Eat?

All cows are herbivores, or plant-eaters. They are also ruminants. All types of cattle are born with a four-chambered stomach. At birth, calves live on the fat and protein-rich milk from their mothers, and their stomach's function much like a single-chambered stomach. As they begin to nibble grass and other forage, though, the other three stomach chambers grow, develop and change to become one of the most efficient means of transforming plants into protein and fat nature ever developed.

Cattle are very efficient at extracting as much nutrition as they can from forage materials. Ruminants have a special stomach chamber filled with microorganisms efficient at breaking down the components of grass, hay and other plants. The rumen, or special stomach, enables these creatures to live off plants other single-stomach animals cannot digest.

Beef cattle do, however, need specific nutrients to grow and thrive. Most beef cattle feed plans include different ratios of hay, grain and free choice minerals to help cattle grow and develop. As cattle transition from open fields to feedlots prior to slaughter, many are given ground shelled corn to sweeten the meat and add fat that makes meat cuts tender.

Beef cattle need the following nutrients for health:

  • Protein: Cattle can extract protein from vegetable plants. While hay and various grasses do contain protein, most beef cattle get their protein from legumes. Soybeans are the most common protein source, followed by cottonseed meal and linseed. Some farmers feed their beef cattle mineral blocks that also include extra protein. This is especially helpful for young, growing calves.
  • Minerals: The amount of minerals in hay varies according to the mineral content in the soils in which hay is grown, so proper attention to good pasture maintenance and care is essential for healthy cattle. Beef cattle need calcium, phosphorous, potassium and salt as their basic minerals. They also need trace amounts of iodine, copper, cobalt, zinc, and selenium. To make sure your cattle get plenty of minerals, a mineral block placed under an overhang or shelter, so rainwater doesn't get wasted, is a good idea. Cattle lick the block because it tastes good, and it gives them whatever minerals and salts they need.
  • Vitamins: Beef cattle also need an abundance of vitamins, including vitamins A, D and E. Bacteria that live in the rumen, or fourth stomach, produce vitamins K and B, so you don't need to worry about feeding your cattle these vitamins. Stressed cattle, such as recently weaned cattle or cattle transported long distances, however, do benefit from a little supplemental vitamin B.

For finishing beef cattle prior to slaughter, most are fed a mixture of ground, shelled corn or millet. These grains are inexpensive, nutritious and add fat to the meat to make it tender.

Importance of Good Pasture

Good pasture makes good beef. The better the pasture, the less supplemental fodder you'll need to give to your cattle because they'll be able to get most of their nutrients straight from the field.

Pasture grass is both high in vitamins and roughage, two important components necessary for cattle health. Pasture grass is higher in both vitamins E and K as well, making it an even better alternative to feeding commercial rations.

Although pasture-fed cattle can be more labor intensive, consumers seem willing to pay a higher price for grass-fed beef. The taste may be slightly different, too, providing consumers with a sense of gourmet flavor and an exclusive beef product they will pay a premium for.

Pasture maintenance includes ensuring the right seed mixture is used to produce grass that's of optimal nutritional quality as well as resting pastures, reseeding, raking, and cutting when necessary, and checking for weeds that can reduce nutrients and even poison your cattle.

The following tips on pasture maintenance for beef cattle can help, but you should talk to your local agricultural agent for a complete pasture management schedule. This includes recommendations for forage grasses that thrive in your gardening zone, region, and climate all while providing the best nutrition for your livestock.

If you're going to keep cattle out on pasture for most of the year, the following recommendations can help maintain your herd in good condition:

  • Seed using the proper cattle mixture recommended for your area.
  • Test the soil each spring to know which amendments to add prior to the growing season. Your local Cooperative Extension office can test soil for a small fee and provide collection kits for soil tests.
  • Know the weeds in your area and how to eradicate them. Some weeds are merely a nuisance that will take up valuable pasture areas and use up water and nutrients. Others, like Jimsonweed and White Snake Weed are poisonous. Learn to recognize and remove them.
  • Rest at least one pasture in the spring. This gives it a chance to grow and prevents over-grazing.
  • Spread, collect, or rake in manure so it doesn't collect and burn the grass.
  • Place mineral or mineral/protein blocks in special holders under an overhang to prevent rainwater from melting them away and wasting money.
  • Use round bale feeders to feed supplemental hay in the winter instead of unrolling the bales. This keeps the hay collected in one spot and prevents waste.
  • Make sure cattle have access to fresh, clean water.
  • Check fences and gates, and repair them promptly to prevent escaped cattle from injuring themselves or a passing motorist.
  • Ask your veterinarian to make sure your cattle are up to date on worming and vaccination schedules.
  • Purchase a guard animal such as a guard dog or llama to keep coyotes and other pests away from newborn calves.
  • With these tips and a good beef cattle feeding plan, you'll be well on your way to raising good-quality livestock.

Sample Beef Cattle Feeding Plan

Look at the sample beef cattle feeding plan we've put together below, as well as an additional comprehensive beef cattle feeding calendar you can download and use on your farm to keep your cattle healthy.

