Supplemental Feeding of Range Cattle

Memoir Series Number 1

John H. Knox, Professor Emeritus, Animal Science

College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences New Mexico State University


It is an honor for me to introduce a new publication series of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics. The primary objective of this series is to provide a publication medium for emeritus personnel of the College.

I am especially pleased that Dr. John H. Knox, Professor Emeritus of Animal Science, is the first contributor to this new series. His skillful handling of the topic for the first number will, I am sure, set the high standard for future contributions to this publication.


About the Author

John H. Knox was head of the Department of Animal Sciences at New Mexico State University fro, 1935 to 1964. A native of Ohio, he was graduated from Ohio State University in 1921 as an animal husbandry major and received his master of science degree from the University of Illinois in 1924. Before coming to New Mexico State, he taught at Texas A&M University from 1927 to 1935.

He was awarded an honorary doctor's degree from Ohio State in 1962. He was the recipient of the first Distinguished Teaching Award of the American Society of Animal Production in 1959. In 1954, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association selected Dr. Knox as "Cattleman of the Year.'' In 1962, he received the Westhafer Award for Research from New Mexico State.

Since his retirement, Dr. Knox has continued to contribute, through his knowledge and counsel, to the progress of animal science and New Mexico State University.

Supplemental Feeding of Range Cattle

Knowledge of forage composition and animal requirements is the basis for sound supplemental feeding of livestock.

Range forage must have been adequate for the minimum requirements of animals native to it. This does not mean, however, that the forage meets all the demands for profitable livestock production. In nature, seasons of plenty are followed by periods when vegetation is lacking in quality and sometimes in amount. To survive during centuries of evolution, grazing animals had to adjust to these conditions. The animals made adjustments by storing most vital nutrients in times of plenty to meet their requirements when plants were lacking in nutrients and by restricting their breeding season so that the young suckled when feed conditions were best.

Ruminants are well equipped to use roughage . They can digest large amounts of coarse material and form, in their digestive tracts, certain nutrients which other animals must get from their feed. This, combined with the ability to store essential nutrients, simplifies their feeding problems.

Animals must receive energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins from their feed. All are essential. The nutrients differ in importance only as the requirements are or are not supplied by the range.

Energy is needed in largest amounts. It is required for all functions—maintenance, lactation, reproduction, growth, and fattening. Large amounts are stored as fat. Changes in fatness with season and requirements of reproduction are normal and may occur without injury to the animal or its production. But an animal cannot live on its fat alone. A considerable part of the energy required must come from current feed.

Protein ranks next to energy in amount required. It is the largest component of growth and is a major requirement for reproduction and lactation. There is no provision for storing surplus protein. Animals may survive for a considerable time without adequate protein or with none at all, but it is at the expense of body tissue. All proteins are not alike. Therefore, non-ruminants need proteins of certain kinds or qualities. Because cattle can correct most deficiencies of protein quality by bacterial action in the paunch, their requirements for this nutrient may be expressed simply as the amount of digestible protein. When cattle are fed more protein than they need, they may convert the excess into energy, but protein is usually a considerably more expensive source of energy than carbohydrates.

Minerals, the principal constituents of bone, are present in all body tissues and fluids. They are essential for the chemical and bacterial changes which occur in the body and digestive tract. In times of shortage, they may be withdrawn from bones to a limited degree without serious injury. Other than salt, calcium and phosphorus are needed in largest amounts. Other minerals, referred to as trace minerals, are essential but are required only in small amounts. Extensive research has found no lack of trace minerals in New Mexico range grasses. Although animals require more calcium than phosphorus, southwestern ranges more often lack phosphorus. Analyses of range grasses over an extended period in all parts of New Mexico show that, even at the highest point, the phosphorus content of the forage barely meets the requirements of lactating range cows.

Vitamins are essential dietary substances required in very small amounts. Vitamin A is the only known vitamin which range cattle must receive from their feed. Others are not required or can be synthesized by cattle. Vitamin A is formed by animals from carotene which is abundant in green plants. Animals can survive periods of low carotene supply because they store excess amounts of the material in the liver. When cattle have been on good range, this storage may provide for six months on a vitamin-free diet or even longer on a low-vitamin intake without the animal suffering from acute deficiency.

