One of the things that we know for certain is what goes up must come down, and in the agriculture industry the opposite is also true. For a whole host of reasons, we see fluctuations in all our commodity prices. In the beef industry, we can sometimes use this to our advantage to cheaply feed cattle, while other times we are forced to get out the pencil and paper (or excel spreadsheet) and look at our options to try and decrease feed costs. As of last week (January 7th, 2021) the national average value of distillers dried grains was 122.99% relative to corn, compared to the 5-year average of 109%. Soybean meal prices are being pushed even higher, based on national averages distillers grains were at $8.04 per unit of protein with soybean meal coming in at $9.22 per unit of protein as of last week.

FL Cattle at bunk

In addition to times when price alone can make an ingredient impractical, there are also times when supply becomes limited and ingredients may simply not be available. We saw this last spring at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when ethanol plants slowed production or closed all together. The question ultimately becomes, what options do we have for meeting protein requirements, when protein is expensive?

In the case of forage-based diets the first thing we need to do in order to assess protein supplementation is to get a forage test! Without a forage test we are simply taking a stab in the dark at what protein is being supplied in the forage, and what needs to be supplemented. This can lead to under or over supplying protein, both of which can have negative economic impacts. For example, if we had distillers grains priced at $235/T and were feeding 3 lbs per day to 30 head over a 90 day period it would cost approximately $950 dollars. If we had a forage test that showed, we only needed to be supplementing 2 lbs per head per day the cost would have been approximately $635 dollars. In Kentucky forage testing can cost anywhere from $10-25 dollars, and in this example, we saved approximately $315 dollars by completing a forage test and using the information. In situations where we are under feeding protein, money might be saved on the feed bill, but what you are giving up is performance which can be a bit more difficult to track. Once cows become thin (BCS ≤ 4), we see negative effects on reproductive performance. In growing cattle under supplying protein can lead to decreased ADG, which means we are leaving pounds on the table (or at the feedbunk in this case).

When comparing commodities, it is helpful to look at them on a price per unit basis whether that unit is protein or energy. This comparison should be made on a dry matter basis in order to truly make a fair comparison since differences in moisture across feed stuffs can dilute concentrations of other nutrients. While a lot of producers have come to rely on purchasing individual feedstuffs, another potential alternative is purchasing a protein supplement from a feed company. These products may contain plant sources of protein, or a combination of both plant and non-protein nitrogen (NPN) ingredients. It is important to note that these products may contain supplemental minerals and that should be factored into the cost of the product.

For cattle on diets high in rapidly fermentable carbohydrates such as starch coming from corn or other cereal grains, NPN can be an economical way to increase protein in the diet, while decreasing the inclusion of crude protein contributing feed stuffs such as distillers grains and soybean meal. The most common source of NPN is urea, which analyzes at 287.8% CP, making it by far the cheapest source of CP on a per unit basis. However, caution must be taken to ensure the safety of cattle when feeding urea, as this ingredient can be toxic when inclusions or intakes are too high. General guidelines to consider is that no more than 1/3 of the total diet CP should be derived from NPN, and the diet should include no more than 1.5% urea on a DM basis. Always work with a nutritionist when formulating diets that contain urea, as this ingredient is not appropriate for all diets and classes of cattle. Also work with a trusted feed-mill to ensure urea is mixed properly to ensure safety!

As with a lot of things in beef production, there is not one single solution to decreasing the price of protein supplementation. However, sitting down and looking at your current costs and evaluating potential alternatives that are available to you may lead to savings, or at least ensure that performance is not being sacrificed.