what do beef cattle eat

Cows’ natural diet consists mainly of grasses, legumes, alfalfa, clover, and hay. They are grazing animals, after all. Many cows also enjoy fruits as delicious snacks. In fact, the average cow eats 2% of their body weight a day, which averages out to 24-26 pounds of food each day.

What About Dairy Cows?

Dairy cows and beef cattle eat similar diets, but in different proportions. Both graze on fresh grass and eat hay. Like beef cattle, dairy cows also eat different types of foraged plants like corn and barley, as well as distillers grains. Dairy cows rely more on grasses and hay and are typically leaner than beef cattle.

Feeding Beef CattleBeef cattle feeding is possible on small and part-time farms, but the cost of feeding drops significantly as the size of the operation increases.

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Beef Cattle in feedlot

The United States is the leading beef producer in the world. Between 24 and 27 billion pounds of beef are produced annually in the United States. Beef consumption in the U.S. has been relatively stable at around 56 to 58 pounds per person for the last 20 years. Meanwhile, foreign demand has been very strong for U.S. beef in recent years. The U.S. exported approximately 15 percent of the beef and beef products produced in 2021.

Traditional cattle-feeding enterprises grow weaned calves (450 to 600 pounds) or yearling steers or heifers (700 to 900 pounds) to slaughter weights of 1,300 to 1,550 pounds. Cattle-feeding operations exist in all regions of the United States, but most large operations are in the Great Plains from Colorado and Nebraska to Texas. Most cattle-feeding operations are relatively small. Over 85 percent of all operations have fewer than 1,000 head, but these small feedlots only market around 13 percent of the cattle fed each year. In the northeastern U.S., a mix of beef breeds, beef x dairy crossbreeds, and dairy steers (mostly Holstein) are typically finished in feedlots.

Cattle feeding is a high-risk business. During some years, an operation may not recover out-of-pocket costs. The beef industry is very cyclical, and cattle prices can fluctuate dramatically when beef operations reduce herd sizes because of drought and the high cost of feed. Entry into the cattle-feeding business usually has few restrictions. Although facilities range from small lots with a few head to modern facilities with more than 50,000 head, there are economies of scale in cattle feeding. The cost of feeding per animal drops as the number of animals in the operation increases. Because of the high risks and the economies of scale that favor larger operations, beef-feeding enterprises are not as well adapted to small-scale and part-time farms as beef cow-calf operations. However, less land is required for a cattle-feeding operation than for a cow-calf enterprise.

Starting a Beef Feeding Enterprise

Thorough planning and preparation are essential for you to have a successful beef-feeding operation. Operators should determine where they will obtain feeder calves, which feeds will be required to finish the cattle to desired market weights and grades, and what type of shelter will be needed (because most feedlot cattle are fed over the winter months). Feeders also should design a health program in cooperation with a veterinarian, decide what the starting and slaughter weights and grades should be, and assess marketing alternatives. During the planning process, visit successful cattle-feeding operations to help determine what facilities are needed, such as a handling chute and head gate to properly restrain animals when they are vaccinated, implanted, or treated in a health program.

Various materials can be used for feedlot housing, including boards, wire panels, high-tensile wire, and steel cables. Barbed wire is not recommended. Another effective fence is a combination of high-tensile wire (which can be electrified) with three or four two-by-six inch planks spaced between the wires.

Housing for feeder cattle does not have to be extensive or weather-tight—open-sided sheds and more completely enclosed structures are equally effective. Younger cattle require more shelter than older cattle, especially protection from winter winds. In the northeastern U.S., it is common to keep fed cattle under a roof to keep them out of rain and snow. However, in dryer areas, like the High Plains of the U.S., fed cattle are simply kept in open lots. Because of the variety of fencing and structures acceptable for housing feeder cattle, many operators choose to convert or modify existing facilities.

If outdoor housing is used, additional considerations must be made. To reduce mud, poured concrete pads are recommended for high-use areas, especially around waterers and feed bunks. Mounds that are three to five feet high offer cattle relatively dry ground on which to rest. The feedlot area should be well drained with topsoil removed to expose clay or other fairly impervious surface. Regardless of the type of feedlot surface, it must be cleaned periodically. The facilities should be designed to prevent manure runoff into streams or other waterways. Retention lagoons and diversion ditches should be planned with the advice and approval of regulatory agencies.

