What Feedlot Cattle Eat

Hay? Corn? Hormones? Antibiotics? Rocks?!? Plastic?! Read all about it here.

The nitty gritty details on what our cattle do (and do not) eat on our farm.

My recent post (well, rant) about misinformation about “factory” farming has sparked quite the discussion. See all 1,782,589 comments here. Ok, its not that many, but it is a lot to me. 🙂 One thing that the commenters have been particularly interested in is what, exactly, we feed our cattle and what we medicate them with. Mr. Carlos Corredor, in particular, had some very pointed questions for me. You can view his website at www.timos.com.  I am going to post the questions, with his permission. He makes no bones about his disagreement with some of our farming practices, but he has been respectful and thought provoking in his dialogue. He, and all consumers, deserve clear and full disclosure as to what we are doing on our farms.
Carlos wrote:
Hello, Liz:
You and I have one thing in common: we are both gluttons, you for punishment, I for all the things I put in my mouth (as explained in my gluttony website, http://www.webgourmand.com). So, let’s add one or two more dishes to this little feast we have going right now.
There is a lot of information out there about how CAFO cattle are fed. I am sure some of it is true, some not. I would like to know about YOUR feeding practices – I’m talking not for industrial farming as a whole, but specifically for YOUR industrial farm that you and your family operate. I know that, presently, all the animal feed items I am about to mention can be fed to animals legally and with the blessing of the USDA.
I – and, I am sure, other guests – would like to hear your answers to the following questions:
– Do you feed your animals same species meat? For example, cow blood, other cow parts? Rendered pig carcasses to the pigs?
– Do you feed your animals what is known as “animal protein products” like feathers, hair, skin, hooves, blood, and intestines?
– Do you use any animal waste in your feed? (Manure, swine waste, poultry litter or wood, rocks, sand, dirt).
– Do you use plastic pellets to compensate for the lack of natural roughage/fiber in your feed?
– Do you routinely add antibiotics to compensate for crowded CAFO conditions or to promote growth?
– How do you deal with the digestive problems (like liver abscesses or high acidity) that cattle eating a lot of grain usually suffer?
– Do you use rGBH or any other artificial growth hormone?
I am assuming that if you choose to answer these questions, you will do it truthfully, yes?
I hope your temporary absence from this blog is not due to some serious problem. We are all looking forward to your return. Best regards,

