Adjusting Cattle Rations for Increased Protein Feed Costs

February 15, 2021

by Jeff Pastoor, Beef Technical Consultant

Soybean meal is no longer a common ingredient in cattle rations, but the market value of soybean meal has a large influence on the price we pay for corn by-products such as gluten feeds and distiller’s grains. As soybean meal moves up and down in price, the corn by-products also move up and down because of their value on a cost per unit of protein. In January of 2021, cash soybean meal prices were ranging from $420 – $480/ton depending on the amount purchased and the local basis – it has been over 7 years since we last had soybean meal prices this high. This compares to the first 8 months of 2020 when soybean meal averaged below $300/ton.

In the early years of by-product feeding, by-products were so cheap that we fed them for their energy content to replace corn in the ration and often overfed protein as a result. Those days are long gone, but by-products have remained a cost-effective source of protein in most cattle rations. As protein feeds climb in price, we need to take another look at including them at their most cost-effective level.

Urea is a very cost-effective way to help meet the protein needs in a ration. In addition to being the best cost per unit of protein, urea as non-protein nitrogen feeds the rumen bugs directly which can improve rumen efficiency and rumen microbe populations, resulting in potentially better intakes, better gains, and better feed conversions. Quality Liquid Feeds are the best way to bring urea into your rations due to its superior handling and mixing characteristics.

But there is a limit to how much urea the rumen can effectively use and urea fed beyond this amount will simply be wasted in the urine. Because of this, we normally need another source of protein in fed cattle rations besides urea, and we need to make sure it is cost-effective. However, in beef cow rations and in grower rations with more forage if it is often possible to supply all of the supplemental protein by using urea.

Each farm will have its own unique set of feedstuffs that they have available and at what cost. For a reference point, here are the values of several common protein feeds on a cost per unit of protein compared to HiPro Soybean Meal at $450/ton:


If you can source these feeds for less than the dollar value listed in the table, they are a good buy relative to soybean meal. Your QLF rep has this tool available to them to calculate these values at any time.

Beyond the cost per unit of protein, here are some other considerations to keep in mind when choosing a supplemental protein feed.

  • Availability – even though one feed may be a better cost value than another, if you cannot get it consistently it is not a good source of supplemental protein. It is better to pay a little more for something you can get whenever you need it – cattle respond positively to a more consistent ration with better rumen health and efficiency.
  • Shrink – storage shrink is normally greater for wet by-products than it is for dry by-products. If you increase the urea level in your ration and you buy less by-product as a result, will the slower use result in more spoilage and waste of the by-product? Looking at cattle feeding records and feed purchase records, we can estimate that the shrink on wet by-products is 10-15% when stored on concrete without a roof, and 5-8% when stored on concrete under a roof. This shrink has to be factored into the true cost. Dry by-products will also have shrink, but it is more likely to be in the 2-3% range if kept in a bin or under a roof.
  • Corn pricing –
    • Ensiled corn products such as silage, earlage/snaplage, or HM corn can no longer be sold as commodity corn so often cattle feeders will price these feedstuffs at the market value they had when they were processed and put into storage. This makes them an even better feeding value and will reduce the demand for by-products in the best cost ration. Note that custom feeders should price these ensiled feed products based on the current market value of #2 corn.
    • If you grow enough corn for the cattle you feed, feeding lower levels of by-products allows you to feed higher levels of home-grown corn, and paying yourself the full market value without having to truck it off the farm. Higher protein supplemental feeds also allow the use of more home-grown corn in the ration – for example, a pound of soybean meal has about the same protein as two pounds of DDGs, so for every pound of SBM used you can feed an additional pound of corn compared to feeding DDGs.
  • Digestibility – soybean meal can be a superior source of protein in the ration of very small calves, due to its amino acid profile and because small calves have a less developed rumen. Also, using enough corn by-products to meet the protein requirement of these small calves will likely pull in too much phosphorus and sulfur so there can be a benefit to feeding a blend of soybean meal and by-products to light calves.

What if we feed lower protein rations and reduce the amount of supplemental protein purchased? This way we could feed even more home-grown corn and save the money used to buy the by-products. The problem with this strategy is unless you are growing and feeding some very high-quality alfalfa, it is not possible to properly balance the rations to support normal daily gains.

Let us model an example of feeding 6 wt steers to market weight assuming good bunk management, typical cattle quality, and a typical implant program. We will compare the performance supported by normal protein levels and a lower protein strategy of 1% lower protein in each ration. The Starting ration was the same in each in order to support incoming calf health and rumen re-charge.

Protein Levels and Gain Supported by Each Ration


Results for the Total Feeding Period


As you can see, the advantage from a proper protein level in the rations is $110/head due to less days on feed, provided you and the cattle are capable of this level of performance. There is little to no cost savings in the feed cost per ton on the lower protein rations since we are replacing the supplemental protein feed with corn at current market costs. But the reduced days on feed from the normal protein rations not only saves yardage and interest expenses but also 39 days of feed per head.

Are there situations where a lower protein level might be appropriate? I can think of a few:

  • If you don’t mind handling an additional ration, I would be comfortable with adding a final ration for cattle 1200# to market weight that goes down to 12% protein. This would still support 3.24# of daily gain due to the higher feed intakes on these large cattle. An 11% protein ration for this weight range would only support 2.5# daily gain, and these cattle are generally capable of more daily gain than that.
  • If you are feeding higher levels of corn silage and/or earlage in your finish ration because you have them in inventory and they are priced competitively then your gains can be about the same but your dry matter intakes will be higher. So if you are finishing on a 58-60 NEg ration, a 12% protein ration will still support the gain potential of the cattle.
  • If you are growing cattle on a high forage ration and expecting lower daily gains, less protein is required to support these lower gains. For example, a 5 wt steer calf gaining 2# per day requires a 12% protein ration. An 8 wt replacement heifer gaining 1.7# per day requires a ration that is 11% protein.
  • If there are other reasons why you are expecting a lower level of performance (such as lower genetic quality, poor pen conditions, or less bunk management ability) you might be able to justify feeding the lower protein rations. On the other hand, if you have excellent quality cattle, lot conditions, and bunk management skills you will need the normal protein levels or maybe even higher protein levels to support the potential gains.

Every cattle operation is unique in the feedstuffs that are on the farm or are available to purchase. QLF is committed to working with you as an individual in helping you to determine what is best for your farm, your livestock, and your economics.

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