Most feedlots use concrete feed bunks that allow cattle to feed from one or both sides, although plastic feed bunks can be used. Feed can be delivered through a mixer wagon, conveyor with a belt or chain, or a bucket loader.

Anyone purchasing feeder cattle must stay current on market conditions. Many feedlot operators use cattle brokers to obtain their feeder cattle and some use online auctions. Feeder cattle are usually sorted by breed, sex, weight, color, and feeder grade when being offered for sale, and this increases the uniformity of marketing the finished cattle. The objectives for purchasing feeder cattle are to buy calves that have the genetic ability to grow, convert feed efficiently for weight gain, reach a “Choice”-quality grade after feeding, and stay healthy during feeding.

Feeder cattle prices can fluctuate considerably in almost every season of the year. In addition, feeder cattle prices can fluctuate by grade. Feeder cattle are graded on frame size (large, medium, and small) and thickness (scale of 1 to 4 with 1 being moderately thin and 4 being quite thin). If they are thrifty or graded as “inferior,” they are unlikely to grow uniformly. Lighterweight cattle of the same grade cost more per pound than heavier feeder cattle. Although feeder grade is not supposed to be influenced by the amount of fat on an animal or its overall condition, cattle in better shape usually are assigned a higher grade and sell for a higher price per pound. The difference between the purchase and the sales price (the cattle margin or price spread) of feedlot cattle often is greater for healthy, but thinner, lower-grade feeder calves or yearlings because these animals are more likely to increase in quality between purchase and sale time. Additional costs for thinner, lower-grading cattle include higher medical treatment costs, lower final sale prices, and higher death-loss rates. Even with these disadvantages, lower-grading feeder cattle can be profitable; operators should consider the entire market for finished cattle. Market prices are better for thick, uniformly finished cattle than for less uniform, thinner cattle.

Feeder cattle purchases represent a large capital investment when feeding cattle. Many feeder cattle sales offer cattle that have been weaned, vaccinated, and have received booster vaccines for respiratory disease— the primary health problem encountered in feeder cattle. These programs, referred to as preconditioning, that set cattle up for success do mitigate some risk but add expense to the purchase price of feeder calves. Preconditioning includes weaning 21 to 45 days before shipping, vaccinating for diseases prevalent in the area, dehorning, castrating, implanting, treating for external and internal parasites, and starting the cattle on grain-based feed from a feed bunk. Because preconditioned and heavier feeder cattle tend to have fewer health problems, purchasing preconditioned calves can be a good investment for the cattle feeder.

Because respiratory and enteric (digestive) diseases are the most prevalent health challenges in the feedlot, feeder cattle should be properly vaccinated, preferably before they are moved to the feedlot. If there is any doubt about an internal parasite infection, a preventative treatment should be administered. Control of external parasites such as lice and flies is also important and inexpensive, effective treatments are available and routinely administered at feedlot entry. Operators can reduce potential health problems by carefully planning health protocols and a disease-prevention program with the assistance of a veterinarian.

Cattle weighing 700 pounds or more should be fed a ration containing 11 percent crude protein in a diet composed of grain (usually corn, but barley and sorghum are often also used), protein sources, and roughage. Larger-framed cattle tend to require a diet with a greater proportion of grain to achieve the same carcass-quality grade as cattle with smaller frame sizes. Therefore, the ration that is fed depends on the type of cattle and the desired market grade. The weight and grade required by the market receiving the cattle also must be considered when selecting a nutrition program. Cattle weighing 650 pounds or less initially can be fed a growing diet rather than a finishing diet. Growing diets supply additional hay or other forage in place of grain compared to finishing diets and are often fed for 50 to 100 days (depending on the size of the incoming cattle). To achieve the desired carcass grade, the ration can be modified to include less forage and more grain as the cattle grow.

