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Cattle Nutrition

Raising cattle that are healthy and reproduce well depends on how you feed them . And how you feed them depends on several factors, such as gender, body condition, age, breed, type of cattle, forage convertibility, and climate.


Start by asking yourself a few basic questions when you're determining how and what to feed your cattle:

  • What type of cattle are they? Show, dairy, and beef cattle all have different nutritional needs.

  • How old are the cattle/calves? Cattle need different nutrients at different stages of their life.

  • What is the cattle's overall feeding program? Pasture cattle — those who graze on pasture as a regular part of their feeding — will need mineral blocks or loose minerals to ensure complete nutrition.

  • Are the cattle on pasture or dry lots? Pelleted feed works best for dry lots, while block feed is better for pasture.

The Cattle Diet

Cattle need four basic things to stay healthy: forage, concentrates, minerals, and water. You must provide all of these for your livestock, as needed, for them to perform the way you want them to.


Most of a cattle's diet should be forage, which simply means the animal grazes on plants in a pasture or field, or eats some kind of preserved forage such as hay or silage.

When a good supply of forage is available, cattle can do just fine on that, along with salt and mineral supplements. But forage quality will vary, depending on how it was harvested.

Ideally, alfalfa should be harvested when it's budding; this is when it contains the most nutrients. A plant's nutritive value drops as the crop matures, so if the field is not harvested at peak time, the hay's quality is reduced.

Second and even third cuttings from the same field tend to have fewer nutrients than the first cutting, so even though the hay that you buy looks good and green, it may not contain enough nutrients. That's when you need to make up the difference in nutrition and provide your cattle with supplemental feed.

To make sure you're feeding quality hay, have it tested for nutrient content. Your county extension staff can help you with directions and the available laboratory. Cost is very minimal — generally around $10 — and it's money well spent.


Sometimes forage alone doesn't provide enough nutrition for maintaining proper body condition. That could be because hay isn't of the highest quality and lacks nutrients, but it also could be the case during the breeding season or times of peak production, when livestock requires more energy. Pregnant and nursing cows also require more nourishment because of the physical demands placed on their body.

That's when you must feed a concentrate mixture to balance out what the hay does not provide. The basic principle of feeding a concentrate is to provide just enough to meet the animal's requirements or specific weight gain.

Corn is the most common cattle feed, but milo, soybean hulls, wheat, and wheat middlings also may be used in concentrates, many of which are found in ready-made cattle protein tubs. If you choose to mix your own, rather than using a pre-mixed protein tub for cattle, take note of the nutritional characteristics of each of these cattle feeds and adjust the ration accordingly.

Cattle feed comes in three forms:

  • Pelleted feed has the ingredients milled and formed into pellets.
  • Sweet feed is feed in the form of fresh grains plus pellets.
  • Block feed has the ingredients milled and formed into solid blocks.


As in all animals, salt and minerals are necessary to sustain life. As a general rule, a complete mineral supplement containing salt, calcium, phosphorus, and trace minerals should be provided free choice.

However, care should be taken to follow label instructions for rate of consumption on all minerals. Factors such as forage quality, body condition, and production level affect mineral requirements.

For example, cows will need a mineral with higher levels of magnesium each spring to prevent grass tetany, a magnesium deficiency condition that commonly occurs when cattle are turned out onto lush, fresh pasture in the spring. This is especially critical for spring calving herds, but can also occur in fall and winter.

Because magnesium is not highly palatable, cattle should not be given a choice between high magnesium mineral and other minerals.

The rest of the year cattle only need a regular pasture mineral.

Minerals come in two forms:

  • Loose minerals can be offered by a separate mineral feeder or added to feed just as people can put salt on food.
  • Block minerals are solid blocks that the animals lick.


Abundant fresh water should be offered free choice all the time to your cattle. Their water requirements vary, depending on environment, level of production, age, diet, outside temperature, and stage of pregnancy, so make sure to provide ample water supply.

The amount of water cattle drink affects their feed intake, so if they can't drink enough, they won't eat enough, which may hinder weight gain.

Cattle Bloat

Cattle bloat can happen at any time on grazing pastures, but cattle are most susceptible to this deadly health hazard during times when grass growth is at its peak, particularly in the fall.


Bloat is distension of the cow's rumen — part of its stomach — due to excessive gas production. In extreme cases, bloat can be fatal.


Gas production is normal during fermentation/digestion of feeds, but if the cow can't get rid of the gas quickly enough by belching, bloat can occur. And if gas builds up faster than it can be belched out, the rumen may become so full that it puts pressure on the lungs — and the animal suffocates.


Certain forage plants are more likely to cause bloat. Legumes such as alfalfa, most types of clover, and winter wheat pasture can cause the rumen content to become frothy and sticky and block the opening into the esophagus, which prevents release of the gas.


Short, lush plants with high protein content and very little fiber also cause a risk for bloat. If cattle are hungry when first put into a legume pasture, they are more likely to overeat and, therefore, bloat.


Avoid bloat on fall pastures by waiting until legumes are mature before grazing them. Bloat potential is highest when plants are in pre-bud stage, and decreases when they are at full flower or later.


Make sure cattle are already full when they're moved into a new pasture. Put them into it mid-day instead of early morning when they are hungry. Choose a dry day and wait until any dew or frost is gone.


Also, make sure cattle always have plenty of salt at pasture — preferably loose salt that they can eat quickly, rather than hard blocks. If cattle have adequate sodium, they are much less likely to bloat.