Beef cattle should follow different feeding schedules depending on their age. Young calves need different nutrients as they grow and develop. Cattle being readied for sale and slaughter also need different food than younger animals. Follow the cattle feed plans for the animals in your herd and for the time period indicated.

All amounts are per head (animal) unless otherwise noted. The amounts indicated below, based on recommendations from the Missouri Cooperative Extension office, will help cattle gain one to 1.5 pounds per day.

Calves: Winter Ratios with Pasture

These amounts are intended for calves who will be kept after the winter for another year to grow to maturity.

  • Grain: two to four pounds
  • Hay: 10 to 14 pounds per day (half of the hay should be legume hay)
  • Mineral block: as much as needed

Calves: Winter Ratios, Fatten After Winter for Sale/Slaughter

The following amounts are intended to fatten animals during the winter for late spring/summer sale or slaughter. These amounts will help put on about two pounds of weight per animal, per week.

  • Grain: five to seven pounds
  • Hay: eight to 10 pounds
  • Protein supplement: half pound
  • Mineral block: as much as needed

Finishing Rations

Finishing refers to the last step before cattle are sent to slaughter.

  • Shelled corn: pounds determined by cattle
  • Hay: four to six pounds, grass hay
  • Protein supplement: one pound
  • Mineral block: as much as needed

Adult cattle kept on good-quality pasture should receive all the nutrients they need from their forage. If you need to supplement with commercial feed, look for feed specifically created for beef cattle. Don't feed beef cattle the same food marketed for dairy cattle. The nutrient ratios are different, and you can end up giving your beef herd a diet that makes them sick.

Difference Between Grass, Hay, and Alfalfa

Beef cattle need different types of hay than dairy cows. Dairy cows are fed lush, protein-rich alfalfa hay, but this can actually make beef cattle sick. Some signs that your beef herd has consumed too much fresh pasture include bloat, diarrhea, and other digestive problems.

Your cattle will do best on a pasture grass mix of hay. This hay includes legumes as well as grass. The exact types will differ according to where your hay comes from. Northern farms in the U.S.A. tend to produce more timothy-based hay because timothy grows better in colder climates, but any local mix of legumes and grasses will do just fine to keep your beef cattle in good shape.

Water: the Forgotten Nutrient

One thing you can't forget when raising beef cattle is water. Although it's not on cattle feeding plans, water remains a critical part of a good cattle management plan.

Cattle need access to fresh, clean water every day. Cattle drink between three to 30 gallons of water a day during cold weather. During hot weather, their water needs increase dramatically, and they may need to drink one gallon of water for every 100 pounds of body weight at least once a day.

You can provide access to water at a trough, but it's important to keep water clean in a trough. Algae can develop inside a tank. Cattle also sometimes drop manure into troughs if they're standing too close to them, which can further foul the water. If you do use a trough or tank, galvanized steel is easier to clean than other materials. A good scrub brush and a forceful spray of water from the hose can be great tools to scrub out mucky water troughs.

Ponds and streams are good sources of water, but make sure that if your cattle are turned out near a stream, your fence extends over the stream so they can't walk downstream and right out of the pasture. They will cross running water and wade on a hot day.

Streams can also carry bacteria-laden water into nearby drinking water supplies. Be sure to talk to your county agent or ag agent before pasturing cattle near a stream to find out where the stream empties and if it impacts the local water supply.

Managing a Beef Cattle Feeding Calendar: Reducing Hay and Feed Costs

Raising livestock for profit is always a risky venture. Sometimes you make money, but if the market prices for cattle dips too low, you may lose money. One way to maximize your beef cattle investment is to manage your feeding calendar against your pasture and forage grain crops.

The more you can raise your own feed, the better off your operation will be. Raising your own blend of hay helps you control both quality and costs. Although some years you may need to purchase additional hay to supplement what you've been able to grow on your own, any amount you can raise yourself will reduce your feed bills and improve profits.

Some people may not have adequate land or capital to raise all of the hay or grain they need to raise beef cattle. For those who must rely upon purchasing hay and feed, buying in bulk can save some money.

Once you receive your hay delivery, proper storage is essential to maintaining the quality and freshness of hay bales. A hay shed or barn can keep hay dry so it doesn't get moldy. Moldy hay will go uneaten and may make your cattle sick. Mold makes the hay smell bad and causes wet, dark or white patches in the bale. Anytime you see moldy hay, it's only good for the garden compost pile. It should never be fed to cattle.

To ensure your hay bales last, and you get the most out of your money, it is also recommended to invest in a few round bale feeders. Bale feeder models that are designed to drastically reduce waste are ideal.

Arrowquip offers the very best cattle equipment you can buy to manage your farm operations. From loading and squeeze chutes to other handling equipment, we've chosen equipment that can stand up to your toughest farm chores. Durable, efficient cattle handling equipment starts with Arrowquip. Contact us today for the equipment to keep your herd happy and healthy.