The feeding system for a cattle-feeding enterprise should remain flexible. Farmer-feeders, corn silage, and occasionally hay crop silages can be incorporated into the feeding program. The extent that forages contribute to a ration is determined by the price of feed grains or food processing by-products with equivalent feed value. Increasing forages in the diet of feedlot cattle will generally increase the cost of weight gain (due to slower weight gain and higher carrying costs) if grain prices are relatively low. The appropriate nutritional program for an operation is determined by the combination of available feedstuffs that will minimize the cost of weight gain, provide a balanced diet, and allow cattle to reach desired markets. The feed combination will vary as grain prices change. Less experienced cattle feeders should consider consulting with a qualified beef cattle nutritionist to navigate these changes.

Growth performance-enhancing agents, such as growth-stimulating implants, can also be used to improve net returns to the cattle feeder. Research has shown that implants provide the greatest net return of almost any feedlot practice with complete safety to consumers. The final market for your beef and consumer acceptance may dictate if you can use growth performance-enhancing agents.

In the normal course of operations, farmers handle pesticides and other chemicals, may have manure to collect and spread, and use equipment to prepare fields and harvest crops. Any of these routine, on-farm activities can be a potential source of surface or groundwater pollution. Because of this possibility, you must understand the regulations to follow concerning the proper handling and application of chemicals and the disposal and transport of waste. Depending on the watershed where your farm is located, there may be additional environmental regulations regarding erosion control, pesticide leaching, and nutrient runoff. All animal farms, regardless of size, should have a manure-management plan. Contact your soil and water conservation district, extension office, zoning board, state departments of agriculture and environmental protection, and your local governing authorities to determine what regulations may pertain to your operation.

You should carefully consider how to manage risk on your farm. First, you should insure your facilities and equipment. This may be accomplished by consulting your insurance agent or broker. It is especially important to have adequate levels of property, vehicle, and liability insurance. You will also need workers’ compensation insurance if you have any employees. You may also want to consider your needs for life and health insurance and if you need coverage for business interruption or employee dishonesty. For more on agricultural business insurance, see Agricultural Alternatives: Agricultural Business Insurance. For more information on farm liability issues, see Agricultural Alternatives: Understanding Agricultural Liability.

Second, you can use forward contracting through the futures market to “lock in” both your cost for purchased feed and the price you receive for your livestock. The idea behind forward contracting is to reduce income variability and set a price well in advance of when the animals are sold. Waiting until the sales date to determine the price for your cattle involves much risk. Although you may receive higher prices in some years, lower prices are also a distinct possibility. Obtaining a higher price than expected is certainly good news but obtaining a lower price may have a major negative impact on your ability to weather the volatility inherent in the cattle market. Using the futures market allows you to eliminate this concern and lock in a price that meets your business goals and cash-flow requirements. However, using the futures market does 4 not ensure that you can generate a profit. It is up to the individual operator to understand their fixed costs and calculate the price needed for the finished cattle to achieve profitability.

Finally, you can also use various federally subsidized crop insurance products to protect your operation against yield losses and price declines. There are traditional crop insurance policies for most agronomic crops used for feeding livestock. There is also a policy for protecting your entire farm income called Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP). WFRP insures the revenue of your entire farm (including livestock) by guaranteeing a percentage of your approved farm revenue. WFRP uses information from the past five consecutive years of your Schedule F tax records to calculate the policy’s approved revenue guarantee. The sign-up deadline for WFRP is March 15 for calendar year and early fiscal year tax filers and November 20 for late fiscal year tax filers.

Another crop insurance program of interest to livestock producers is the grid-based Rainfall Index Pasture, Rangeland, and Forage (PRF) policy available throughout Pennsylvania for insuring your hay crops and pastures. Advantages of this coverage include flexibility of when to insure during the year and how much to insure (you are not required to insure all your acreage). You can also adjust coverage to better match the value of your crop and the productive capacity of your land.

There is also a price protection program for fed cattle available through crop insurance agents that insures against declines in market prices. The Livestock Risk Protection (LRP) for fed cattle (heifers and steers expected to weigh 1,000 to 1,400 pounds at the end of the insurance period) policy is designed to protect against declines in market prices. This policy can be purchased weekly, and the length of insurance can be set for 13, 17, 21, 26, 30, 34, 39, 43, 47, or 52 weeks. Producers select coverage prices ranging from 70 to 100 percent of the expected ending value. An indemnity will be paid if the actual ending price is below the selected coverage price at the end of the insurance period. A maximum of 4,000 head of fed cattle per producer per reinsurance year (July 1 to June 30) can be covered by the LRP-Fed Cattle policy.

