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Alternative or non-conventional feeds, such as grain screenings, cull potatoes or distillers’ grains, can be an economical means for beef cattle producers to supplement forage and grain inventories while continuing to meet animal nutritional requirements. However, due to variability in the supply, nutrient composition and quality of these feed ingredients, there can be pitfalls if not properly managed. Below are several key areas that producers can focus on when deciding if alternative feeds are a good fit for their farm.

Match feed composition to beef cattle groups

Two of the main components to creating a balanced ration for beef cattle is knowing the nutritional composition of the feedstuffs being used and their suitability for the type or group of cattle being fed. Ration-balancing tools, such as CowBytes, allow producers to input feed analysis results and ingredient costs to calculate appropriate rations that safely use alternative feeds and reduce the risk of digestive upsets.  

Screenings from cereals, pulses or canola, can be cost-effective sources of protein and energy in the diet for mature cattle. However, inconsistency between loads and the potential for toxins requires feed testing to determine the true nutritional value. In comparison, soyhulls or beet pulp, which are byproducts of processing, typically contain a consistent amount of energy due to having a high level of digestible fiber. This makes them an excellent feed for most classes of cattle.  

Feeds, such as straw and oat hulls, have a poor nutritional composition, but can be utilized as fibre sources to partially substitute forage in rations for mature cows in early and mid-gestation. It is recommended to restrict the use of these feeds in the diet of bred heifers, a group that requires a higher plane of nutrition to meet their own growth and development needs, along with the rising demands of pregnancy. Feeding high levels of straw also increases the risk of impaction. 

If feeding low- to medium-quality forage-based diets or grazing crop residues, additional protein supplementation is often necessary. Byproducts such as canola meal, soybean meal or dried distillers’ grains (DDG) are high-quality protein feeds that can be easily fed in multiple feeding scenarios and to all classes of cattle. Supplementing cows that reach peak lactation in early spring can provide the added energy and protein needed to support milk production before pasture turnout.  

There can be an increased risk of toxins with some alternative feeds due to the concentration of nutrients during processing or the presence of certain conditions at harvest and storage. For example, heated or sprouted grains have an elevated risk of moulds and mycotoxins, while cereal screenings increase the danger of ergot toxicity. These contaminants can lead to reduced production performance, fertility issues and abortions in cattle. It is recommended to avoid feeding to bred heifers, pregnant cows or cow-calf pairs. Feed testing is necessary for any suspect feeds. 

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