Feeding of Beef Cattle
Cattle need protein, energy, water, fat, minerals and vitamins in their diet to grow efficiently, with the amounts varying according to the production environment, the age of the animal, the time of year and the production goals and stages.
The nutritional demand of an animal will greatly depend on its age and phase of production.
Despite this, a beef animal generally consumes up to 3kg of feed a day for every 100 kg of body weight, and needs access to between 20 litres to 70 litres of water per day, depending on climatic conditions.
It is expensive to feed cattle, so most cattle in South Africa are either raised on veld or pasture. Once they reach a certain age, the cattle may then be finished for the market in a feedlot, where they will receive pre-formulated mixed rations.
With veld grazing, the cattle are on natural land that comprises sweetveld, sourveld or a combination of the two. The cattle have the opportunity to ively graze according to what they find palatable, with the diet being high in roughage and fibre. Farmers usually supplement these diets with mineral licks and other additives to prevent nutritional shortages.
Pastures may consist of grasses and legumes, such as kikuyu, clover and lucerne, specifically planted to feed the cattle. Alternatively, the cattle may also be allowed to graze crop stubbles after it has been harvested.
High quality legume hay, such as lucerne and clover usually contain enough protein and carbohydrate for growth and maintenance, whereas poor quality feed, such as grain straw and grass straw should be supplemented to increase energy and protein intake.
Farmers need to understand the way in which the digestive system of cattle works for optimal feeding. The cow has four compartments in its stomach, with a lot of digestion being done by microbial organisms. Different microbes are responsible for digesting different feeds, which is why new diets should be introduced slowly to prevent stomach problems.
Keeping larger numbers in a group is easier than managing lots of small groups of animals.
Cattle should be managed carefully to prevent an overgrazing of veld or pasture. Overgrazing is not only detrimental to the recovery of plants and harmful to the environment, but also has a negative impact on farmer bottom lines by reducing the carry capacity of a farm. Farmers, in effect, either have to reduce stock numbers in line with the reduced capacity or buy more feed to maintain the same number of animals in their herd.
Keeping cattle too long in the same camp may also result in the trampling of species and cause erosion.
To prevent overgrazing, farmers need to know the number of cattle the land is able to carry, called the carry capacity, and carefully rotate the movement of their animals to ensure the plants have enough time to recover before they are grazed again.
Farmers, who do not rotate their animals, because of a lack of land or for other reasons, not only have to cope with the deterioration of land, but also a build up of parasites which might affect their animals negatively.
Farmers should preferably have a minimum of ten camps and not revisit a camp for at least three weeks after it was grazed, with the timing depending on various factors, such as the plant species, the size of the herd, grazing impact and climatic conditions.
Plants, for example, take longer to grow during cold climatic conditions, so the rotation time might be longer in winter than in summer, when there is an abundance of sunlight and heat to foster plant growth. The impact of adverse climatic conditions, such as droughts and rain damage, on the carry capacity of the land, should also be considered.
In times of drought, for example, farmers might be forced to reduce their herd numbers and sell lambs earlier than usual to ensure there is enough food for the core herd. Food might also have to be brought in to address on-farm shortages, depending on the availability and cost of native feed sources which might have increased due to the adverse climatic conditions.
Farmers generally divide their pastures or land into camps to control the animals, moving cattle from one camp to another to give the camps enough time to recover before they are grazed again. The size of the groups of animals will also have an impact on the length of time animals should be allowed to stay on the same land.
Having less animals in a group will allow the group to stay on the same land for longer times, but it may also result in farmers having many small groups of animals that need to be managed separately over the camps.
With high density grazing, large numbers of stock are managed with electric wiring, to graze small areas over a short period of time. The aim is to mimic the impact of wild herds in nature. High density grazing is seen as an important part of regenerative farming, as the animals’ feeding habits, their manure and urine, helps to add valuable nutrients to the soil and also stimulate soil health.
While it has numerous benefits when done correctly, it requires more skill and finer attention to detail than systems where the animals are merely moved from one camp to another.