Many analyses of forage and the blood of range cattle in New Mexico have failed to show vitamin A deficiencies. Much of this work was done in the most severe and prolonged drought on record. This can be explained in part by storage in the liver, but even more by the variety of vegetation on native ranges. Only a little green material is needed to meet vitamin A requirements. When the principal grasses are dormant, requirements may be obtained from small amounts of carotene retained in some mature grasses, browse plants in mixed stands, and annuals which make new growth following occasional showers. This may not be true in a prolonged drought on a pure grass range where the principal grasses lose carotene quickly. Cows suckling calves through a long winter and dry spring may become depleted of vitamin A as well as other nutrients. The statement is made that poor calf crops following drought are caused by vitamin A deficiency. Some may be, but more often poor calf crops are caused by a lack of several nutrients of which vitamin A may be one.

Seasonal changes in the composition of forage affect the problems of range nutrition. In early growth, plants are high in moisture. Their dry matter is low in fiber and high in all digestible nutrients. New growth is usually so sparse and washy at this stage that cattle do not obtain enough for high production. However, it is an excellent supplement for the old grass consumed with it, for it is high in protein, minerals, and carotene. When this new feed comes, cattle begin to shed, milk flow increases, and calves lose the doggied look which follows a hard winter or a dry spring.

With rains and warm weather, grass passes rather quickly to the medium—growth stage when its composition resembles good alfalfa hay. Now, if everything goes well, calves grow rapidly, milk production is at a peak, and the breeding season is under way, laying the groundwork for the next year's calf crop.

As grasses approach maturity, they contain increasing amounts of dry matter, fiber, and other carbohydrates but less protein, minerals, and vitamins, although usually they contain enough of these nutrients for good production. Some of the coarser grasses become woody and unpalatable at this stage. They should be grazed earlier in the season. By this time, calves are grazing more and taking less milk. Both calves and cows are gaining flesh; the cows in preparation for the winter and the calves for market.

As grasses mature, they become drier and more fibrous, with less digestible nutrients. Carotene virtually disappears from most grasses. In others, a considerable amount remains, providing a forage adequate for maintenance but not for growth or milk production.

Following maturity, weathering begins. The amount of weathering depends on the kind of grass, the climate, and the length of the dormant season. Losses from leaching are smaller in dry climates, but heavy spring winds may cause considerable shattering of leaves and fine stems. Grasses may retain more nutrients in mild winters because some greenness remains near the base.

With an understanding of these simple facts, a rancher is in a position to consider the problem of supplement feeding in a rational manner.

Reasons for Feeding

The overall reason for feeding range supplements is to increase profits. It is a question of balancing cost against increased returns. One rancher may decide to keep cost down and accept lower production, while another makes the opposite decision. Both may be right under different conditions.

One advantage of a conservative feeding policy is that it contributes to the proper use of the range. The most flagrant examples of overuse usually are associated with heavy feeding. A rancher who fails to note a slow change in his range will observe a quicker change in the condition and production of his cattle and take steps to correct it, hopefully by improving grazing practices rather than by going to the feed store.

One major purpose for feeding is to correct nutrient deficiencies in the forage. When done wisely and based on correct information about the composition of the forage and requirements of the animals, such supplemental feeding should be a sound and profitable practice.  Some recommendations have been based on mistaken information about the requirements of cattle and a failure to recognize their ability to select plants or parts of plants which supply their needs. As a result, some nutrients have been fed in greater amounts than needed.

Another reason for feeding is to support acceptable condition and production in the cattle when there is not enough forage. Except in unusual circumstances, extensive feeding of this kind can be avoided by estimating the forage crop at the end of the growing season and wintering only as many cattle as the range will carry, with a reasonable allowance for late rains the following summer. Unfortunately, this "reasonable allowance" is sometimes not enough. Then, emergencies arise even on well-managed ranges when the  cattle must be fed or removed. Such feeding also may be required when heavy snow is on the ground for a long period. Usually this occurs only at high elevations in New Mexico. Feeding under these conditions is more accurately termed emergency feeding. It can be minimized by careful management.

In addition to these two principal reasons, sometimes, for economic reasons, cattle are fed more than normal development requires. For example, heifers may be fed to obtain sufficient growth to breed as yearlings, or calves may be creep fed to obtain more weight and condition at the time of marketing. In recent years, surplus grain with low prices and relatively high cattle prices have caused such practices to increase.