More information on crop insurance for livestock producers can be found in the publication Crop Insurance for Pennsylvania Field Crops.

Included in this publication are three sample budgets summarizing costs and returns for feeding beef cattle. The first is for feeding steers; the second is for feeding heifers; and the third is for feeding yearlings. These budgets should help ensure that you include all costs and receipts in your calculations. Costs and returns are often difficult to estimate in budget preparation because they are numerous and variable. Think of these budgets as an approximation and make appropriate adjustments using the “your estimate” column to reflect your specific production conditions. More information on using livestock budgets can be found in Agricultural Alternatives: Budgeting for Agricultural Decision Making.

The sample budgets for this publication are in an Excel spreadsheet with one worksheet (tab) for each beef type. The first tab is the background of the worksheets (ReadMe), tab 2 is the example budget worksheet (Fixed Expenses), tab 3 is the slaughter steer Sample Budget, tab 4 is the slaughter heifer Sample Budget, and tab 5 is the slaughter yearling Sample Budget.

Becker, J.C., L.F. Kime, J.K. Harper, and R. Pifer. Agricultural Alternatives: Understanding Agricultural Liability. University Park, PA: Penn State Extension, 2011.

Comerford, J.W., L.F. Kime, and J.K. Harper. Agricultural Alternatives: Beef Backgrounding Production. University Park, PA: Penn State Extension, 2013.

Felix. T.W., L.F. Kime, K.E. Knoll, and J.K. Harper. Agricultural Alternatives: Dairy-beef Production. University Park, PA: Penn State Extension, 2017.

Harper, J.K. and L.F. Kime. “Crop Insurance for Pennsylvania Field Crops.” University Park, PA: Penn State Extension, July 2020.

Harper, J.K., S. Cornelisse, L.F. Kime, and J. Hyde. Agricultural Alternatives: Budgeting for Agricultural Decision Making. University Park, PA: Penn State Extension, 2019.

Kime, L.F., J.A. Adamik, J.K. Harper, and C. Dice. Agricultural Alternatives: Agricultural Business Insurance. University Park, PA: Penn State Extension, 2019.

Thomas, H.S., Storeys Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, 3rd Edition. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2009.

Thomas, H.S., The Cattle Health Handbook. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2009.

Prepared by Tara L. Felix, Professor of Animal Science; Cheryl A. Fairbairn, Extension Educator; John W. Comerford, Associate Professor of Animal Science; Lynn F. Kime, Senior Extension Associate in Agricultural Economics; and Jayson K. Harper, Professor of Agricultural Economics.

This publication was developed by the Small-scale and Part-time Farming Project at Penn State with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Extension Service.

  • Beef cattle nutrition
  • Beef cattle metabolism
  • Beef cattle management
  • Feedlot nutrition and management
  • Farm Management
  • Risk Management
  • Production Economics

Cows’ natural diet consists mainly of grasses, legumes, alfalfa, clover, and hay. They are grazing animals, after all. Many cows also enjoy fruits as delicious snacks. In fact, the average cow eats 2% of their body weight a day, which averages out to 24-26 pounds of food each day.

FAQ

What is the best diet for beef cattle?

Nutrition. Cattle weighing 700 pounds or more should be fed a ration containing 11 percent crude protein in a diet composed of grain (usually corn, but barley and sorghum are often also used), protein sources, and roughage.

What are beef cattle feed?

Beef cattle can utilize roughages of both low and high quality, including pasture forage, hay, silage, corn (maize) fodder, straw, and grain by-products.

What do ranchers feed beef cattle?

For pastured animals, grass is usually the forage that composes the majority of their diet. In turn, this grass-fed approach is known for producing meat with distinct flavor profiles. Cattle reared in feedlots are fed hay supplemented with grain, soy and other ingredients to increase the energy density of the feed.

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