Feeding cattle a cheap ration might appear to be a cost-effective way of maximising profit margins, but such feeds can prove extremely expensive.

The first question a producer has to ask themselves is what level of performance are they looking for. Is the goal to have youngstock growing at 0.85kg per day or 1.3kg per day; to finish cattle at 18 months or 28 months; or are dairy cows to peak at 28 litres or 48 litres?

It is only once these questions have been answered that the most cost-effective ration can be formulated by selecting feeds that will help maximise profitability by supporting the desired level of performance at the lowest daily feed cost.

Where to start

The first aim of a cost-effective ration is to feed as much forage available and of the quality permitted. If silage is low in ME (under 10.2ME), high in NDF (over 50%) and low in protein (under 10.5%), then not only will performance be limited due to a lack of energy, but intake potential will also be reduced as the silage will stay in the rumen for longer. The result is a requirement to feed higher levels of concentrates in order to maintain performance but at a higher cost.

In contrast, young leafy grass cut at the optimum growth stage, rather than by calendar date, can produce silage with a high (more than 11ME), soft with a low level of NDF (under 45%), and high in protein (over 13%). This allows high levels of low-cost forages to be fed without sacrificing performance and with a lower requirement for more expensive concentrate supplementation.

In short, the first aim of a cost-effective feeding strategy is to produce as much high-quality silage as possible thereby reducing the quantity of concentrates required.

Type of concentrate?

Once silage in the pit/bale has been analysed, the next focus is to determine what the most cost-effective concentrate is required to complement the silage and supplement the ration.

With power prices set to remain high, the costs associated with grinding and manufacturing compounds makes such feeds the most expensive choice of concentrate. Added to that, with no knowledge of the exact formulation, when compounds break down and disintegrate in the rumen, they can pose a real and significant risk of rumen and hindgut acidosis.

As a direct reflection of the high cost of running the compound press, many compounders are now promoting the use of meals in total mixed rations (TMR). However, although these are undoubtedly cheaper than compounds, physically they are still very fine and, as well as more easily sorted out by cattle, also pose the same acidosis risk as compound.

A more economic and effective option is to feed a high-quality blend in the TMR and through the parlour. Such blends typically contain the raw materials in their natural state and as a result are chunky and more slowly degraded in the rumen. Because the ingredients can be clearly seen in a blend, they also tend to be higher in energy and ideally contain only tried and trusted raw materials that would otherwise be purchased as a straight.

Home mixes

With cereal prices currently low and new year values remaining flat, there is also an opportunity to go one step further and maximise the quantity of cereal included in rations.

Feeding high levels of cereals on their own poses a potential increased acidosis risk. However, if such cereals are alkaline treated with a product such as ALpHA from Norvite, then a feed with a pH of 9 is the result, which helps buffer rumen acids and reduce the risk of acidosis even when feeding levels of cereals that would traditionally be unthinkable.

In addition, ALpHA treating grain increases the protein content by 3.5%, resulting in grain at 13.5% protein (16% on a DM basis). This reduces the bought-in protein requirement by up to 40-60% and completely removes the need for any feed protein in finishing rations. The result is a further drop in concentrate feed bills with no reduction in energy content – it is, after all, 100% cereal.

ALpHA treated cereals can be fed to cattle and sheep of any age, from three-day-old dairy calves through to older youngstock, sucklers, dry cows, milkers, and finishing cattle and lambs. This versatility makes for simple, high-energy, cost-effective home mixes for any class or age of animal that you have on farm.

ALpHA treatment also presents an opportunity to further reduce bought-in feed protein costs by using it to treat homegrown or local beans or peas. The result is a protein feed with the same protein content as distillers but with the addition benefit of bypass starch and at 80% of the cost.

Every farm is different, with different silage qualities, opportunities, and requirements, and not every feed solution will be suitable.