Methods of Determining the Need for Supplements

Ranchers may get information on the need for supplements from their own observation and from research at New Mexico State University.

The simplest and one of the more useful methods of determining the need for supplements is observation of cattle on the range. Poor calf crops, slow growth of young cattle, and poor condition of all animals when an adequate amount of grass is present are strong indications that there are deficiencies which need to be corrected. Abortions, stillbirths, and calves which are weak at birth may be due to infection or plant poisoning. If careful checks fail to reveal either, nutritive deficiency is a likely cause. Excessive bone chewing usually indicates a lack of minerals. These observations point to a need for supplementation but, except for bone chewing, tell little of what nutrient or nutrients are needed. This may be determined by tests on the forage and the animals.

Blood analyses are used to determine a need for phosphorus or carotene (vitamin A). Liver biopsies are used to measure the storage of vitamin A. Creeps or rickets in range cattle is caused by mineral deficiency. White muscle disease in calves and lambs is reported to result from a lack of selenium or vitamin E. Hairless calves are born where feed is low in iodine. Night blindness results from prolonged use of feeds lacking carotene.

Forage analysis is a quick, cheap method of getting definite information on deficiencies of specific nutrients. The reliability of this method depends upon the forage samples being representative of what the cattle are eating. Samples should be taken of all major species at different location s on the range. Preferably, sampling should be done periodically--if not, then at the most critical season.

Frequently, ranchers place too much reliance on results from samples taken hurriedly at one  or a few locations on their range. Usually, more reliable information comes from carefully planned surveys conducted in the area where the ranch is located. The need for supplements is estimated by comparing these analyses with the accepted standards for the animals using the range. This provides the best information available at the time, but at best it is only an approximation of the truth.

The use of fistulated animals is one of the newer techniques for determining the species eaten and the proportion of each. This method is better suited to formal research than to surveys.

Final and most valuable information comes from feeding experiments. These experiments are costly and should be undertaken only after tests or observations have shown pretty clearly where the problem lies. Range feeding experiments verify the need for the nutrient and determine the amount to feed and the financial advantage gained from its use. Such experiments require a rather large number of animals fed for several years to provide all the information needed. Quicker results at smaller costs are obtained from carefully controlled laboratory experiments, but they do not provide all the economic information that range experiments give.

Factors Which Influence Feed Requirements

The factors having greatest influence on the need for supplemental feeding are amount and composition of the forage. Other factors more or less in order of importance are: whether the cows are suckling or dry, age of the cattle, condition of the cattle at the beginning of the winter or drought, weather conditions, and stage of pregnancy.

Dry, mature, non-pregnant cows have minimum feed requirements. If they have been identified by observation or pregnancy test, they may be carried without supplements and even moved to a poorer part of the range until time to put them with the bulls. These animals have the basic requirements for maintenance only. Other animals require additional nutrients for pregnancy, growth, or lactation. Of these, lactation has the highest requirement. The demands for growth are rather large in young animals but decrease as growth becomes slower with approaching maturity. Requirements of pregnancy are rather low and may be considered negligible until the final two months. The most critical group is young cows suckling calves. It is hard to picture conditions where it will not pay to feed two and three-year-old heifers from calving until new grass.

Very low temperatures increase feed requirements. When extreme cold is accompanied by wind, sleet, and snow, emergency feeding may be necessary to prevent severe loss of weight, and even death among young or weak animals. Fortunately, such extreme conditions are rare in New Mexico.

The length of the stress period-winter or drought or winter followed by drought-affects not only the length of the feeding period but also the amount which should be fed. Usually cattle go into winter in good condition. Some loss of flesh during the winter and early spring is expected. If new grass growth is delayed, the loss is increased and may require more than normal feeding. This situation should develop only in the drought years, but, unfortunately, it also occurs when cows are in poor condition in the fall. In this situation, the rancher has a choice of a feed bill or doggied calves in the spring followed by a poor calf crop the next year unless nature comes to the rescue with an unusually good spring. This is a long gamble.

Reducing the Need for Feeding

The need for supplements may be reduced by certain range and cattle management practices. Perhaps the most important is to manage the range so as to have sufficient palatable forage at all times. The first and most important step is to estimate the forage crop in the fall and adjust cattle numbers up or down to fit what the range will carry to the next growing season. The problem is not basically different from that of the farmer-feeder who buys the number of cattle he has feed for. The only differences are that feed is harder to estimate on the ground than in the stack, and the length of time to new grass is uncertain. Most ranchers make this estimate, but some hope for an early spring and others allow for the probability of late rains. With the latter plan, less feeding is needed.

