Grass and forages: backbone of beef cattle nutrition

Beef it"s what"s for dinner for many people.  For beef cattle, their primary diet for much of their lives is grass and other forages. This is why cattle farmers are also grass and forage farmers.

Forages, including grasses, clovers and other legumes and small grains, are the nutitional foundation for beef cattle in Alabama. Generally mild weather conditions allow Alabama cattle producers  to grow forages nearly year-round.

Alabama Extension Beef Systems Specialist Dr. Kim Mullenix said these forages can generally meet the needs of beef cattle with no supplementation, depending on pasture management.

"Forages are the most economical source of nutrition available for cattle," Mullenix said. "This allows producers to put gain on growing animals in an economical way."

As cows approach calving season, nutrient requirements increase, and supplementation with energy or protein may be required.

Calves and Forages

Newborn calves rely mainly on the mother"s milk meet their nutritional need. As the calves grow, the mother teaches the "ins and outs" of grazing. The cow shows the calf how to graze and what to select in the pasture to best meet their needs.

Over time, calves gradually begin to consume more forage and become less dependent on the mother"s milk.

Calves are eventually weaned from the cow, and some will become stocker cattle.

Stocker Calves and Forages

Stocker calves typically weigh between 450 and 750 pounds. These cattle are growing and have higher nutritional requirements. Therefore, these cattle need high-quality forage to be able to produce a desirable level of gain.

Mullenix said two pounds per day is usually a minimum weight gain target for stocker operations.

Cool-season forages such as annual ryegrass, small grains, tall fescue, and clovers are often used in Alabama to help animals gain weight during this production stage.

Grain and Forages

"Many people are surprised to know that cattle only spend about 5 to 10 percent of their life consuming grain before harvest," Mullenix said.

Grain is fed to improve carcass weights and meat quality. Producers feed cattle grass for the majority of their lives, and save grain to feed at a time when the animal can utilize the most nutrients for growth.

Mullenix said cow-calf and stocker production are the two key parts of the industry in the Southeast.

"Producers look for ways to make the best use of available resources, and economically achieve production goals," she said. "Because one of our best assets in this region is the ability to grow forages, producers focus on ways to improve production in these systems to support cattle growth and nutrition."

Share your photos on social media during National Forage Week using #NationalForageWeek and #ForageFanaticFoto.

For more information about the ACES Animal Science and Forage Team, visit To find out more about the team members involved, visit the Alabama Forages webpage and the Alabama Beef Systems webpage.


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