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Nutritional Program for the Cattle Herd

If you are reading this it’s highly likely you are a cattle producer. And if you are a cattle producer a significant part of your operation (based on time and dollars spent) is the nutritional program you manage for your herd. There are no two nutritional programs that are the same. This is pretty daunting given that according to the USDA’s 2010 Farms, Land in Farms, and Livestock Operations report there are estimated 742,000 beef cow operations in the United States. So each and every cattle operation has at its core a completely individualized nutritional program.

Cattle Herd Building Blocks

Nutritional programs are wide-ranging in scope and detail. Some are very simple – grass and hay. If they can’t get it from pastures or a round bale, they won’t get it. Others are very complex and include multiple forage types and supplements. Of the very complex, some of these are carefully designed and some take the shotgun approach: If I put enough of several things out there, they are BOUND to get what they need. 

Unfortunately, either of these approaches leaves a lot to be desired. The simple program is compromising animal performance (breeding, health, growth) and the operation is losing money because animals are not performing optimally. At the same time, the operation with an extensive array of supplements may be spending too much money and wasting nutrients. In some cases, they may be depressing performance because of over provision of specific supplements.

Nowadays’ Situation

Additionally, many producers only consider their nutritional program at a given moment. As they approach the feeding season (generally fall and winter) and need to provide a forage source, they also decide, at that point, that they need to provide a mineral or a protein source. No real advance thought is given. This reduces or eliminates the option to plan properly and evaluate feeding and supplementation options. And in many cases, because of this lack of planning the main consideration is the unit cost of the feed or supplement ($/bag, $/ton, etc.).

In the current beef cattle industry, there is an unwavering need to maximize efficiency and revenues. Note that this does not say maximize production. For instance, at high levels of reproductive performance, the cost of increasing calving percentage only one unit may actually reduce net farm revenues. Since nutrition as a whole is the single highest annual production expense for most operations it makes sense to:

  1. plan this program as completely as possible and

  2. understand this is a dynamic situation that requires constant monitoring and forward thinking.

So let’s take the next few moments to discuss what it takes to develop a COMPLETE nutritional program.

Basic Concepts

Most producers understand that there are a number of basic concepts that make up the platform upon which we build a complete nutritional program. Some of these include:

The typical cow-calf operation is built on a forage base.

This forage base is made up of the ranch/farm’s pastures and harvested forage production. The largest amount of dry matter and nutrients come from these forages. In many cases, especially in the many locations around the country that have been affected by drought conditions over the last few years, these forages had to be purchased from other areas and could not be produced on the farm. None the less, these forages are part of the forage base.

The nutrient values of the forage base are dynamic.

Over the course of the production year, nutrient values go up and down. Figure 1 illustrates this situation. It illustrates typical crude protein values for a beef cattle forage base made up of coastal bermudagrass pastures and hays under normal moisture conditions. In the months of March through October, forage nutrients are provided predominantly through pasture while November through February forage nutrients are provided by hay.

Obviously, this can vary tremendously depending on forage type and management. If the management plan incorporates the use of cool-season annuals, silage/haylage, summer annuals, etc., the forage nutrient base and the look of this chart changes dramatically. The exact forage base should be configured based upon what combinations can be provided most cost-effectively.

Nutrient requirements for the animal are dynamic.

On any cattle operation at any given point in time, there are animals that have a variety of nutrient requirements. Let’s assume these cattle are all the same breed (Limousin). This reduces the variation a bit. The first variable which dictates nutrient needs is production class. At any given point, depending on the operation there may be: 

  • Pregnant dry cows

  • Newly calved, open cows

  • Bred cows nursing young calves

  • Developing heifers, open

  • Bred cows late second to the third trimester, calves have been weaned​

  • Developing bulls

  • Bred cows nursing big calves

  • Developing heifers, bred

  • Mature Bulls

Managing the Season

Another issue that has to be considered is how the breeding/calving seasons are managed. With operations that have a year-round breeding/calving season, developing and managing the nutrition program is challenging. Primarily because you have multiple production classes of cattle available at any given point in time. Thus, in calculating the “average” nutrient requirement for the cow herd as a great deal of variability meaning you will be overfeeding a large number of animals and underfeeding a similarly large number of animals. This results in a much lower degree of operational efficiency. 

It also increases the effect of problems created with over and underfeeding. This situation makes a case for a limited breeding season where cattle are managed and the nutritional program based on much lower variation (i.e. a 60-90 day spread in the status of individual animals). Additionally, if breeding animals are grouped into pastures based on production stage, they can also be supplemented more accurately.