Annual weeds, blooms, and grasses which are palatable only while growing should be used in season, and the grasses and browse which remain palatable and retain their nutrients should be saved for use when plant growth is dormant.

Where winters are severe, feeding may be reduced by providing pastures with natural protection, ample browse, and with slopes where snow melts more quickly. The rancher is fortunate who can find all these features in one pasture. Warm water also will reduce feed requirements. Where prolonged snow storms are frequent, a reserve of hay should be on hand or available.

The most important factor in cattle management, if the need for extensive feeding is to be avoided, is to have cows dry during most of the time the forage is low in nutrients. Most years in New Mexico, the rainy season is too short for a calf crop to be produced entirely on green feed. Early calving, late weaning, and year-long breeding with calves coming and cows suckling throughout the year are practices which call for increased feeding. When these practices are properly managed, they may increase production if the rancher is willing to pay the price by more feeding. The reverse of these practices is to begin calving shortly before new grass usually starts and wean about the time of the first killing frost. Calves weaned at this time are a little lighter than they would be if they were weaned later, but earlier weaned calves that are to be wintered have the advantage of fair-quality grass while they are making the adjustment. When weaning is late, cows have little chance to gain flesh before winter. The goal should be to have the cows in good condition at the beginning of the calving season. Then, if range conditions are normal and the time to new grass is not too long, they may be carried through with minimum feeding without injury to cows or calves.

Another practice which will reduce the need for feeding is to breed heifers as two-year-olds rather than yearlings. This does not mean that yearling heifers should never be bred. The extra feeding may be justified when all the requirements for successful breeding of young heifers can be met.

What to Feed

Much of the information about what to feed comes from comparing the composition of forage with the requirements of cattle. Most areas lacking in trace minerals have been located, and none are in New Mexico.

The phosphorus requirement for range cattle in the Southwest is less than was formerly supposed. However, it remains the greatest feeding problem in this region. Extensive sampling of range forage in all parts of New Mexico has demonstrated that all areas are deficient in phosphorus. Feeding a suitable mineral, high in phosphorus content, is the basis for sound supplemental feeding. Numerous feeding experiments over many years have shown a consistent advantage from feeding phosphorus. The average annual increased production was 51 pounds per cow due to increased weight of calves and number weaned. No other kind of feeding has approached this return for the investment. Some areas may lack calcium at times, but this deficiency is not as general as the lack of phosphorus. Since the cheapest and most available forms of phosphorus are the calcium phosphates, calcium will be provided when the need for phosphorus is met. One problem is to feed phosphorus in a form which will be consumed in adequate amounts. Steamed bone meal mixed with salt has given the most consistently satisfactory results in feeding experiments, although dicalcium phosphate and bone black have been eaten in sufficient amounts at times.

It has been supposed that vitamin A, found in green plants as carotene, must be a major deficiency on arid southwestern ranges. Forage and blood samples from all parts of the state, many of them taken in severe drought, failed to show a lack of vitamin A. In an experiment extending over eight years of below-average rainfall, feeding carotene to range cows did not increase production significantly. Failure to appreciate the importance of browse and the ability of some grasses to retain a small amount of carotene as well as the ability of cattle to select plants which best meet their needs has been responsible for overestimating the importance of the vitamin problem.

Analyses of range plants have shown deficiency of protein in dormant grass during winter or drought. This deficiency, however, is not as great as has been supposed. This is due largely to an overestimation of the protein requirements of range cattle. Failure in some experiments to distinguish between the responses from protein and from other nutrients in the feeds kept this from being recognized as early as it should have been.

In the search for hidden hunger, the most basic of hungers, the need of the animal's body for energy, was overlooked, or at least minimized. The extra protein used in many feeding programs helped to meet this need but often at an increased cost. High prices for protein feeds are likely to continue or to increase with the demand for plant protein for non-ruminant animals and as human food. In one range feeding experiment at the NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station, ground milo fed with an adequate mineral supplement to mature cows was as effective as cottonseed meal. Why was this true when, in an earlier experiment on the same range, cottonseed meal had been superior to corn? The principal reason seems to be that no mineral supplement was fed in the earlier experiment. Cottonseed meal is high in phosphorus as well as protein. Doubtlessly, at least part of the advantage from its use came from its phosphorus content.

