Alternative Feeds For Extending Limited
Feed Supplies

Ed Rayburn
Extension Forage Agronomist
WVU Extension Service

Dry weather often leads to over-grazed pastures and short hay crops. Managers need to evaluate optional purchased feeds and decide whether it is most economical to buy feed or sell livestock.

The economics of purchased feed is based on the cost of the feed (including trucking), the animal response to the feed, the value of the animal gain, or the substitution value of the feed compared to alternative feeds. Commodity feeds and by-product feeds are relatively inexpensive this year. Soybean hulls and shell corn can be purchased in tractor trailer load lots for as little as $80-$110 per ton. But who needs a tractor trailer load of feed? This amount of soy hulls fed at 5 pounds per head per day will feed 50 cows for 200 days.

If there is no fall rain and no fall pasture, there will be a 200-day wintering period before spring grazing. If two livestock producers, who have 25 cows each, partnered on a tractor trailer load of such feed, it would allow them to extend their feed supply at a relatively low cost. Purchasing large lots of commodity feeds delivered directly to the farm can reduce the cost of feed by up to a half compared to buying the same feed by the bag at the feed store.

When looking at what supplemental feed to buy, compare feeds based on price and nutritive value, the availability of homegrown forages and their nutritive value, and the nutritional requirements of the livestock being fed. The nutritive value of several supplemental feeds available in West Virginia is presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Nutritive Value of Commonly Available By-Product Feeds.







corn gluten feed 90 25 83 12 45
corn, ground shell 88 10 85 3 9
cotton seed 92 24 96 29 39
poultry litter 75 20-30 55-60    
soybean hulls 91 12 77 50 67
soybean meal 89 50 84 10 13
wet brewers grain 21 23 66 23 42
wheat bran 89 17 70 15 51
DM-dry matter
CP-crude protein (DM basis)
TDN-total digestible nutrients
ADF-acid detergent fiber
NDF-neutral detergent fiber

Corn gluten feed is a high-protein, high-energy feed. It is not as palatable as some other by-product feeds but animals perform well on it. Corn gluten feed can be feed at up to 15 pounds/head/day.

Corn is the staple livestock feed commodity in the United States. It is readily available and relatively inexpensive. It a good source of energy, but it is low in protein. It is used regularly to feed growing and finishing cattle, dairy cattle, and sheep. It can be used as a feed for dry beef cows, but caution needs to be exercised that it is used as a cost-effective supplement. If ground-shell corn is fed at more than 2 pounds/head/day with poor quality hay, hay intake and digestibility will be decreased. For growing cattle over 500 pounds in weight, ground-shell corn will provide higher gains than whole-shell corn. For young calves that chew the corn better, whole-shell corn may be a practical alternative to grinding when corn is inexpensive or is a major part of the diet.

Cottonseed is a high-energy, high-protein supplement. It is high in energy because it has a high fat content. If fed in too great an amount, the fat in the seed can adversely affect the rumen bacteria and the digestibility of hay in the ration. Whole cottonseed can be fed safely at up to 7 pounds/head/day to a mature cow.

Soybean hulls are the skins taken off soybean seeds before they are processed for oil and meal. They are relatively high-energy, medium-protein feed. When fed to dry beef cows they do not suppress the digestibility of low-quality hay. Soy hulls can be fed at up to 10 pounds/head/day to a mature cow with no adverse effects. Pelletted soy hulls will transport and feed better than soy hull flakes. The cost of pelletting may be recovered in reduced shipping cost per ton and ease of use.

Soybean meal is a high-energy, high-protein feed. This feed is probably best purchased by the bag or by the ton in small lots because it is used in only small amounts to meet the protein needs of livestock. In most situations, no more than 1 to 2 pounds of soybean meal is needed per cow per day.

Wet brewers grain is a high-protein, medium-energy feed. The main difficulties with this feed are the high moisture content that increases the transportation cost per ton of dry matter, and the associated difficulty in storage and feeding. Wet brewers grain can be fed at up to 40 pounds/head/day.

Wheat bran or midds (middlings) are moderately high in protein and energy. These feeds are slightly different by-products of the wheat milling industry but are similar in feeding value. Wheat midds can be safely fed at up to 8 pounds/head/day.

The most cost-effective supplemental feed is the one that provides the nutrients needed to balance the nutrients in the available forage. For growing weaned calves on a high-quality grass-legume mixture (hay or pasture) the most cost-effective feed will likely be ground-shell corn for energy. To maintain dry beef cows on low-quality hay, pelletted soy hulls will likely be the best choice to provide energy and protein without reducing the digestibility of the hay. The testing of the available forage and knowing the nutrient requirements of the livestock are necessary information in determining what nutrients are needed from supplemental feeds.