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You Get What You Pay For

Posted Dec. 1, 2001

If you are in the cattle business, especially the stocker sector, chances are you have either fed, will feed or have considered feeding by-products. By-products include soybean hulls, wheat middlings, peanut skins, barley sprouts, distillers waste, bakery waste, corn gluten and others. If you have been unaware that these alternative feeds exist, then hold on to your hat, because their sweeping popularity is gaining ground and will probably be at your doorstep for consideration in the very near future.

In comparison to this time last year, I have received considerably more questions pertaining to how to make a by-product feed fit a particular feeding program. A portion of this popularity is due to the "challenging" pasture conditions that resulted from the "challenging" environmental conditions of last fall and winter. A year ago, very few cattle were turned out to winter pasture until after the first of the year, which meant that cattle purchased early were fed earlier and for an extended period. More times than not, by-product feeds were utilized due to their "acceptable" nutrient content and their low cost.

Fortunately, this year's feeding conditions are shaping up to be quite different than those of last year. By the time you read this article, you will have hopefully "turned out" to winter pasture and the necessity to include an additional feed source is non-existent. However, the costs of these by-product feeds have stimulated interest in including them in a stocker program. The present delivered price per ton for some by-product feeds is 20 to 30 dollars cheaper than the non-delivered price per ton for some of the more conventional feeds at our disposal. Keep in mind that the decision to utilize these feeds should not be made upon cost alone. Although these feeds are inviting from a cost standpoint, "you get what you pay for." Consequently, there are other considerations to keep in mind when deciding to include them into a feeding program.

We are in the process of receiving cattle for the second year of a three-year project being conducted at the Red River Research and Demonstration Farm. A primary objective of this project is to provide information pertaining to the feasibility and economic impact of implementing soyhull pellets into the stocker phase of production. The secondary objective is to determine if feeding soyhull pellets, during the stocker phase, impacts performance traits and/or carcass characteristics at harvest. The study is ongoing and the results are preliminary, but there were some matters that pertain to the feasibility of implementing soyhulls into the stocker phase of production that I would like to share which I feel are important and timely.

Soyhulls and other by-product feeds are the result of a milling procedure and are not formulated to be fed to cattle. Nutrient levels may fluctuate with each delivery; therefore the need to monitor each load for things such as mineral, protein and energy content become important to maintain consistent rates of gain throughout a feeding program. This consideration becomes increasingly important if you are hand feeding to meet a programmed rate of gain and/or if you are feeding lighter/younger cattle that will inherently consume less feed. The variation in the crude protein (12.7%-14.7%) and total digestible nutrient (77%-78.7%) content that we observed last year were marginal. However, there have been other instances where I have seen these values fluctuate to an extent that were of concern from a feeding standpoint.

Another point of consideration is the possible negative physical and chemical properties that may accompany the feeding of some by-product feeds. Tannin levels, bitterness and excessive fines can cause consumption problems that can directly affect animal performance. Limit the number of times that a particular feed is augured to reduce excessive fines and make contingency plans to combine feeds that have reported palatability problems, such as peanut skins and barley malt sprouts, with other more palatable feeds if a problem occurs. We did see a considerable amount of fines by the time the soyhulls were in front of the cattle last year. We fed in self-feeders and utilized overhead bulk storage bins to limit the number of times the pellets were handled. Consumption was only a problem during the early stages of the project. Once the cattle adjusted, we saw intake levels at 1.6 to 1.8% (excluding hay) of body weight for the dry lot (Figure 1) treatment group. However, the reduced feed intake early in the study last year caused us to change our receiving protocol this year to gradually adjust the cattle to the soyhull pellets.

Although not a factor in our study, one of the most important considerations when choosing a by-product is its availability throughout the specified feeding period. You need to do your homework up front to get a feel for how much feed is going to be needed. Remember, the supply of these by-products is going to vary with environmental conditions and typical harvest times. Switching products during the feeding period will most likely cause a transition period for the cattle, resulting in sporadic intake patterns. If at all possible, minimize the need to switch to a different by-product during the feeding period. If a switch is necessary, do it gradually over several days to a week.

On a cautionary note, there was a reason why we fed all the treatments a roughage source. Although not a major problem, we did experience a few incidences of bloat. Therefore, I would suggest that if you are going to feed a by-product, particularly soyhulls, always provide free-access to a long stemmed roughage source to minimize digestive disorders such as bloat and possibly sub-clinical acidosis.

The list of considerations mentioned above is not all-inclusive. For each person I talk to that has used these products, the list of concerns gets longer. Each situation is different. However, based upon our preliminary results (Figure 1), there is a place for these products if used properly and without unrealistic expectations. Without question, our initial results suggest that if you have winter pasture you need to use it in order to achieve the highest levels of performance. However, if (when) those "challenging" environmental conditions of last year present themselves again, our results suggest that dry lotting calves on soyhulls and hay of moderate quality (8-10% CP) will yield acceptable performance levels. The most telling figure of all will be when we get enough data to run the economics behind including the soyhulls at the different levels. Until then, remember that buying feed is no different than buying a car, "you get what you pay for." So, do your homework up front to minimize any disappointments.

Acknowledgements: Robert Carpenter, Claude Crossland, Devlon Ford, Frank Motal, Felix Pena, Kent Shankles, Tim Stokes