By Karen Stewart, ruminant nutritionist, SAC Consulting beef and sheep team

For finishing cattle, the quality, presentation and balance of the ration is key to getting good weight gains.

Normally barley is our ‘go to’ energy source, however with availability of barley getting tight and prices pushing £200 per tonne it may be necessary to make some adjustments to rations for finishing cattle.

There are alternatives that can replace, or partially replace, barley in a ration (prices and availability may vary). When making alterations to rations it’s worthwhile speaking to a trusted nutritionist to make the transition as smooth as possible without checking performance or affecting health.

Alternatives to barley:

Biscuit meal – High in starch and oil which vary according to product source. Feed up to 30% of the dry matter but beware, the overall ration should not exceed 7% oil. Different products on the market will vary in specification

Bread waste – very starchy, feed up to 50% DM as it is very quickly fermented in the rumen. Due to its low dry matter it doesn’t keep very well and needs to be covered and used within three weeks. Balance and ration presentation are critical due to high starch and low keeping quality

Potatoes – Feed up to 30kg/day for older cattle. Choking risk – feed on floor/chop in mix. Alternatively feed maximum of 5kg/100kg liveweight. Make sure they are as clean as possible and free from sprouts. Sprouts and green potatoes contain Gycoalkaloids which are poisonous to cattle if fed in large amounts and soil can cause clostridial issues.

Veg waste is not as suitable as direct replacements for barley (high water, low starch) as an energy source are swedes (or turnips) and carrots. Being around 90% water, these should be limited in rations for best performance.

Swedes – Feed up to 7kg/100kg bodyweight older cattle. They are very wet so this needs to be considered and a source of long fibre and protein offered as well. The leaves are rich in protein, the bulb is not.

Carrots – Feed up to 25kg/day to cattle.

Table of feed values for alternatives to barley for finishing cattle

Feed Dry Matter (g/kg) Metabolisable

Energy (g/kgDM) Crude Protein

(g/kgDM) Starch

(g/kgDM) Sugar

(g/kgDM) Oil

(g/kgDM) RV


Biscuit Meal* 900 15.5 130 570 170 145 263

Bread Waste 650 14.0 40 730 35 30 169


210 13.3 90 550 75 2 46


105 14 90 20 590 6 28


130 12.8 100 0 600 6 25

RV = relative value with barley at £200/t and rapemeal at £314/t

*there are different qualities of biscuit meal from different suppliers and biscuit meal/cereal by-product blends so specifications will vary.

Oats may be available and can replace some barley in a ration, around 20% is a good inclusion rate, they are less energy and starch than barley so can affect performance if replacing barley fully, however they are great for giving a bit more of a safety factor to the ration being a bit higher in fibre.

With proteins also being dear, some feed companies may have complete blends that are competitive compared to buying spot market straights.

Remember though, to ensure the ration stays well balanced and changes done gradually otherwise money saved on cheaper alternatives will be counterproductive. Knowing the feed value of everything going into the cattle is crucial, so if you have silage or wholecrop in the ration be sure to have it analysed as this will affect what is used to balance of the diet, it will be money well spent.