Meeting the Nutritional Needs of Cattle with Hay

R. David Neal  |  8/3/2005 8:30:23 PM

The cost of winter feeding the beef cow herd accounts for 40% to 50% of the total variable costs of producing calves for market. Several things should be considered when beginning to plan the nutritional program so costs can be kept manageable. These include hay quality, body condition score of cows, the amount of ration required and costs of supplements.

Determining hay quality is very easy. A good representative sample of each hay cutting can be tested to determine protein, fiber, digestibility and energy value (TDN). The LSU AgCenter Extension office will send samples to the forage lab with no charge. The results will give the quality of the hay sample. This information can be used to formulate a feeding program.

Knowing the body condition score of the herd is essential to know how much of the ration will be needed. Body condition score gives an indication of how much weight a beef cow needs to gain during pregnancy. Cows that weigh 1000 to 1100 pounds with a BCS of 4 need to gain about 150 pounds before calving; cows with a BCS of 5 or 6 need to gain only the weight of the fetus. A cow weighing 1000 to 1100 pounds will consume 2.2% of her body weight of high-quality hay, but if hay quality is low, then she will consume 1.8%.
A mature dry cow weighing 1100 pounds will consume about 22-24 pounds of good hay per day to meet her needs. A dry 1100-pound cow needs 1.4 pounds of crude protein and 9.5 pounds of TDN. However, if the hay quality is low, then she will consume only about 19-20 pounds and cannot meet her nutritional needs without some type of supplemental feed.
If a cow is lactating or is a first-calf heifer, she will need extra supplementation because this is the period of the highest nutritional need. Knowing the quality of the feedstuffs is very important so these needs can be met. The only way to know is by forage testing.

To compare a hay sample that has been sent off and tested to what is considered good quality hay can give guidance on how much a ration should be supplemented. The table below gives average nutrient levels of some common hay species of high quality.


Crude Protein  

Total Digestible Nutrients

Hybrid Bermuda



Common Bermuda












If it is determined after the forage test that supplementation is needed, then some of the supplements in the following table might be considered. Each has pros and cons, but cost per pound of protein and TDN and availability should be the deciding factors on what to use.


Type Nutrient Content Amount In 1 Pound
Shelled Corn 9% CP 88% TDN .09lb. CP .88 lb TDN
Soybean Meal 50% CP 84% TDN .5 lb. CP .84 lb TDN
Cotton Seed Meal 41% CP 75% TDN .44 lb CP .75 lb TDN
Whole Cotton Seed 23% CP 94% TDN .23 lb CP .72 lb TDN
Urea/Molasses 18% CP 72% TDN .18 lb CP .72 lb TDN
Rice Bran 13% CP 70% TDN .13 lb CP .70 lb TDN
Blocks 30% CP 70% TDN .3 lb CP .70 lb TDN
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