The Need for Feed – Test It!


This summer has been particularly difficult for livestock producers. Hay yielded less than 50% of a normal crop and producers have been scrambling to find enough feed to feed their cattle through the winter. A lot of crop residues have been harvested and baled and some non-traditional feeds are being collected for this coming winter. Be aware that the quality of the feeds you are using this winter may vary greatly from your normal feed supply.

When it comes to feed quality, there is no such thing as “average” quality. Feed quality is related to the physiological age of the crop when cut. With crop residues you get a lot of fibre but protein and energy levels can be all over the board. Pea straw is a prime example. Some pea straw can have protein level almost as high as a poor grass hay. However, I’ve seen other pea straw samples with less protein than wheat straw. Feed quality also has a lot to do with the growing conditions of the crop. Drought will speed up maturation in the crop and increase fibre levels early. As fibre goes up, protein and quality go down.

Feed testing is a valuable way to know what you are feeding. Ration balancing is using this information to ensure your livestock are getting the nutrition they need, to have a healthy cow and calf next fall. When feed supplies are short, it makes a lot of sense to feed test and balance those rations to make the most of scarce feed resources.

When it comes to feed testing it is important that the sample sent in is representative. A representative sample is one that accurately reflects the average nutrient level in that field. For baled forages, that means taking core samples from at least 20 to 30 bales of one feed source. Hand grab samples do not represent the field where hay was baled. You lose some of the fine material and end up with a hand full of sticks. Grain is a little easier as it is pretty well mixed going into the bin. Silage can be sampled while going into the pit; a little bit from each load can be stored in a Ziploc bag in the freezer until the sample is sent. Also, you can take a sample once the pit is open, selecting samples from several places on the open face.

When testing feed, the basics of value to you should be for moisture, protein, energy, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and possibly copper. Energy can be represented as Mcal/kg or pound in digestible energy or total digestible energy or even as a measure of fibre. Straws usually have a DE (digestible energy) of about .85 Mcal/lb or less. Hays can have a DE of anywhere from 1.3 to .8 Mcal/lb, depending on maturity and composition. Grains have higher DE as the seed contains a lot of starch or carbohydrate.

Protein levels needed in cattle vary depending on age, whether they are still growing or not, and the stage of pregnancy. After the first calf, a heifer will continue to need additional energy and protein to allow them to grow to their mature size. The younger the animal, the higher the overall protein percentage the feed needs to have. Milking cows also have high demands.

Be aware of the different nutrient levels needed for each class of livestock and use a combination of feed testing and ration balancing to meet those needs without using more feed than necessary. In years of scarce feed resources, this can provide a healthy, profitable calf crop without breaking the bank.

Harry Brook is Flagstaff County’s Agricultural Fieldman. He can be reached via email at: or by phone at: 780-384-4138.