In the later experiment, there was an advantage gained from feeding the protein supplement to three- and four-year-old cows. Feeding a protein supplement in the spring to young cows had only a minor effect on the weight of their calves the following fall but a major effect on the next calf crop. Weaning weights were increased from 362 to 374 pounds while calf crop increased from 72 to 87 percent. If two-year-olds had been included in the experiment, it seems safe to assume that the effect on the weight of the heifers and their production would have been greater. Therefore, when cows of mixed ages are fed together, a feed with at least a medium protein content would be preferred.

When and How Much to Feed

Dogmatic statements are questionable in most phases of ranch management. They are particularly dangerous when they deal with the subject of when and how much supplement to use. The answers are different on different ranches under various plans of management and vary from year to year with changing rainfall and range conditions.

A few general statements about supplemental feeding can be made with assurance. The first is that a mineral supplement should be used continuously on New Mexico ranges. A suitable supplement is one which provides sufficient phosphorus and will be eaten in adequate amounts. A supplement which contains 6 to 7 percent phosphorus and is consumed at an average rate of four pounds per breeding cow per month will supply the phosphorus needed. A mixture of equal amounts of special steamed bone meal and salt meets this requirement. It is important to check both the phosphorus content and the amount consumed before deciding whether the supplement is adequate.

When cattle are fed a protein supplement with salt, they will eat little of the mineral mixture. There is no harm in this for most, if not all, the phosphorus needed will be provided by the protein feed.

Other rules which may be stated rather definitely are: The most critical period is from the time the calves are dropped until new plant growth occurs. This is when great-est returns will be gained from feeding. They may be more in the next calf crop than in weaning weights of the current calves. Greatest gain will come from feeding two- and three-year-old heifers with their first or second calves. Again the advantage usually will be more in the calf crop the following year than in the weight of calves at side. Energy and phosphorus are the primary supplements needed by mature cows. Energy requirements can be met with a low-protein feed, even with grain alone, if fed with an adequate mineral supplement.

How much to feed as well as when to feed is influenced by the condition of the cattle and the range. Each added pound of feed yields less return than the preceding pound. The problem is to determine the point where additional feed will fail to yield a profit.

Deciding about supplemental feed for steers is difficult because of varied plans of marketing. If they are to be run on the same range and sold as feeders the next fall, fleshy calves may be carried through the winter so as to hold their weight. On a good range this requires little feeding. In fact, in favorable years in the warmer parts of the state, such calves may winter well without feed. Fleshy calves wintered to hold their weight or even lose a little will make good gains the following summer and not weigh much less in the fall than those fed more after weaning.

Calves that are very light because of drought or early weaning should be fed to make some gain to prevent loss and to have sufficient development to make good use of grass the following summer. One or two pounds of a medium protein supplement usually will be sufficient.

If calves are to be sold in the spring, it may pay to feed them more than if they are to be held through the summer. Even so, it is well to remember that the price of fleshy stockers may be discounted. It is impractical to discuss all variations in the management of steers. Some run them on wheat pasture and sell fleshy feeders off wheat in the spring or off grass the next fall. All these variations require changes in the feeding program.

When heifers are being developed for herd replacements, the goal is to bring them to breeding age at a weight and in condition to assure a satisfactory calf crop. Yearlings should weigh at least 600 pounds, and two-year-olds should weigh 700 to 750 pounds when they are put with the bulls. This requires rather liberal feeding of heifers to be bred as yearlings. They need from 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 pounds of high-energy feed with about 20 percent protein through the winter. If the spring is dry, they may need feeding until breeding starts. Less feed is required by heifers bred as two-year-olds. The usual practice is to feed lightly the winter after weaning and use no supplement other than a mineral and salt in the second winter. In favorable years, when calves are fleshy and winters mild, heifers may be developed for breeding as two-year-olds without feeding. If the heifers lack proper development in the months before breeding, some feeding will pay regardless of previous management.

Calving and the period following are the most critical times for two and three-year-old heifers. Unless range conditions are adverse heifers should be brought up to first calving in such condition that no feeding is needed before calving starts. This saves feed costs and may reduce calving trouble.

