There are a number of things to think through when evaluating protein supplements.
There are a number of things to think through when evaluating protein supplements.

Late summer is a time when producers frequently begin thinking about purchasing protein supplements for the upcoming fall and winter. There have been tremendous changes in commodity prices over the last 3-4 months so taking the time to look at the options and compare available feeds can ensure that producers are getting the most cost effective supplement for the money.

There are a number of things to think through when evaluating protein supplements.

WHAT IS THE QUALITY/SOURCE OF PROTEIN THAT IS IN THE FEED BEING OFFERED? Is it all natural protein or is there some non-protein nitrogen included as part of the ingredients? Non-protein nitrogen (NPN) sources such as urea are utilized well in high energy diets. However, they are not utilized well in diets that are predominantly low quality forage unless that NPN is fed in conjunction with a source of digestible carbohydrates such as soy hulls. When producers are purchasing protein supplements for cattle utilizing predominantly low quality forage, the optimal level of NPN to include will depend on the other ingredients present in the supplement, amount being fed, and the price of other protein sources.

WHAT TYPE OF PROTEIN IS PRESENT? When the percentage of protein in a diet is listed, it is listed as Crude Protein. However, there are two types of protein that are frequently discussed by nutritionists in ruminant diets. These are Degradable Intake Protein (DIP) and Undegradable Intake Protein (UIP). Degradable Intake Protein is broken down in the rumen and then used by the microbes to grow and reproduce. Protein that is not digested in the rumen but is digested in the small intestine is called Undegreadable Intake Protein. This protein is utilized directly by the animal because it is absorbed as proteins and amino acids in the small intestine. Immature cattle that are still growing frequently benefit from protein sources that are high in UIP.

WHAT IS THE PERCENTAGE MOISTURE OR WATER IN THE FEED? When evaluating and comparing feeds to one another, it is important to compare feeds to each other on what is known as a dry-matter basis. This allows different feeds to be compared to each other accurately based on all of the water having been removed. Feed test reports frequently show both an “as received” and a “dry matter basis” analysis. Knowing the percentage of moisture in a feed is essential to knowing what you really are getting when you purchase feeds. Protein sources that are high in moisture can be expensive to producers when getting them delivered to the ranch as well as getting them delivered to the cattle as much of what is being hauled is water.

WHAT IS THE AMOUNT AND VALUE OF OTHER NUTRIENTS IN THE FEED? Knowing the amount of Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN), which is a measure of energy, as well as vitamins and minerals present in the feed, can be useful when comparing feeds to one another. For example, distiller’s grains, either wet or dried, are an excellent source of protein, being about 26-30% crude protein on a dry matter basis. They also are a tremendous energy source in low quality forage based diets, being valued at 110 to 125% the value of corn. In addition, they are high in phosphorus, which producers frequently provide to cattle through a mineral program. Phosphorus is usually the most expensive mineral provided in a mineral supplement. Cattle being fed two to three pounds per day of distiller’s grains on forage based diets will likely not need any other phosphorus sources to meet their nutrient requirements. Thus a mineral mix without phosphorus could be purchased.

HOW MUCH WILL IT COST TO GET THE FEED DELIVERED TO THE CATTLE? Machinery, fuel, and labor needed to deliver protein supplements are expenses that cannot be overlooked. Because a cow is able to recycle extra nitrogen through her saliva, protein supplements can be provided two to three times per week rather than daily without sacrificing cattle performance. There are multiple research studies that show protein supplementation to cattle two to three times per week results in equal performance as compared to feeding cattle daily when a high protein, low starch supplement is being utilized.

HOW MUCH FEED WASTE/LOSS WILL OCCUR IN TRANSPORT, STORAGE, DELIVERY AND FEEDING? Accurately calculating ALL feed loss that will occur from when feed is purchased to when it is consumed by cattle is important when evaluating supplements. Calculating cost per pound of energy and protein actually consumed by cattle can give valuable insights into which feed is the most cost effective buy. The results may surprise you!

The UNL Extension Feed Cost Cow-Q-Lator (http://westcentral.unl.edu/agecon3)is an Excel® spreadsheet that allows producers to accurately compare feeds to one another. A UNL Webinar “Using the Feed Cost-Q-Lator” (http://go.unl.edu/8osw) is available at the beef.unl.edu website that demonstrates how the Feed Cost Cow-Q-Lator works. Producers have found this tool to be an efficient way to accurately compare feeds and purchase those that are most cost effective.