Aerial of a truck and cows in an open range

Strategically supplementing protein for range cattle

May 16, 2023 10:30 a.m.

By Lance Kennington, Ph.D., animal nutritionist, CHS

With the spring and summer grazing season upon us, many producers are faced with the possibility that forage quantity and quality will decrease early this year due to predicted hot and dry weather. As a result, strategic supplementation of protein may be needed earlier in the season. With a strategically implemented protein supplementation program, ranchers can use low-quality forage while still improving the health and productivity of their cow herd.

Low-quality forage is generally defined as forage that has dropped below 8 percent crude protein. Not only is protein vital for the growth and maintenance of range cattle, but protein is also needed by the rumen microbes to break down plant fiber and convert that fiber into energy available to the animal for growth and maintenance. As plants mature, protein content decreases because growth has slowed. When that happens, fiber content increases.

Protein supplementation increases digestion

Strategic supplementation keeps the protein content of the overall diet above 8 percent and helps the rumen microbes digest the fiber more efficiently. This increase in digestion then stimulates the cow to consume more of the low-quality forage and extract energy from it. We can tell fiber digestion is decreasing by observing manure. As fiber increases and protein decreases, manure pats start to stack up and become more segmented with more fiber observed. This stacking and segmentation indicates that too much fiber is being left undigested and protein supplementation is needed. We can also take samples of the pasture and have them tested by a certified feed laboratory for protein content. However, collecting a representative sample of what cattle are eating can be very difficult.

There are two different methods for providing protein to range cattle — hand-feeding and self-feeding.

Range cubes

Hand-feeding protein supplements

Hand-feeding range cubes is a viable and economic option for many producers. Consider feeding:

If labor is an issue, supplementation every other day or every third day will help. Cattle can recycle nitrogen to the rumen through the rumen wall and saliva, so feeding protein like range cubes every other day or every third day does not adversely affect animal performance but can help you reduce labor costs. Also, cattle are more likely to eat the correct amount per animal because there will be less competition for a supplement that is supplied in a greater quantity (two or three pounds versus four or six pounds).

Supplements that contain high levels of urea need to be fed daily to prevent urea overload. Also, if you have chosen to include an antibiotic such as Aureomycin CTC or an ionophore such as Rumensin in your cubes, these products need to be delivered to the herd daily.

Self-feeding protein supplements

Another option for supplement delivery is self-feeding. One option for self-feeding is to use Forager Pro 20 and Forager Pro 40 liquid feed offered in covered, lick-wheel feeders. Start out by offering Forager Pro 20 liquid to get the cattle going with intake and then switch to Forager Pro 40 when the intake is at the desired rate.

Protein supplements in tubs

Tubs are also an effective option. Start with feeding SmartLic NE-22 tubs and switch to NE-30 and Hi-Pro 40 as the season progresses and forages become more mature. OptiPro Range 80 is also a self-fed option. In addition, self-feeding systems can be an effective method to get cattle to graze under-utlized parts of the pasture through strategic placement.

All of these products contain other nutrients cattle need to be productive and healthy including energy, minerals and vitamins. Calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, manganese, iodine, cobalt and selenium are added as well as vitamins A, D and E. All of the products except SmartLic low moisture tubs contain salt. Salt interferes with the hardening process in tubs so it must be provided separately. We recommend you use plain, white, loose salt or white salt blocks for salt supplementation.

Every rancher hopes the spring and summer will be filled with timely rains to water grasslands; however, anyone who is involved in the cattle business knows that this is not always the case. Prepare your ranch so your cattle will have strategic protein supplementation to enhance performance and profitability as the season progresses and forage quality decreases. Contact your local CHS animal nutrition sales consultant to discuss the best product and delivery method to fit your ranch.