There are three management plans which may be used in feeding heifers. The simplest is to start feeding all heifers when the first calves arrive. The dry heifers and those that lose calves may be removed from the calving pasture as the season progresses. Another plan is to move heifers from the calving pasture to a feeding pasture when or shortly after they calve. A third plan is to put in the feeding pasture only the heifers which are obviously well along in calf. Late calvers may be added later, and dry heifers left out entirely. The latter plans save feed but require more labor. The purpose of all three plans is to provide feed when it will do the most good-when the calves are young and before the next breeding. Except for the use of minerals and feeding in emergencies, no other feeding program returns as much for the investment. The amount fed per heifer should vary with conditions. Two or three pounds a day is the amount generally used. In extreme conditions, more may be needed, and in favorable springs, less. Once in 12 or 15 years in the southern part of the state, growth of annuals is so early and abundant that the three-year-olds need no feeding. Usually, the best that can be hoped for is a shortening of the feeding season.

Heifers which calve first as three-year-olds usually are fed with the main cow herd the following year. Actually, however, their feed requirement at second calving is somewhat greater than that of older cows. Heifers calving as two-year-olds need special feed at second calving unless there is to be liberal feeding of the main herd. Research at the Oklahoma State University Agricultural Experiment Station proved that heavy feeding of young heifers may decrease their lifetime production. There is little chance of this happening on commercial ranches in New Mexico, but it may occur with purebred heifers.

Except in emergencies, mature cows respond very little to more feed than a good mineral supplement. In an eight year New Mexico experiment, when the average annual rainfall was 6.7 inches, feed in addition to a mineral did not increase production of mature cows significantly. Even in these dry years, there was no increase in the number of calves born and only a seven-pound increase in the average weaning weight. Calves from cows fed ground milo weighed only three pounds less at weaning than those from cows fed a protein supplement. From these results, it seems safe to conclude that mature cows need a supplement only in an emergency or when suckling calves through the winter, and even then an energy feed combined with a mineral supplement does about as well as a protein feed.

Feeding bulls presents a special problem. As with the cows and calves, this is a matter of alternatives. Will the feeding increase the calf crop enough to pay for the extra feeding? Is it more profitable to use fewer bulls in top condition or more bulls with less condition? The answer to the first question should be yes, if the rancher is able to recognize the best condition for bulls on his range. The answer to the second question will depend on circumstances. The man who is paying high prices for superior bulls will follow a plan which will reduce the number of bulls he must buy. Wise feeding and good management can increase the use obtained from bulls by bringing them to full service at a younger age and by extending their years of usefulness as well as by increasing service in a given year.

When not in service, bulls require enough feed for growth and maintenance, as do the non-pregnant females. However, there are factors which make more liberal feeding of bulls advisable. Bulls are larger and therefore require more nutrients for both growth and maintenance. A relatively few bulls have a key role in determining the size of the next calf crop. Usually breeding begins and is most intensive about the time or before new grass starts, when conditions of the bulls is lowest if there is no feeding.

When and how much to feed depend on the age and condition of the bulls, range conditions, and the weather. Young bulls need feeding more than mature bulls. The service obtained from young bulls depends more on their development than their age. Well-developed yearlings may be as serviceable as two-year-olds grown out with little or no feed. "Well-developed" , means normal growth with muscle and good feet, not excess fat.

Under most conditions, yearling and two-year-old bulls need supplemental feed for several months before the breeding season. The feeding that older bulls need varies with the condition of the bulls and the range. If both are in good condition, two or three months' feeding may be sufficient. If the bulls are thin and the grass short, feeding should start earlier. Usually two to three pounds of a medium protein feed are recommended for calves and yearlings and three to four pounds for older bulls.

How to Feed

Proper classification of the herd is fundamental to economical feeding. Different classes of cattle call for feeding programs varying in kind and amount. Some require protein, some energy feeds, and others none at all. Theoretically, the more classes the better-separating the young from the mature, the thin from the strong, the wets from the drys, and the pregnant from the open. Practically, there are limitations. It is essential that calves, yearlings, and two-year-olds be run separately. First-calf heifers, whether two's or three's, should be separated from mature cows. When heifers calve as two-year-olds, it is advisable to feed them separately from the older cows in their second calving season. Probably this will increase the weight of their calves and, almost surely, improve the next calf crop. Cows suckling calves in the winter should be separated from the remainder of the herd for special feed and management.

