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Extension educator encourages producers to reevaluate winter supplementation

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Cow/Calf Systems and Stocker Management Specialist Karla Wilke explains in a Jan. 3 episode of the BeefWatch podcast it is common for producers to supplement protein in order for calves to reach a half pound of gain per day target during the winter. This practice, she notes, is believed to set calves up for compensatory gain during the summer – a cost-effective way to grow cattle. 

However, recent research at UNL as well as a meta-analysis studied by Wilke show supplementing at a higher rate – or not at all – may be a more economical choice for producers than middle-of-the-road supplementation. 

Supplementation studies

Wilke conducted a study evaluating 450-pound steers supplemented with zero, 1.1, 2.3 or 3.4 pounds of dried distillers’ grains (DDGS) on a dry matter basis while grazing dormant native range. The calves gained 0.60, 1.06, 1.41 and 1.72 pounds per day, respectively. 

Then, calves were introduced to a higher quality forage to graze, simulating green-up of pastures in the spring. 

“Calves that were not supplemented on the range compensated 100 percent at the end of wheat pasture grazing and gained the same as calves who were only supplemented 1.1 pounds per day,” Wilke shares. “However, those non-supplemented calves only compensated 38 percent and 46 percent compared with the two higher levels of supplementation. Those calves maintained a weight advantage of 653 and 656 pounds, respectively.” 

In this situation, Wilke says, the supplement cost is an expensive cost for the producer who only supplements one pound per day for average daily gains (AGD). She notes she believes it is better to supplement at a higher rate of gain for a higher return on investment. 

The meta-analysis including six different gain studies showed similar to the UNL study, calves only supplemented to gain around 0.5 pounds per day compensated 37 percent and never caught up to their contemporaries supplemented at a higher rate. 

Gains translated
to feedlot performance

“Interestingly, in the feedlot, supplemented calves maintained an advantage over calves receiving a lower supplementation level,” Wilke notes. “The economics of the study suggest regardless of whether DDGS was priced high or low, calves supplemented at a higher rate were the most economic choice all the way through the system.” 

She explains calves targeted for high gains in the winter were heavier at harvest – 1,307 pounds versus 1,230 pounds – and successfully maintained their weight advantage through all three phases of production. 

“Research suggested a pound of supplement compared to a little over two pounds of supplement doesn’t have a great difference in terms of cost, but there is a difference in the economic advantage all the way through finishing,” Wilke says. “Even more interesting is the concept that when supplementing, producers spend money to try to get a small amount of gain and this money is wasted.”

She continues, “The calves that weren’t supplemented at all and had no additional expenses throughout the winter did just as well as the calves that were supplemented just one pound. Producers lost money in this case, but they also left money on the table because had they supplemented more, they would have had a weight advantage throughout the system.” 

Genetic potential

BeefWatch podcast Host and UNL Extension Educator Aaron Berger notes genetic potential of cattle has changed immensely over the last 30 to 40 years. 

While Wilke shares she doesn’t have results from her studies to back up this claim statistically, she agrees that producers have challenged and pushed the genetic potential of today’s U.S. cowherd through years of progress. 

“Over time, feeding two pounds of DDGS instead of one pound is helping calves to consume more metabolizable protein and achieve structure growth at a critical time,” she says. “This way, calves are able to gain more later in their life.” 

Wilke notes, now is the time for producers to reevaluate production practices of the past, compare them to current data and consider change. She encourages producers to pencil out the cost of growth to determine how much gain they can afford. 

With the national cowherd shrinking in a contracting cattle cycle, Wilke and Berger believe the value of calves will be good in 2022, and producers supplementing at greater rates – no matter the cost of DDGS – may see an advantage. 

Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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