A reader had a question on my post Bringing in the Hay regarding feeding cattle. I started to answer but my reply became so long I decided to make it a separate blog post.
Here is the reader's question:
We are fixing to get cattle for the first time and are debating on how best to feed them. I would like, in an ideal world, to 100% grass feed them, but having only a small pasture (1.5 acres) will make that difficult. Thankfully my parents have a small hay field so we are getting a good deal on hay, but my dad is insistent that we will have to feed grain, too.
How do you feed your cattle, particularly in winter?
We feed exclusively 100% grass hay during all times of the year the animals can’t get enough to eat by grazing. Keep in mind if you only have a 1.5 acre pasture (and depending on how many animals you’re getting), it will get eaten down in a fairly short period of time (even during the lushest summer months) and you’ll have to supplement their feed with hay the rest of the year. I sympathize because when we lived in Oregon, our pasture was only about 2.5 acres, so we had to feed almost year-round.
Keep an eye on your pasturage. Some neglectful livestock owners have the extraordinary notion that just because their animals are in a field, they are getting enough to eat. But if the field is eaten down to bare dirt, the animals could be starving. Be vigilant and attentive to the needs of your animals. Besides the cruelty factor, hungry cows won’t give much milk.
For winter feeding (or for feeding when the pasture isn't providing enough food), a rough rule of thumb is about 3% of body weight per day in hay. For a thousand-pound cow, this translates to 30 lbs. of hay per day, usually split between two feedings. Some people free-feed, which is fine; but you’ll go through a lot more hay that way because they tend to lay down on it, and/or defecate/urinate on it.
“Hay” is a generic term referring to dried plant material, either grasses, legumes, or a combination. Depending on your climate, terrain, rainfall, and other factors, you may have to supplement year-round.
Not all hay is created equal. Alfalfa is a high-protein high-quality feed, but it’s also very expensive and a pure alfalfa diet may be too rich. Cheatgrass is a low-quality low-nutritional forage that, at least in our case, our cows loathe. In our area we also get a lot of St. John’s wort and yellow hawkweed, both of which are nasty and non-nutritious for cattle.
I don’t know what kind of grass is in your father’s hayfield, but you’ll need to be vigilant that it’s of decent quality, not garbage.
Grass hay such as a timothy/brome mix, or oat hay, are excellent general choices for livestock. These are usually among the more affordable feeds as well. Because these hays are less rich in protein, a small grain supplement won’t hurt your animals, but it’s not necessary either.
Grain is used to “finish” beef cattle (fatten them up before slaughter). It’s also used to supplement the feed of high-producing dairy cattle whose bodies must go into hyperdrive to supply milk under commercial dairy conditions. But for a small homestead, grain is not necessary except for the occasional “bribe” for training or cooperation (sort of like bribing your toddler with an M&M when they use the potty chair).
Grain is high-protein and cattle love it; but let’s face facts, it’s not what they were bred to eat. Kids love cookies, but they aren’t “bred” to live on cookies to the exclusion of healthier foods. Similarly, cows love grain but were bred to live on grass.
So reserve grain as a treat, a training aid, and perhaps as a nutritional boost for a lactating animal; but don’t get caught up in the notion that livestock MUST have grain. We’ve raised cows for years with nary a grain in sight.
Make sure your grain is INACCESSIBLE to your livestock at all times, except when you're feeding small amounts. We have some friends who tragically lost a beloved dairy animal because she broke into the grain storage and gorged. She had to be put down and it was sad loss to these folks.
Your livestock should also have access to minerals, either with a mineral block or with loose mineral salts.
And needless to say, water! Your animals must always have fresh water available.