"I've had some of the largest stocker operations in the area tell me if they had the guts they'd get rid of every lease they have and go strictly to program feeding because they can put 300-400 lbs. on the calves at a similar cost to grazing, but with more predictability," says Dave Jones, general manager of Livestock Nutrition Center facilities at Chickasha and Fletcher, OK.

Even those more inclined toward tradition are taking a harder look at program feeding this year given the horrid grazing condition since last fall.

In order to estimate the potential of program feeding, David Lalman, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension beef specialist, says, "The important factors in developing a ration are to obtain a high value for net energy for gain per dollar of ration cost, and then to adjust the protein and mineral content of the ration to the animal's requirements, determined by the targeted gain, the animal's sex, weight and frame size. It's simplest to calculate the ration's net energy for maintenance and growth (NEm and NEg) values on dry matter basis." You can find a spreadsheet calculator at www.ansi.okstate.edu/software/PROGFED2.xls.

As for the mineral included, Jones believes matching it to the specific ration and goal is a key. "We're seeing 4-5¢ better cost of gain with the right vitamin and mineral package," he says.

Lalman also cautions that feeding a single ingredient is an invitation to problems. He and other OSU researchers have tried in studies feeding free-choice soybean hulls and the equivalent of 1 lb. of hay/day on a dry matter basis. "It works for a short period of time, up until about 45 days, and then you start running into bloat problems," Lalman says.

Bottom line, both Jones and Lalman suggest arriving at the performance goal for program feeding, then work with Extension agents and nutrition specialists to design a cost-effective program capable of achieving the goal.

Of course, feeding this way isn't for everyone. For one thing, cattle need to be fed the same amount at the same time every day in a situation where all calves have a chance to get to the bunk. And you need to calculate and adjust the ration every couple of weeks as the cattle grow.

"Anyone who has difficulty maintaining a regular time schedule should think twice about program feeding. You can't be sloppy. You have to feed them at the same time every day and have the capacity to feed the right amount of feed. You can't guess at it," Lalman says. "Program feeding is all about you deciding what you want the cattle to consume and gain.

"You have to go at it with the right mindset and understand the principle behind it, which is feeding two-thirds to three-quarters of what the cattle would normally eat. You don't feed them hay, and it won't work in a pasture situation because you have to control what they consume," he adds.

Precision also extends to how cattle are sorted and grouped.

"The cattle need to be as uniform as possible in body type, weight, size, age, disposition and previous background," Lalman says. "The cattle also need to be healthy at the outset, which means most stockers will be taking the cattle through a traditional receiving program before beginning with program feeding."

Likewise, feed selection revolves around more than cost of gain and convenience. For instance, Lalman stresses, "Pelleted diets won't work with program feeding unless the pellet also contains cottonseed hulls or peanut hulls. The usual problem with a complete pelleted feed is it's not possible to maintain adequate roughage particle size to prevent rumen disorders and bloat. However, rations can be developed with only whole corn and specially formulated supplement pellets. With the whole corn program, the supplement and whole corn will have to be carefully mixed before they're fed."

The basic necessities of program feeding management include:

  • Adequate bunk space so most cattle can eat at one time.
  • Pens small enough that cattle can come up to the bunk when fed.
  • Scales or other methods of weighing out daily feed.
  • Roughage feeds to work the cattle up to a high concentrate diet.
  • Skill on the part of the manager.
  • Sufficient business management skill to assess the economic limitations and opportunities of limit feeding cattle.
  • A solid plan for use or sale of the cattle following limit-growing.
Find a detailed fact sheet on program feeding lightweight calves at pods.dasnr.okstate.edu/docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-80/CR-3025pod.pdf.