Chart Details

As related to the chart above we can plot the crude protein requirements of a given animal or group of animals as they move through the production year. Figure 2 illustrates a graphical comparison of a spring calving (Feb-April) cow herd (90 day calving season) and a fall calving herd (Sept-Nov) plotted against the forage base shown above.

So based on this, we can see that the ability of the forage base to provide for the nutrient needs of the herd varies. This is not new to most producers. The one thing to consider, however, is that a chart similar to that a graph similar to that shown in both Figures 1 and 2 you can create for every critical nutrient the cow requires. It can also be created for the production classes. Figure 2 accounts for the changes in the requirements of the breeding cow as she moves along the calendar. But separate calendars can be created and plotted developing heifers and bulls, mature bulls (although after maturity, their requirements don’t vary that much except as related to weight loss inherent to breeding activity). 

Nutrients for Cattle

So we know the nutrients these animals require include protein, energy and the individual vitamins and minerals. These levels in the forage base will change over time as related to a variety of factors including moisture content, fertilization, plant maturity, grazing patterns, etc. Maximizing the use of growing and farm produced forages, in general, is the most economical. Granted, drought conditions, as have been common in many cattle producing areas significantly reduce the availability of “home-grown” forage but a general goal of accessing what is immediately available is the top priority. 

Second, becoming a “grass farmer’ is also at the top of the list. It is commonly stated that cattlemen are first and foremost, grass producers and that we simply use cattle to harvest and sell that grass in the form of meat. But becoming a student of forage production and management will go far in improving your cattle performance and operational efficiency.

Creating a Nutritional Plan

With the above discussion in mind, you need to take several steps to develop a complete nutrient management plan. Here are a number of the steps you need to put in place:

1. Forage sampling and analysis - a constant part of your program.

Begin sampling pastures and harvested forages on a regular basis. These analyses will go into the development of a forage nutrient database for your operation. Maintain these numbers over time so that you can develop and track average nutrient values for specific forages during specific periods of time. For instance, nutrient values for hay cut and baled in June of each year. You should sample and test each cutting. You also should record the analysis along with the conditions (fertilization records, moisture conditions, maturity estimate, etc.). The more of this data you can collect the better you can understand and even predict performance.

2. Develop a relationship with a good forage lab.

Get several recommendations if possible of a lab that is consistent with a short turn-around time. Talk to the lab about your sampling intentions and you may be able to negotiate a lower fee per sample. 

3. Develop a relationship with a qualified nutritionist.

This person may be at a local or national feed company or maybe an independent. They can be of assistance in developing and tracking much of the information discussed here. 

4. Develop a nutrient delivery and requirement calendar.

You can do this fairly quickly and easily using a spreadsheet on the computer but this is not a prerequisite. You can also do it as effectively on paper. The main thing here is to put it in writing somewhere so you can track and use it to plan. You can use this to schedule what the nutrient availabilities will be at and over given periods of time. Be sure to include all nutrients. Even a shortage of one nutrient can affect overall performance. Do not expect this to be completely accurate from the very beginning. This will be a work in progress. It will give you a way to anticipate what you will need to do (supplements to purchase, etc.) as you look forward.

5. Against the nutrient supply from your forages, you then plot the nutrient needs for different groups of cattle.

By subtracting the supply of each nutrient against the requirements you can develop a good estimate of what level of supplementation you will need at any given point in time. From this, you can begin evaluating supplement forms and determine what will best fill the gap. Since you are planning in advance it gives you an opportunity to evaluate and price a range of forms (liquids, tubs, dry feeds, commodities). Your nutritionist can help you project animal requirements as well as determine the form and cost of feed and supplement that best fits your operation. This can also provide the opportunity to forward contract these inputs so you can lock in all or part of this cost and better manage the risk.

6. Create a similar planning calendar for each production group.

Once each group is planned for an overall feed/supplement purchasing plan can be collated. Update your calendar continuously and remember that things are not set in stone. You may have projected that the average crude protein level of your forage base is 8% but the forage analysis shows it is actually 7.5%. Additionally, the temperatures may be somewhat colder than average meaning. This means nutrient requirements (especially energy) will be somewhat higher than average. Subsequently, you may have to adjust supplementation levels or nutrient values upward somewhat.

7. Consistently evaluate cow body condition to make sure your plan is working.

Are cows under or over conditioned? The visual evaluation is an important indicator of plan accuracy and effectiveness.


Every business has to plan for its expenses. It has to determine how it will best utilize its resources. A cow-calf operation is no different. In fact, this type of planning and maybe even more important since there are so many variables on the farm/ranch. A written nutritional plan and calendar will improve the producer’s ability to plan and project nutrient supplies and demands and make the best use of critical resources.


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