How often and how much of a given feed should be fed to cattle are questions that many beef cattle producers ask. Producers looking to cut operational costs but maintain or improve cattle performance may consider supplementation frequency as something that could be modified in their operations. For many of these producers, labor is an important consideration in developing nutritional programs. Management practices that add to labor and time demands must be sufficiently justified by their impacts on animal productivity, health, or operational profitability. Likewise, nutritional practices that add operational expenses, such as additional fuel and repairs for tractors, trucks, and other feeding equipment, must evaluated for cost-effectiveness.
Self-fed supplements, for instance lick tubs or salt-limiting supplements, are a tempting option for producers trying to cut down on time and expenses devoted to feed delivery to cattle. However, cattle performance goals and unit cost of production considerations may steer producers in a different direction. For example, seedstock producers developing bulls targeting moderate to high growth rates are likely to seek out a supplement that is best fed by hand. Similarly, when producers pencil out the cost of various supplements on a dry matter per unit of energy and protein basis, they will often discover the convenience of self-fed supplements comes at a price. Then they wrestle with decisions on what other supplements might be feasible for their management systems and reasonable for their budgets.
The ideal number of feedings per week depends on the type of supplement being offered. Some feeds do not lend themselves to infrequent supplementation. For example, ionophores or other antibiotics delivered through feed as well as non-protein nitrogen supplements, such as urea-containing products, cannot be fed only once or twice per week. The ionophores and other antibiotics will not work as intended if fed infrequently, and the non-protein nitrogen feeds need to be fed more frequently to ensure cattle safety when consuming these products.
There are also differences between energy and protein supplements for optimum feeding frequency. There is substantial evidence that reduced frequency of protein supplement feeding to cattle consuming low quality forages has little or no effect on animal performance, despite lowering forage intake. Though, results are different when considering energy supplements.
Reductions in average daily gains have been observed when the feeding frequency is lessened using high energy supplements containing high levels of rapidly fermentable sugars and starches. Starches from grains in energy supplements are less disruptive to digestion in cattle on forage-based diets when fed on a daily basis than when fed less often. More grain must be fed per feeding when supplementation frequency is reduced. This can decrease rumen pH and/or cause an insufficiency of nitrogen in the rumen. The end result is that less frequent feeding of grain-based energy supplements can negatively affect fiber (forage) digestion in the rumen and hurt cattle performance.