Success in the beef industry is never a “one-size-fits-all” endeavor. Producers manage diverse genetics in different environments with the goal of their cattle returning profit. While we are in an amazing era of feeder prices, the number of required inputs to capitalize on the market and produce healthy, heavy calves continues to squeeze profit margins. Feed accounts for nearly two-thirds of this annual input cost, and logistics have put even more pressure on the bottom line. Therefore, it may be time to seek cattle-feeding alternatives and get more bang for your buck this fall.

Cassady chris
Senior Manager of Beef Technical Sales / BioZyme

You’ve likely spent generations and countless blood, sweat and tears creating the genetic background of your herd. Just like good employees, your herd is ready to work for you. It’s important you understand your cows’ needs and give them the tools they need to maximize their output. Proper nutrition is the key to herd health and long-term financial success, but there are more ways to “skin the nutritional cat” if you’re willing to think outside the box. Remember, ruminants were put on this earth to convert the most abundant carbohydrate in the world (cellulose) to human-consumable protein. They couldn’t do this without a complex system of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, archaea and more residing in the rumen.

The microbial balance

The microbiome and the cow have a symbiotic relationship. The cow provides a warm, anaerobic environment and plenty of feed for the “bugs” in the rumen. The bugs break down and ferment the feed to produce volatile fatty acids (VFAs) that the cow uses as the main source of energy for maintenance, growth, lactation and reproduction. What most people don’t realize is that these bugs serve as one of the main sources of protein for cattle, too. There’s a constant flow of rumen bacteria to the small intestine, and they are rapidly absorbed as microbial protein. This microbial protein is highly digestible and contains a near-ideal amino acid profile for the animal. Knowing that the ruminant microbiome plays such a key role in your feeding program, alternatives to cattle feeding can be developed by fueling the bugs to unlock more nutrition from within.

The only true way to stimulate the microbiome without drastic changes to your feeding program is by feeding additives. Feed additives exist in the marketplace in many forms and target a variety of purposes. Probiotics provide a specific strain of live bacteria to the rumen but require proper storage, handling and usage to be effective. The more practical solution for an effective daily regime may be feeding prebiotics, which serve as fuel for the rumen bugs. Prebiotics are a lot like the fertilizer you may use on your crops and pastures. By giving the rumen microbiome the required tools to work most effectively, more energy and protein become available for the cow to use. The flexibility for feeding more economical sources of energy and protein is a major benefit to your operation’s bottom line when you know that gut health and nutritional efficiency are maximized for mere pennies a day.

The power of feed additives

Speaking of economics, let’s break down the return on an investment regarding one particular, highly researched feed additive. Precision prebiotic products are on the market that target rumen fungal branching and enzyme secretion. As the prebiotic-stimulated fungi physically break down the structural components of the bite of feed, more attachment sites are created for the bacteria. This means more of the fermentable carbohydrate within the feed is available for the bacteria to grow and produce VFAs. More bacterial growth means more energy and microbial protein for the cow, so less needs to be fed to meet nutritional requirements. Sixteen percent more VFA production combined with 50 to 150 grams of microbial protein is nutritionally equivalent to feeding a pound of dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS).


As a producer, you can look at this benefit in many ways. You can feed a pound less of a protein source per head per day and expect the same output, or you can make better use of your supplements and improve your output potential. Additionally, 1 pound of DDGS insurance policy built into your feeding program may mean you can limit feed and control expensive hay waste. Either way, if you consider delivered DDGS prices at $220, that’s equal to 11 cents per pound of DDGS. Spending 4 cents per head per day and getting the nutritional equivalent of 11 cents is almost a 3-to-1 return on your investment. This doesn’t even include the benefits of improved gut health without any additional labor or capital.

If your pasture grass is gone or dwindling in quality, you’re either feeding harvested forages or grazing crop residue. Regardless, utilizing that forage most effectively is going to help control your cost. Assuming an additive product improves NDF (fiber) digestibility by 17%, if an average-quality hay (42% NDF digestibility) costs $180 per ton, the benefit of the additive on fiber utilization helps reduce the cost per digestible nutrient by 18%. Better forage utilization by fueling the microbiome can help satisfy these cows by improved digestion, helping you control your waste losses and capitalize on the nutritional value of your hay and silages.

There’s no right or wrong way to manage cows. Find the system that best puts your genetic base to your available resources. However, to improve your profit margins during a time of high calf prices, it may be time to think outside the box about your biggest financial sink: feed costs. Using quality feed additives helps get the most out of your feed ingredients, giving you the flexibility to cheapen your costs, improve your outputs and improve your bottom line.