Corn prices have a big impact on supplemental feed costs. It’s typically difficult to find alternative ingredients which offer as much energy as corn does at a cheaper price. However, in the past year, corn prices have steadily risen, more than doubling from lows near $3 per bushel in August 2020 to highs above $7 per bushel in May 2021. Even though corn may not be part of your typical supplementation program, it sets baseline pricing on energy feedstuffs for the cow herd.

Zehnder chad
Cattle Consultant / Purina Animal Nutrition

Now we find ourselves in decision-making mode for winter feeding plans and must navigate what the most economically viable option is to feed the herd and maintain performance. Drought and volatile cattle markets are making feeding decisions for the winter ahead even tougher.

How can you navigate this year’s circumstances and keep your herd fed? Here are some strategies to help make this winter’s decisions a bit easier.

Balance nutrients and costs

A key this year is going to be focusing on balancing rations, both for nutrition and price values. If you understand the nutrient values for the feedstuffs available, you can make sound financial choices. Use these management practices to balance for both nutrients and costs.

  • Test forages: Testing grazed and stored forages can help identify potential nutrient gaps which need to be made up for through supplementation. If drought is an issue in your area, testing forages is even more vital due to the limited amount of available forage and possible quality or toxicity issues.
  • Change supplement strategies: Consider nutrition sources such as liquid, blocks and tubs to help better utilize available forage. With forage test results in hand, you can determine the amount of protein or energy needed from supplemental sources and which source is right for you.
  • Use caution with alternative feedstuffs: Make sure you’re not buying alternative grains and byproducts just because they’re cheaper than corn. The alternate feedstuff could be cheaper on a per-ton basis, but you might have to feed more of it to get the same nutritional value. Do your homework by formulating rations with a nutritionist; corn or other protein sources, like cooked molasses tubs, may still be the better buy.
  • Watch for toxins: Look out for molds and mycotoxins in anything that seems like a “bargain” price. Have feed tested before you buy it. Sometimes things are indeed too good to be true.
  • Consider cost to haul: Monitor freight costs for alternative feedstuffs. A wet byproduct such as wet distillers grain or beet pulp could be attractive for its price point but becomes cost-prohibitive if you have to haul it very far due to the amount of water in the feedstuff.
  • Avoid cutting mineral: A quality, weather-resistant mineral can help make up for some deficiencies in other feedstuffs by providing a balance of vitamins and minerals. Your mineral program does not need to change unless the supplemental feeding program drastically changes, such as feeding more distillers grains high in phosphorus.

Watch body condition scores

Outside of balancing rations both for nutrition and price values, maintaining cow body condition is vital to their performance and success in the herd. Make sure whatever your winter feeding plans are, you’re aiming to keep cows in a body condition score (BCS) 6.


Letting BCS slip below a score of 5 can have repercussions that span well into the future. Breed-back can take longer, meaning subsequent calves are born later and won’t be as old at weaning, reducing potential weaning weights. What may seem like a good way to save on feed costs can actually have long-term consequences that far outweigh the initial price.

Don’t lose out to shrink

Feedstuff shrink should always be a concern – and in years where feed prices are high, it becomes more important.

Watch for shrink in all areas of feedstuffs. Whether it’s in haystack yards, silage piles or grain bins, be mindful of potential storage spoilage. Simple steps like monitoring drainage around haystacks to reduce moisture and tightly packing and properly covering silage piles at harvest will help ensure there is quality feed when needed. Also, watch for shrink losses when feeding out.

Creating a nutrition plan ahead of key supplementation times, like the winter and lead-up to calving, allows you to be proactive instead of reactive. Ultimately, understanding the economics to keep a balanced ration for both cost and nutrients will go a long way toward having a successful nutritional program.

Note: At the writing of this article, corn futures were estimated to be in the $5.40-to-$7.30-per-bushel range.

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Learn from past corn price volatility

You don’t have to look back too far for similar corn price situations:

• 2012: Prices peaked at $8 per bushel. Likewise, drought was widespread among many states.

• 2008: Corn prices followed a similar pattern, going from $3 per bushel the previous summer to $7 per bushel that year.

• 1996: Prices doubled from the previous year, reaching $5 per bushel in May.

The biggest lessons we learned through those years go beyond nutrition; it’s how to market cattle and manage markets at both ends – corn on the front end, cattle on the back end.

Reflect on what worked in those challenging years, and what didn’t. Did you wean and sell calves early? Did you creep feed to add weight on calves to chase a higher feeder market? Did you sell calves through a value-added program? Did you sell calves outside a normal marketing window? Did you retain ownership? How did those decisions impact your profitability that year?

Have discussions with your nutritionist, banker, livestock market representative and other trusted sources of information to determine what makes most sense for you.