The Ins and Outs of Cattle Nutrition

October 12, 2016

They say, “You are what you eat.” What goes in and out of our bodies is obviously important for our general health and maintenance.

Well, the same holds true for our cattle as well, but with one main difference: Where we only have one stomach to worry about, they have four!

Cattle are animals technically classified as ruminants, a distinction that includes sheep, goats, and deer. Basically, they have a fluid-filled digestive organ—the rumen—that allows them to use roughages, like hay and grass, as a major source of nutrients. The microbes within the rumen can actually breakdown cellulose and hemicellulose for digestion, an ability that most other mammals—like humans—lack.

Essentially, cows can eat grass and get strong because of it!

Beef Cattle Grazing in the Mountains

Beef cattle grazing in the mountains

There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to cattle nutrition, where each nutrient plays a vital role in growth, production, or metabolism.


Composed of chains of amino acids, protein is the main building block of the body that develops muscles, the nervous system, and connective tissue. It is essential to nutrition for maintenance, growth, lactation, and reproduction.


Certain minerals are also required for cattle growth, bone formation, reproduction, and other bodily functions:

  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Magnesium
  • Sodium (Salt)
  • Selenium


We’ve heard it since we were young: “Make sure to take your vitamins!” We humans take our vitamins every day (and if we don’t, we really should). It is essential for normal growth and health. And while which vitamins may vary, they are just as essential for cattle nutrition:

  • Insufficient Vitamin A—which helps with growth, reproduction, and maintenance—may lead to lowered fertility in both bulls and cows.
  • Insufficient Vitamin D—which develops bones—leads to bowing of the leg bones in calves.
  • Insufficient Vitaman E—which develops muscle tissue—causes nutritional muscular dystrophy, the degeneration of muscle tissue, also known as white muscle disease.


Feedstuffs, the stuff that we feed our livestock, is usually made up of four ingredients, each of which plays a vital role in their nutritional balance:

  • Roughages are the main filler of a cow’s diet. They are high in fibre and relatively low in energy, so they are primarily used to maintain bowel function.
    • (Common examples: hay, grass, grain hulls, oilseed hulls.)
  • Grains work in the opposite manner from roughages—they’re high in energy but low in fibre, with moderate protein content. More grain is introduced into the cattle’s diet as they get older, priming them for the market.
    • (Common examples: corn, milo, barley, oats.)
  • Oilseeds are high in protein and energy.
    • (Common examples are soybeans and canola meal.)
  • Byproducts are leftover ingredients from food production for humans. These are more variable in their nutritional value and are typically used as filler.
    • (Common examples: distiller’s grains, sweet corn cannery waste, bakery waste, grain screenings, apple pomace.)

Ultimately, knowing what the various nutrients do for your cattle is essential to any serious beef producer. In order for your ranch to meet production goals, make sure your livestock receive balanced rations.

Remember, we take care of what we put in our own bodies, so it only makes sense that we take care of what we put in our cattle.


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