Management of old cows, thin cows, and cows which will not calve the following season is debatable. Under ideal conditions, these cows are culled in the fall. When they are not culled, old and thin cows may be fed separately or put with the heifers for extra feeding. Dry cows, when identified by pregnancy testing or observation, should be sold or separated from the calving herd and receive no feed.

Formerly most range cattle were fed daily in troughs at central feed-grounds, or they were fed cake where they were grazing on the range. Except in small pastures, little can be said for the first method. It is bad for the cattle and the range. Cattle spend too much time at and near the feed-ground, and those which are not there are not fed. When a little concentrate is fed, the stronger cattle eat it quickly and the cattle which need more get less. A better plan is to feed the cattle where they are, on the range. Although not suited to sandy, rough, or brushy ranges, this plan works quite well on hard ground and level terrain. The cattle are less concentrated, and the feeding interferes less with their grazing. Because they are fed in smaller groups, all have a better chance at the feed, and the feeder has a better chance to see the cattle.

Salt is used frequently to regulate the amount of supplement eaten. It is mixed with a mineral to increase consumption and with protein and energy feeds to limit the amount eaten. Ranchers generally use salt in mineral feeding, and they have increased its use in feeding other supplements. Less trough space is needed when salt mixtures are used, for the cattle eat whenever they come to the feed-ground. Each animal eats the amount it wants without being driven away by more aggressive individuals.

The feeders may be moved from place to place to encourage more uniform range use. Some ranchers think that the feeders should be near the water, so that the cattle can drink before and after eating. Others say this causes fouling of the water by feed from the cattle's muzzles. In cool weather, when the feed is a half to three-quarters of a mile from water, cattle seem to eat on the way to water and proceed grazing without spending excessive time at either place, and more uniform use of the range results.

Cattle fed salt with their supplement drink more water. This may reduce calculi in steers. It may also increase maintenance requirements in cold weather as the cattle use additional energy to warm the water to body temperature. This is an added reason for providing warm water.

Different mixtures should be used for different classes of cattle and with varying range conditions. Usually the percentage of salt will be from 20 to 30 percent for yearlings or grown cattle. For newly weaned calves the amount of salt should be lower at the start and increase as the calves become accustomed to the mixture. As a rule, the longer feed is out the more cattle will eat. This may increase the amount of salt needed if new grass is delayed. When grass starts, cattle voluntarily eat less supplemental feed.

The advantages of mixing salt and supplemental feed must be balanced against the cost of salt and mixing and the loss from wind or rain, unless covered feeders are used. This method may produce bad results when there is an extreme shortage of range forage.

The practice of feeding range cattle at intervals of several days has increased in recent years. Research has demonstrated that supplements may be fed at four-day intervals without reducing efficiency or causing injury to the animals. This method has some, but not all, of the advantages of salt mixtures without some of the disadvantages. Feeding at intervals takes less labor and truck expense than feeding daily; also cattle spend less time at the feed-ground and graze out farther. Since more feed is put out at one time, each animal has a better chance to get its share.

The most convenient way to feed on the range is with blocks. These blocks, which usually contain salt, molasses, and a protein supplement, may be placed at points which will cause more uniform use of the range. They have a special advantage on a rough range where it is difficult to go with a truck. Some users caution that straight salt should also be kept out or more than the needed amount of the blocks will be eaten. The practicality of the blocks depends upon whether they are consumed in the right amount and whether the blocks offer enough advantages to pay for the extra cost of buying feed in this form.


Any attempt to reduce ranching to fixed rules will fail. Forage composition and the basic requirements of cattle remain unchanged, although our knowledge concerning them may improve. On the other hand, relative prices of feed and cattle change frequently and influence the economics of feeding. Pioneer cattlemen, when they were able to feed at all, fed those that needed it when they needed it. Like most things they did, this made sense under their conditions. It recognized an important principle-that plans of feeding and management should be adjusted for changes in weather and the condition of the cattle and the range.

The goal is to make wiser use of supplements rather than to use more supplements. Probably more supplements will be used eventually because of increased demand for beef and price of cattle. At present, there is more reason to be concerned by too much than too little feeding, both from net return to ranchers and even more for the future of the range. The most important thing is to appreciate our native range. At its best, it is remarkably well suited to cattle production. We should use supplements to bring out the best from it rather than to replace or exploit it.

New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator. NMSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating.

Printed June 1968
Electronic Distribution January 2001