And my reply:
Hello Carlos. I am lovin the questions. They are great ones.
Our cattle do not receive any animal byproducts, with one exception. Their mineral lick tubs contain feathers. The feathers are ground up, and serve as a source of protein for the cattle. I am not aware of any farmers in my personal network who use animal by-products. After the BSE outbreak a few years back, rules were tightened on the use of animal byproducts and most farmers eliminated them altogether, rather than take their chances.
Our cattle may inadvertently get some rocks or dirt in their feed because the hay or silage we feed them is in piles, near rock driveways. The cattle do not eat them, and they are hard on equipment, so we try not to make it a habit. Also, we have to pick them up out of the bunks before feeding their next meal. The animals’ manure is too valuable as a fertilizer to be used as a feedstuff, and I am not aware of anyone feeding it to their animals.
Plastic pellets for roughage? I have not heard of such a thing. Our cattle’s roughage needs are met through corn stalks, corn cobs, and hay.
We do have an antibiotic protocol on our farm that was developed with close consultation and approval by our veterinarian. The amount and type of medicine we use depends on a few factors: the time of year/weather conditions, the age of the cattle, where the cattle came from, and other discretionary issues. Ideally cattle do best in cool, dry weather. Calves born during the peak calving season are generally more robust. Older, heavier calves (around 600 lbs or bigger) transition to the feedlot better. Calves straight from the farm that have not been commingled with other calves or taken through a sale barn start better. We aim to buy cattle as close to these ideals as possible, to lessen the need for medical attention. It is not always possible, though, due to availability issues and seasonal supplies of cattle. And sometimes a group of cattle will just be healthier than others.
Anyway. For the first month after we receive a group of calves, we will watch them closely, and often do end up treating them with antibiotics. Some treatments are given to all the calves as a preventative. Using preventative treatments often prevents heavier use of antibiotics later on. We do look for individual calves who are ill and will sort them off to give individual treatments. Sorting them away from the herd for treatments causes stress. Preventative antibiotics means less stress and fewer sick animals, which translates to quicker recovery, minimal medication, and optimum health.
These illness issues are not exclusive to feedlots. We start many of our calves on pasture, and still have to address the cattle’s health with antibiotics. Even the cattle that we breed and raise on pasture ourselves can have issues when first weaned. Receiving cattle is much like the first week after school kids come back from a break, everyone has to get used to each other’s germs.
During this first month, the calves receive a very mild feed ration designed to help them handle the stress of a new environment. It consists mainly of hay, mineral supplements, and just a taste of distiller’s grains. After they are all acclimated and healthy, they are slowly introduced to more grain, although their diets are never 100% grain.
After the calves get acclimated (typically 1 month) to their new conditions in the feedlot, they do not receive traditional antibiotics. They have two different ionophores added to their feed, Tylan and Rumensin. Ionophores are not used in humans, and were specifically developed for livestock production. Technically they are antibiotics, but they do not work the same as human antibiotics. We feed ionophores to increase feed efficiency and prevent illness (yes, mainly liver abscesses). Both Tylan and Rumensin can be used in grass-fed cattle (and commonly are.) They are more of an immune system supporter, as opposed to a bacteria killer.
Finally, during the last month that the cattle are in the feedlot, they receive Optaflexx, which is a beta agonist. It is not an antibiotic, steroid, or hormone. It causes the cattle to stop producing fat, and channel that growth into muscle. Optaflexx helps to create a leaner beef product.
As far a hormones go, yes, we implant a small hormone implant into each calf’s ear (under the skin on the outer ear) with a specially designed needle applicator. We do not use rGBH, as that is only for dairy cattle that produce milk. The type of implants we use depend on whether or not the cattle are steers (male) or heifers(female). They contain synthetic forms of testosterone and estrogen . The implant is very tiny, about the size of maybe 10 grains of rice. It slowly releases hormones over the approximate 6 months the cattle are in the feedlot, to increase feed efficiency (less feed to produce a pound of meat). The dose is very small, increasing hormone levels only slightly. In fact, there are many vegetables that contain more estrogen ounce for ounce than beef does.
The cattle are grouped by sex, because they have different dietary requirements. When a girl calf (heifer) is in heat, she will get “rode” by others, even other heifers. Riding means that they jump up on the heifer who is in heat and attempt to breed her. Intact male cattle will exhibit the same behavior. This is a completely natural behavior, but it is hazardous. Cattle can break their backs or legs, be forced through fences, or receive other injuries from riding. It is a hazard of being a bovine, as these injuries can and do occur in the pasture as well. To prevent this, we feed heifer pellets, containing MGA, which suppresses heat and prevents them from hurting each other. Another option is to spay the heifers, remove their ovaries, just like you would a pet. Steers (boys) are castrated and do not need any supplementation to prevent riding.
Everything we feed and administer to our cattle is for their well being, as well as the consumer’s, and the environment’s. Increased feed efficiency means fewer resources producing a pound of meat and more comfortable cattle. The feed ingredients and medication are all administered according to FDA regulations, and in consult with a veterinarian and feed nutrition specialist. 
I know nothing other than to tell the truth. If there is anything that I think you and I can agree on it is this: The consumer deserves to know as much as they want to seek about the food they are buying, and it should not be difficult for them to get a full, honest, and satisfying answer. They may not be the answers you thought they would be, and you may not agree with my point of view or practices, but that does not mean that you shouldn’t get the answers you seek. We farmers must step out of our humble comfort zones and talk with our customers in terms that both parties can understand. There has been a disconnect between producer and consumer, both have become complacent, and misinformation has run rampant both ways.


14 responses to this post.

  1. Great information and very well presented, thank you. I agree with what you have said.

  2. Liz, my favorite part of this post is: “Everything we feed and administer to our cattle is for their well being, as well as the consumer’s, and the environment’s. Increased feed efficiency means fewer resources producing a pound of meat and more comfortable cattle.”
    It’s sustainable. Thanks for your detailed description and sharing your strong voice.

  3. Posted by Gayle on February 22, 2011 at 4:41 am

    Great article, well written and articulate. I learned a lot and hope that others will also.

    Glad to see you made it home and hopefully Justin is feeling much better!

  4. Sorry I missed this post earlier as it gave me some great info. I don’t know livestock too well and had a friend write a guest post for me about what cows eat for my background. This builds on it well by talking about your specific operation.

  5. Liz, well done!! You ROCK!! Thanks for being a great agriculturist and communicating in a truthful open manner right here on the net for all to see. There may be some things you mention that consumers can still get confused about, but those that really want to know will dig, and ask and communicate… thats what its all about… Keep up the great work…… IM eating a steak in your honor soon!!!

