Range cattle huddle around a protein station. Note the forage quality looks poor, yet with the help of a protein supplement, the cattle have maintained an ideal body condition score. 

As fall dissipates to winter across the region, cattle producers are busy working cattle. Calves must be weaned, yearlings must be sold and cattle must be preg-checked and vaccinated. As the seasons change, it is important to remember that forage quality changes as well. It may be beneficial to start cattle on a protein supplement, but with the bottom line ever looming in the back of producer’s minds, it can be hard to justify the added expense.

It must be noted that every ranching operation is different and grazing situations can vary. Don’t be in the mindset that fall grass automatically means cattle require and extra protein boost. Danielle Peterson, M.S. and livestock production specialist for Axmen-Purina, recommends obtaining a forage sample and having it tested by your local county Extension agent. Knowing a forage baseline can help producers make more informed decisions about protein supplementation.

Cattle have different protein requirements, depending on where they are in development. Peterson points out that a first calf heifer will require more protein then a running age cow. Likewise, protein requirement changes depending on where the cow is in her gestation period and/or if she is lactating.

On average, a mature cow requires about 7 percent crude protein on a daily basis during her first two trimesters of pregnancy. The protein requirement jumps closer to 10 percent daily during lactation. First calf heifers on the other hand, require an average of 9 percent protein while they are growing and developing, 10 percent while they are in gestation, and they will require upwards of 13 percent crude protein daily while they are lactating. Keep in mind variables like breed and weather conditions may affect daily crude protein requirements.

There are several ways a producer can judge whether or not the cattle require a protein supplement. Testing the forage quality and knowing for certain is, of course, one way. Additionally, Peterson explains that cattle feces are a great indication of how much protein the animal is getting.

“If their feces are in a hard mound, it indicates they are getting too much fiber in their diet and not enough protein,” Peterson said.

A thorough understanding of cattle body conditioning scores is another great tool for producers to have. When it boils down, the main job for a cow is to breed and reproduce. It must also be kept in mind that breeding is a luxury and happens only after the nutritional requirements of the cow and the calf at her side have been met. Ideally, cattle should have a body condition score close to six when leading up to calving.

Protein supplements come in many different forms, varying from 50-pound blocks all the way up to 250-pound tubs. No matter the vehicle for delivery, placement of the supplement can be key to its success. Protein supplements essentially act as a catalyst by feeding the microbes in the rumen of a cow. This will encourage them to wander out and seek out more forage.

“What I have seen in a range situation, a guy could set up a protein station and put maybe a couple of tubs in one spot to minimize competition. When you first start supplementing, try and put the protein by a path, or at least somewhere where the cattle can easily find them. It can also be helpful to put them in an under-utilized part of the pasture,” Peterson stated.

Peterson stresses that when it comes to cattle nutrition, take a proactive approach. It is easier, and in the long run, more cost effective to maintain a cow at a body condition of six, rather than trying to play catch-up later. Protein consumption is also inversely related to forage quality, meaning if you supplement when the forage is still delivering the nutrients cattle need, they will consume less protein. As the forage quality decreases, protein consumption will increase.