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Guest Opinions

Supplementing Yearlings on Summer Grass

Written by Steve Paisley

Favorable cattle prices have encouraged an industry-wide re-thinking of many of our typical production practices in the beef cattle industry. 

One practice typically not associated with western rangelands and beef production is supplementing yearlings grazing summer range.  Relatively low distiller’s grains feed prices have created a very favorable situation for strategic supplementation strategies for yearling cattle, as well as spring born calves through creep feeding. 

Response to supplementation

Several studies (Moore et al., 2013; Gillespie et al., 2013; Watson et al., 2011; Melton et al., 2014) have investigated dried distiller’s grains (DDGS) supplementation strategies for cattle grazing smooth bromegrass pastures in eastern Nebraska and native flint hills pastures in eastern Kansas.  While these are obviously different geographical areas, forage analysis data from southeast Wyoming rangeland (Weston, 2007) suggests that forage quality values of Wyoming summer native range fall within the ranges of the Nebraska and Kansas studies. 

These studies suggest that yearlings respond very favorably to DDGS supplementation, with increases in daily gains ranging from 0.25 pounds per day to 1.4 pounds per day, depending on forage quality, length of supplementation period, timing of supplementation and cattle type. 

Summarizing, the most efficient supplementation response tended to occur when moderate amounts – 0.6 percent of body weight, typically 3.5 to four pounds per day – of DDGS were supplemented, and supplementation response tended to improve when forage quality was declining or during late summer to early fall.   

Therefore, the preferred supplementation strategy may be to strategically supplement during the last half of the summer grazing period with a low to moderate amount of DDGS delivered daily.

Salt-limited DDGS supplementation

While daily supplementation of summer yearlings may be difficult in many Wyoming rangelands, a recent study (Melton, 2014) evaluated delivering DDGS through a salt-limited free choice supplement.  Mixing salt with DDGS at approximately 16 percent limited daily intake of DDGS to 3.4 pounds per day improved daily gains by 0.5 pounds per day, producing a favorable supplement conversion rate of 7.7 pounds DDGS per pound of gain. 

While delivering supplement is still a challenge, providing a self-fed supplement may prove to be a viable option in some production settings.

Additional benefits

Although perhaps not as applicable to Wyoming native range production systems, Nebraska studies (Watson et al., 2011a,b; Moore et al., 2013a,b) have documented increased forage production response to intensively managed grazing systems with DDGS supplementation. 

I like to think of it as “indirect fertilization,” as cattle receiving supplemental DDGS high in protein excrete more nitrogen on pastures while grazing, increasing forage production.   

Additionally, supplemental DDGS tends to replace or substitute for forage in their daily diet, reducing overall forage intake of supplemented steers and heifers.  While this is certainly not a concern this year, strategic DDGS supplementation may help to stretch forage during drought years.

Does it pay?

With DDGS prices in the $150 to $170 per ton range and predicted fall prices above two dollars per pound for feeder cattle, strategic supplementation appears to be an economically feasible option.

Using current DDGS prices and a conservative supplement conversion response of 7.7 means that supplemental weight gain costs are approximately $0.67 per pound, while the current value of added weight gain is between one dollar and $1.10 per pound. 

Delivering and providing supplement may be a challenge, but an inconvenience that should pay for itself. 

General thoughts

Relative feed and cattle prices suggest that strategic supplementation can improve yearling returns through increased summer gain.  Additional benefits include increases in available forage through reduced consumption and increased forage production. 

Ways of improving supplement conversion and cost effectiveness include strategic supplementation during the second half of the grazing season, and limiting supplement intake to 3.5 to  four pounds per day.  Preliminary studies reported by Kansas State University suggest free choice salt-limited DDGS supplements may be an option to provide daily supplement while reducing labor, fuel and equipment costs. 

For more information on the research presented, visit the following sources:

Gillespie, K.L., L.A. Stalker, T.J. Klopfenstein, J.D. Volesky and J.A. Musgrave. 2013. “Replacement of Grazed Forage and Animal Performance When Distillers Grains are Fed in a Bunk or on the Ground”. Nebraska Beef Cattle Report, MP94: 27-28.

Melton, N.T., B.E. Oleen, C.I. Vahl, S.P. Montgomery, E.R. Schlegel and D.A. Blasi. 2014. “Consumption and Performance by Beef Heifers Provided Dried Distiller’s Grains in a Self-Fed Supplement Containing Either 10 or 16% Salt While Grazing Flint Hills Native Grass”. Kansas State University Cattlemen’s Day Rep. of Prog. 1101: 72-75.

Moore, S.K., C.J. Schneider, B.L. Nuttelman, D.B. Burken, T.J. Klopfenstein, G.E. Erickson, K.R. Brink and W.H. Schacht. 2013. “Strategic Supplementation of Dried Distillers Grains Plus Solubles to Yearling Steers Grazing Smooth Bromegrass”. Nebraska Beef Cattle Report MP94: 31-32.

Moore, S.K., A.K. Watson, T.J. Klopfenstein, G.E. Erickson and W.H. Schacht. 2013. “Economic Analysis Update: Supplementing Distillers Grains to Grazing Yearling Steers”. Nebraska Beef Cattle Report MP94: 33-35.

Watson, A.K., W.A. Griffin, T.J. Klopfenstein, K.R. Brink and W.H. Schacht. 2011.  “Supplementing DDGS to Steers Grazing Smooth Bromegrass Pastures”  Nebraska Beef Cattle Report MP94:24-25.

Watson, A.K., T.J. Klopfenstein, G.E. Erickson, D.R. Mark and W.H. Schacht. 2011. “Economic Analysis of Supplementing DDGS to Grazing Steers”. Nebraska Beef Cattle Report. MP94: 26-27.

Weston, T.R., 2007. “Nutrient Composition of Rangeland Vegetation Harvested in Southeast Wyoming”. Master’s Thesis, University of Wyoming Department of Animal Science.