    • Thanks Bruce. I know it can be confusing to a consumer….I can’t imagine asking a computer technician to explain what he or she is doing in layman’s terms. I try, but it is hard to do. Communication is key, as well as admitting and asking when something isn’t understood. And, well, we all know what assume means. Enjoy your steak!

  6. Posted by Lori Anne on March 1, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Good Job Liz!

    I think Jeff Fowle recently said his cattle don’t get more than 15-20% grain (if I’m remembering right). What’s the most grain your cattle get (concentrate to roughage ratio)? And I assume that corncobs or stalks don’t count as grain even though they are part of the corn plant. We offer barley straw (what is left after the barley seed is harvested) to our grass-fed cattle, in addition to higher quality hay. Without the seed the barley stalk is just like any other grass stalk.

    I had heard about most of what Carlos mentioned-I think mostly back in my college days but I don’t think they are very commonplace. But what is fed often varies with what is available-cottonseed hulls, almond seed hulls etc are more commonly fed near where they are produced. So I imagine poultry litter would be most likely to be used near poultry production areas.

    I found Carlo’s questions about whether or not pigs ever get fed pig protein interesting. I don’t raise pigs (unless you count those two FFA pigs back in the dark ages) but I remember that they are omnivours and also tend to be canabalistic. So I suspect that before they were intensely managed many pigs ate other dead pigs. And if you think of old fashioned farms with a hog out back being fed on table scraps etc it almost certainly got some lard residues, meat scraps etc from pigs. I think it kind of sad when I see folks boasting about their chickens being vegetarians-not a very natural state for an omnivour!

    Keep up the good work and take care!

    Lori Anne

    • Hi Lori. On a fat ration, our cattle receive approximately 40% grain and 30% distiller’s grains. That is an as-fed basis, not dry matter. Here is the current fat ration we feed to 423 head: 494# liquid protein, 5500# distillers grains, 6950# earlage, 4300# of corn silage. So…they have about 30% roughage in their diet. They are on that diet for the last 6 months they are in the feedlot. I agree, livestock are fed what is available in their region. But, in Iowa….I can say with a deal of confidence, that Iowa cattle are fed plants and grain.

      Your comment on hogs is dead-on. If a hog is injured and bleeding, it must be separated from the herd, or its doomed…..same with chickens. My husband grew up with laying hens and tells stories of breaking eggs and the hens would flock to it to eat it. Yes, hogs and chickens are cannabalistic, and it’s not because they are confined….they do it in a natural environment too. It’s nasty….but also natural, behavior.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Thanks for reading my blog about starting on a feedyard. You are correct, we have a lot in common. This post is especially relevant to what I am also discussing and exploring. I think you are already achieving what I am hoping to do with my own blog: Provide straightforward information and insight to the world of Agriculture. I think you do an excellent job of being an easy read to those who are not so ag-inclined. Thanks for making everything so open and easy to comprehend, please keep up your work!


  8. Oh crap! Here is that Carlos again.

    Hi Liz, I wanted to share with you and your readers this very recent (March 27) interview with Joel Salatin, operator of Polyface Farms in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. This is related to the subject of this post since it talks about how animals are fed and handled at Polyface, not exactly a small farm. This is also proof that a farm can be run without the risks of biotech/GMOs, without dependence on Monsanto and that it’s OK to let a cow be a cow and a pig be a pig.

    Browse to http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/can-animals-save-us/joel-salatin-how-to-eat-meat-and-respect-it-too.

    I have not heard much from you lately. Everything OK?


    • Hi Carlos,

      Everything is fine. Just experiencing a little blog hangover I guess. I am working on a bunch of posts today, as this week is the first anniversary of this blog. I’m hoping to get back into the groove this week.

      I’ve got no problem with how Mr. Salatin farms. Let him have at it. It’s too bad he’s got a problem with how I farm, and uses that to market his product. But, quite frankly, I’m getting used to it. I can talk until I’m blue in the face about efficiency, animal welfare, and the reasons why we farm they way we do, but I’m afraid I’ll never convince you that I have the same respect for our livestock and the consumer as Mr. Salatin does for his. I’ve never said a farm couldn’t be ran without biotech. And we’ve been down the cow-ness and pig-ness road before. Animals simply do not care where they live or what they eat, as long as they are fed and comfortable. It’s not so much about the type of farm an animal is raised on, as it is about the care the animal receives. Improper care can be given to pastured animals, just as much as it can be given to confinement animals. It is unacceptable (and not profitable) in any system. Proper care can be given in any farming system as well. Its about the management of the farm, the dedication of the caretakers, and a solid foundation. Methods employed by farmers may differ from farm to farm, but more often than not, what drives successful farmers is the same.

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