1998 Drought Information - Alternative Growing Programs For Stockers

Alternative Growing Programs For Stockers

David Lalman, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist
OSU Animal Science


High quality forage is almost always the cheapest source of nutrients to grow stocker cattle. When forage quality declines to the point that a particular nutrient restricts animal performance, a supplement can be used to supply the deficient nutrient, increase gain, and usually increase profitability of the enterprise. Often, receiving and short-term growing programs are based on harvested forage and supplement. Good quality hay is a tremendous resource for this purpose because, with proper supplementation, animals can continue to grow and remain healthy while they are in a “holding pattern” until wheat pasture or summer pasture becomes available. Hay and supplement is easy from a management and safety standpoint. The problem this fall is…we have very little harvested or standing forage. Consequently, many producers are looking for methods to hold or grow calves until (or if) wheat pasture becomes available, and many have limited hay or pasture to use in the process. When forage supply is limiting or when grain and other feed commodity prices are low and value of weight gain is moderate to high, producers can justify feeding greater amounts of concentrate feeds. The amount of concentrate fed varies depending on amount and quality of available forage, the concentrate source selected and the weight gain objective for the cattle. Various alternatives for holding and growing calves are discussed in this paper.

General Considerations

Alternative growing programs that involve feeding greater amounts of concentrate require more intense management, more labor as well as additional feeding and storage equipment. Each of these items must be explored thoroughly in order to evaluate the feasibility of the alternative enterprise. Rations that depend on significant amounts of concentrate should be changed gradually in order to allow the animals’ digestive system to adjust to the new diet and / or management scheme. Adequate, clean water must be provided at all times. When unfamiliar feeds are involved, or if the proposed feeding strategy is unfamiliar to the producer, be sure to seek advice from other professionals and experienced cattlemen. Make certain that the diet evaluation does not stop at energy and protein. A balanced mineral and vitamin program is essential to animal health, and becomes especially critical when animals have limited access to feed and/or other forage.

Remember that implants and feed additives, such as Bovatec, Rumensin and GainPro are all more beneficial if cattle will be fed to gain greater than 1 pound per day, compared to dry wintering programs where .5 to 1 pound per day is expected. In these situations, a growth promoting implant and a feed additive are usually a good investment.

The feed industry produces commercial products designed to achieve the same objectives as many of the various programs mentioned in this paper. Be sure to consult your feed dealer to determine if a commercial product will better suit your needs. Remember that commercial products are formulated with many of the concerns in mind that are mentioned in this paper. In many situations, a well formulated commercial product will be the most practical and safest feeding program.

Program Feeding

The term program feeding refers to feeding a limited amount of a high concentrate ration to achieve a specific weight gain target. A very small amount of roughage, if any, will be fed. This varies greatly with the traditional management approach where cattle have free choice access to forage and you take what weight gain you can get.

Typically, rations consist of 80 to 85 percent whole-shelled corn and 15 to 20 percent of a commercial pelleted supplement. The total amount of ration offered is increased every two weeks or so to maintain the desired level of gain. Many feed companies have supplements formulated for this purpose, and can provide assistance with supplement selection for specific classes of cattle and rates of gain.

When grain is cheap and harvested forage is expensive or nonexistent, program feeding is often the cheapest way to grow cattle. This growing program alternative obviously requires a high degree of management skill. Cattle must be maintained in a dry lot so that the manager has complete control over the diet the animals are consuming. However, that doesn’t mean it will be the most practical program for every producer, because of the concerns mentioned above. For further detail on program feeding see your Extension Agriculture Educator and request a copy of OSU Current Report number 3025, “Limit Feeding Light-Weight Cattle High Nutrient Density Diets”.

Corn and Milo Fed with Hay or Pasture

When feed grains, such as corn and milo are reasonably priced they can be successfully fed to cattle receiving hay or winter pasture. Feed grains are not thought of as being ideal supplements for cattle that are receiving a low quality forage diet. Research has shown that starchy feed reduces fiber digestion and reduces low quality forage intake. Some of this problem can be overcome by supplying adequate degradable protein from cottonseed meal, soybean meal or alfalfa hay. However, if target gains of 1.5 pounds or more are desired the concentrate will need to be fed at higher levels compared to true supplementation programs. In this situation, the grass or hay actually becomes a minor portion of the diet and the feed provides most of the nutrients. Table 1 demonstrates the difference in forage intake for cattle receiving a traditional high protein supplement compared to cattle being fed a concentrate to replace or extend forage. A blend of high protein soybean meal and corn fed at 1 percent of body weight should achieve weight gains of 1.25 to 1.5 pounds per day, assuming healthy, parasite free cattle and adequate prairie hay or standing winter pasture (Table 1). A similar blend fed at 1.5 percent of body weight should boost gains to around 1.75 to 2.0 pounds per day (Table 1). Usually, this type of growing program will not be as efficient as program feeding, but is less labor and management intensive.

Table 1. Corn and soybean meal rations for 550 pound growing steers with free choice prairie hay or native pasture.

