• Providing a nutrition program that has adequate energy for maintenance of animal health.
  • Providing a nutrition that will not increase stress by causing digestive upsets.

Rivera et. al. reported that increasing the level of roughage in receiving diets slightly reduced morbidity rates in high-stress cattle, but there was also a linear decrease in dry matter intake and average daily gain.

Corrigan mark
Director of Technical Service / MS Biotec / Axiota Company

Based on their regression analysis, for every 14.8 percent increase in roughage (DM basis), one less calf would get sick.

Additionally, Lofgreen and Kiesling reported that cattle fed hay-based diets during the receiving period were unable to fully compensate during subsequent finishing.

As with most beef cattle nutrition questions, the answer to the question of what level of roughage is best for high-stress cattle is “Well, that depends.”

There are two competing schools of thought on how to get stressed cattle started on feed.


One says that you want to keep feed in front of them at all times and let them eat as much as they want so that they are never hungry, never gorge themselves and never become acidotic.

The other school of thought says you should control acidosis by limiting the amount of feed, thereby keeping them slightly hungry and aggressive.

An added benefit of keeping stressed cattle somewhat aggressive at the bunk is that when they don’t come to the bunk, you know they are sick.

Therefore, you may catch cattle that are sick a little earlier than with an ad libitum intake program.

It can’t be stressed enough though, that limiting the amount of feed available to each animal is key to these types of programs.

Several factors will go into determining the appropriate roughage level of high-stress cattle in any operation, including the bunk management capabilities of that operation and what feedstuffs are available.

Some high-fiber byproducts like wet corn gluten feed have been shown to have some value as physically effective fiber sources, and corn gluten feed has an energy value that is close to or slightly below that of corn.

Because of these characteristics, corn gluten feed is particularly well suited for high-stress cattle receiving programs.

Wet distillers grains are another high-fiber byproduct that has a higher energy value than wet corn gluten feed and dry rolled corn.

But wet distillers grains don’t appear to have much value as a source of physically effective fiber, so their use in receiving diets should be limited to replacing concentrate feedstuffs.

When left to choose for themselves, stressed calves selected a diet containing 78 percent concentrate during the first week after arrival.

That’s not to say cattle should be left to choose for themselves, but generally, stressed calves tend to prefer higher concentrate diets rather than high-roughage diets.

Most receiving programs start with a diet containing 35 to 50 percent roughage fed at 1 to 1.5 percent (DM basis) of bodyweight initially, with the goal of getting cattle to intakes of 2.0 to 2.5 percent (DM basis) of bodyweight within a certain amount of time, usually seven to 14 days.

Really, the best program and roughage level is mostly dictated by how much time and effort a producer is willing to spend getting high-stress cattle up on feed.

The type of cattle will also dictate the initial roughage level, because heavier cattle will generally have greater feed intakes and thus may require more roughage in the receiving diet to keep from giving them an excessive load of rapidly fermentable carbohydrates early in the rumen adaptation process.

When talking about lightweight high-stress cattle however, their intakes will generally be lower, so a higher energy (i.e. lower roughage) diet may be used to increase their overall energy intake if certain criteria are met:

  1. The producer is working with a qualified nutritionist to determine the ration and programmed increases in feed delivery each day.
  2. The producer is willing to feed multiple times per day, preferably three times or more.
  3. The producer closely monitors feed delivery to ensure feed is evenly distributed in the bunk.
  4. Bunk space is adequate so that every animal in the pen can eat at the same time.
  5. The cattle are fairly uniform in size so that intakes relative to bodyweight in the pen are consistent.

Generally speaking, an effective program for receiving high-stress cattle can be based on diets with 40 percent or greater roughage, although lower roughage levels can be used for high-stress cattle if the appropriate programmed feeding regimen is followed.

Additional supplemental or free-choice hay can be used as appropriate during the early part of the receiving period.  end_mark

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.


Stressed calves tend to prefer higher concentrate diets rather than high-roughage diets. Photo by Ray Merritt.

mark corrigan

Mark Corrigan
Beef Technical Services Manager
Lallemand Animal Nutrition