Non-grain energy supplements said to be best for ruminants

by Allan Nation

TUSCON, Arizona: “I don’t like feeding grain to ruminants, period,” explained ruminant nutritionist, Dr. Dick Diven.

He said that while the decline in CLA and Omega 3 from feeding grain is important for grass-finished producers the decline in economic return as a result of grain supplementation is significant for all ranchers. He said the primary problem with all grains is their high starch content.

Diven said thatresearch has found that feeding as little as one pound of starch per day to a ruminant on forage can significantly interfere with its ability to digest forage.

In layman’s language, Diven explained that the rumen bugs needed to digest starch are much more aggressive than those that digest cellulose.

“The grain bugs can push the cellulose bugs aside and make them wait. This is why grain-on-grass supplementation can never pay. It creates an almost one-to-one substitution effect and grass is a lot cheaper than grain.”

However, Diven said grain is not the only supplemental energy source available. There are many that do not have this negative substitution effect on animal performance nor on CLA or Omega 3.


Dr. Tilak Dhiman, a leading CLA researcher who teaches at Utah State University, said that vegetable oils and meals, tallow from grass fed animals, molasses and sugar beet pulp could all be used as energy supplements with no negative effect on CLA concentrations in the meat and milk of the animal.

Of the vegetable oils and meals, Jo Robinson author the book Pasture Perfect said that flax oil, ground flax meal and canola oil and meal were the best to use as they were very high in Omega 3 fatty acids.

She said in one European research study grazing steers on ryegrass supplemented with ground flax meal had higher Omega 3 levels than un-supplemented ones.

She said a more common use for these oils and meals is with grass silage. Using flax or canola meal with grass silage not only provides energy but helps replace the Omega 3 fatty acids that are often lost in stored forages due to wilting.

While soybean oil and meal are relatively high in Omega 3 fatty acid, she said cottonseed oil and meal are very high in Omega 6 fatty acids and should not be used. Most cottonseed products also contain gossypol that lowers male ruminants’ fertility.

Robinson said sugar beet pulp has the added advantage of being very high in anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidants are what give grass fed beef its long shelf life and bright red color. A recent nutrition study found that beet is one of the top five vegetables for anti-oxidants.

Nutritionist Diven said there are really only two times when grazing animals need energy supplementation. One is when they are starving and the other is to speed up average daily gains to make them meet a predetermined time schedule for grass finishing. For example, many graziers want their cattle to finish before their second winter.

He said that when timing was not a factor it was far more cost-effective to use natural compensatory gain than to try to even out average daily gains with supplemental feeding.

He said oil meals have long been used to supplement dry cows on frosted stockpiled grass. While some think this is to provide supplemental protein to the cattle, it is really to provide supplemental energy.

Diven is a major proponent of summer calving and leaving the calf on the cow through the winter. The calf is then weaned directly onto spring pasture.

He said just a small amount of milk was enough to keep the calf gaining on frosted range or pasture but the cow would need a small amount of supplemental energy.


He said the amount of supplement should be determined by a forage analysis of what the cow is eating at that time of the year. His goal is for the rancher to spend no more than $20 per cow per year on supplemental feeding.

He said winter supplements should not be fed as salt-limited, free-choice feeds. He said feeding high levels of salt will severely retard spring gains in the cattle.

Diven explained that sodium functioned as a nutrient carrier across the stomach wall. Cattle that become accustomed to a high sodium diet will be set back when the sodium level is lowered in the spring.

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