Using High Quality Alfalfa in Growing and Finishing Rations

Discussions with cattle feeders on growing and finishing rations often revolve around corn silage, grain, and co-product feeds like distiller’s grains or other grain processing feedstuffs. I also often hear folks make comments that beef cattle do not need high quality hay.  While some classes of beef cattle do not need high quality alfalfa hay, there is a place for using high quality, or “dairy quality”, alfalfa hay.

Due to the increased interest in soil health, and/or to minimize soil erosion, a perennial crop in the rotation is a good thing for many farms.  Alfalfa is a crop that will fit those needs from a crop rotation standpoint and will fit nicely into growing and finishing rations for feeding out cattle.

While making dry hay can be challenging, and even discouraging some years, alfalfa haylage will work at least as nice as dry hay in growing and finishing rations. With the advances in technology, like big bale silage, the risk of weather problems for making high quality alfalfa feed is greatly reduced.

High quality alfalfa hay or haylage, complements corn very nicely in growing rations for feeding out cattle. It is around 19 to 20% crude protein, 30 to 35 % acid detergent fiber, and 40 to 45% neutral detergent fiber. Alfalfa is also an excellent source of calcium and potassium that fills in where corn is lacking regarding cattle nutritional requirements.

An example ration for growing cattle is 40 percent high quality alfalfa, 59 percent corn and 1 percent supplement on a dry matter basis.  This ration will provide approximately 53.6 Mcal NEg per cwt of dry matter, 13.6 percent crude protein, and adequate calcium and potassium such that there should be no additional protein, calcium, and potassium supplementation needed.  Cattle should gain around 2.5 pounds a day on this ration for cattle weighing 400 to 700 pounds.  Aside from some trace mineral salt, this ration could be completely home grown.

Finishing rations using high quality alfalfa forage are not quite as straight forward as the growing ration in the example above.  Recommended finishing rations will have less roughage and higher energy.  Ten to 12 percent roughage, and around 62 Mcal NEg per cwt of energy is a good target to work towards for efficient finishing of cattle.  Alfalfa can provide all the roughage, and will reduce the need for purchased protein, but the ration will require some additional protein to meet animal requirements.  Distiller’s grains or other protein sources can be utilized to make up the difference.

An example ration using high quality alfalfa for finishing cattle would be: 10 percent high quality alfalfa, 72 percent corn, 14 percent dried distiller’s grains with solubles and 4 percent supplement pack for calcium and trace minerals and ionophore.  Holstein steers on this ration should be able to gain at least 3 pounds a day depending on management.

In summary, don’t forget about using high quality alfalfa in growing and finishing rations for cattle.  The alfalfa can be beneficial from both cropping and nutritional standpoints. There can be harmony between farm-raised corn and alfalfa resources in the cattle feeding enterprise.

Written by: Bill Halfman, UW Extension Agriculture Agent, Monroe County, article also appeared in Wisconsin Agriculturist magazine and website.

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