Feeding Rate
2 lbs. per day1% of body weight1.5% of body weight
Corn, lbs. per day
Soybean meal, lbs. per day
Range cube, 38%
Forage intake, lbs. DM per day
Feed crude protein, % as fed
Estimated ADG, lbs. per day
.5 – 1.0
1.25 – 1.5
1.75 – 2.0

Alfalfa hay and corn grain are very complimentary from a nutritional perspective. Good quality alfalfa hay contains high levels of degradable protein, calcium, potassium, magnesium and it is a good source of many of the trace minerals. Corn grain, on the other hand is a good source of energy and phosphorus. If these feeds are available at reasonable prices, a growing program for calves can be centered on these commodities. A blend of sixty percent coarsely chopped or long stemmed alfalfa hay and forty percent corn grain (cracked or whole shelled) can sustain weight gains ranging from 1.75 to 2.25 pounds per day. Animal performance will vary greatly depending on hay quality as well as previous management of the cattle and their genetic potential for growth. Alternatively, if the two ingredients can not be blended, hay can be fed free choice or in limited amounts and corn can be fed at 1% of body weight. Table 2 shows the amount of corn and good quality alfalfa hay required to maintain around 2 pounds per day gain for moderate frame steer calves ranging from 350 to 650 pounds.

Table 2. Corn and alfalfa hay rations for steers gaining 2 pounds per day at different body weights.

Weight of cattle
Alfalfa hay, lb. as fed1
Whole or cracked corn, lb. as fed
1Nutrient content of hay, dry matter basis; 58% TDN, 22% crude protein, 1.37% calcium, .22% phosphorus

Growing rations based on corn and alfalfa have been used for many years with good success. This alternative is relatively simple, because it can be accomplished with little or no additional feed processing or mixing. Once cattle have been adjusted to this type of ration, the risk of digestive upset is relatively low because a significant amount of roughage is still being fed.

Using Byproduct Feeds to Grow Calves or Stretch Forage

Prices for byproduct feeds, such as wheat middlings, soybean hulls, corn gluten feed and barley malt sprout pellets, are unusually low this fall. This is primarily a result of reduced exports of these products and the huge corn crop grown in the Corn Belt. These low prices, combined with the lack of hay, stockpiled summer pasture and wheat pasture has resulted in an incredible influx of these feeds into Oklahoma. With the exception of wheat middlings, these feeds are relatively new to Oklahoma cattlemen. Byproduct feeds tend to vary a great deal in nutrient concentration. Therefore, it is a good idea to obtain a laboratory feed analysis from the supplier for each load of feed. If an analysis is not available specifically for the feed you have purchased or are considering purchasing, send a sample off and have it tested yourself. By being aware of the nutritional characteristics of each of these feeds and adjusting the ration accordingly, you can minimize toxicity problems and disappointments in animal performance. Once the nutrient concentration of the feed has been determined, an appropriate feeding rate or feed blend will need to be determined. See your Extension Agriculture Educator for assistance in designing the feeding program. Because of some of these nutritional characteristics, very few byproduct feeds can be fed as a single ingredient in complete cattle rations. A few of these characteristics are discussed below.

If wheat is used, it should be blended with other commodities to reduce the risk of acidosis. As a conservative rule of thumb, feed wheat at no more than .5% of body weight. Approximately 15 to 20% of whole grain wheat escapes digestion. Therefore, wheat should be coarsely cracked or rolled.

In a feeding situation where wheat middlings is used to replace forage, wheat middlings should be blended with another commodity to reduce the risk of founder and bloat. As a general rule of thumb, up to one percent of body weight wheat middlings does not cause these problems, assuming adequate forage is available. The finely processed starch from the wheat milling process is the primary culprit causing these problems. Wheat middlings vary a great deal in starch content, from 15 to 40 percent. Soybean hulls work well in combination with wheat middlings because soybean hulls contain very little flour or starch.

Corn gluten feed and barley malt sprout pellets must be blended with other commodities if they are to be fed in amounts greater than .5% of the animal’s body weight. The potential problem with feeding these commodities as the sole concentrate source is the high sulfur content. Beef cattle can tolerate diets with a maximum sulfur concentration of around .4%. Both corn gluten and barley malt sprout pellets typically contain .2 to .6% sulfur. Corn grain and soybean hulls both have relatively low sulfur content and work well blended with these byproducts. If there is any question, be sure to have the feeds tested for sulfur concentration so that an appropriate blend of feeds can be formulated. Corn gluten feed must be dried at the wet milling plant before it can be shipped. Overheating during the drying process can reduce palatability and protein digestibility. Both of these products are a good source of degradable protein if they have not been overheated. Be aware of these potential sources of variation.

Soybean hulls contain very little starch, making them a good alternative to replace hay or standing forage. However, some cattlemen have experienced bloat when feeding soybean hulls free choice or at levels exceeding 1.5 percent of body weight. Others have indicated that cattle can choke when they are adjusting to soybean hulls. This byproduct expands a great deal when it comes in contact with water and saliva. When cattle consume a large amount of this feed they will appear to be extremely full. To minimize the risk of bloat when feeding soybean hulls at high levels, make certain that adequate hay or standing forage is available at all times. Also, as with any ration change, be sure to make gradual changes in the ration, rather than abrupt changes to allow the animals to adapt. Providing an ionophore, such as Bovatec or Rumensin should help reduce the risk of bloat problems. Research at OSU indicated that blending one-third corn grain with soybean hulls reduces bloat problems. Adding corn will also increase daily gains. An additional protein source would need to be added to the diet for calves weighing less than 400 pounds. Phosphorus and vitamin A will need to be provided in a free choice mineral supplement, if not blended in the feed.


Fortunately, current feed prices do present cattlemen the opportunity to grow cattle at reasonable costs, even with limited forage. However, a greater amount of homework, labor and management skill will be required compared to traditional forage growing programs.

Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service
Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources
Oklahoma State University