Feeding Beef Cattle: Tips for a Healthy, Pasture-Based Diet

If you’re raising beef cattle, you’ll need to know the best feed options. Here’s the breakdown on grass, hay, alfalfa and more.

  • Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle
    Whether you’re a new farmer or experienced rancher, Heather Smith Thomas provides you with concise, helpful information about raising and feeding beef cattle.
  • Cattle grazing
    By grazing lush grassland, beef cattle take in adequate protein, energy, vitamins and minerals.

  • Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle
  • Cattle grazing

The following is an excerpt from Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle (Storey Publishing, 2009). This new edition to the best-selling classic provides health, handling, feeding and breeding advice to anyone raising beef cattle on their homestead or farm.

Forages (Roughages) and Pasture-Feeding

Forage (pasture, silage, hay) is the most natural feed for cattle. Ruminants do very well on forage but don’t grow quite as fast or get fat as quickly as when they are fed grain. Many young cattle are finished in feedlots on grain to save time and total feed. If grain-feeding can take an animal to slaughter readiness before going through another winter (on hay), it can be cheaper. But pasture is the most abundant and cheapest feed for other cattle.

Green pasture supplies cattle with all the necessary nutrition and energy. By grazing lush grassland, they take in adequate protein, energy, vitamins and minerals (unless soils are very low in certain important trace minerals). An exception may be early spring grass just starting to grow — making fast growth in which plants have high water content and lower percentage of actual nutrients by weight and volume. Quality of pasture depends on a number of factors, including:

• Type of plants grown
• Level of maturity of plants at harvest
• Adequate moisture during growth
• Soil fertility


If properly grown, cut at the right time (while plants still have high nutrient content, before mature and dry), properly cured and carefully stored to prevent weather damage, hay can be excellent feed for cattle, supplying all necessary nutrients. Legume hay has more protein than grass hay, and some grasses have more protein than others. Good grass hay that’s cut while green and growing can have a higher protein content than legume hay cut late. For optimal quality, hay should be cut before it is fully mature (before legume bloom stage and before heading out of grass seeds). If you cut hay when about 15 percent of the plants have bloomed, you get better volume and still have good quality. Good hay is green and leafy with small, fine stems.

Native grass hay has energy values comparable to legumes if harvested at the same stage of maturity, but about half the protein. Legumes such as alfalfa may have 50 to 60 percent total digestible nutrients (TDN), whereas mature grass hays have 45 to 50 percent TDN. Grass hay can be lower in phosphorus and is always lower in calcium than alfalfa, but a combination hay made up of alfalfa and grass is better for beef cows than straight alfalfa hay.

5/26/2010 11:54:24 AM

When hay in our area started creeping toward $8/60lb bale, I knew that it was time to do something about it. We have a miniature donkey and 3 Alpine milk goats that typically use 25 to 35 bales over the winter, depending on the severity of the weather. They eat off the land the rest of the year. So I figured that if our grass was good enough April through November, it was good enough the rest of the year too, so I set out to make my own hay. I have a tractor and a brush hog, but that is not the right equipment if you want to make hay. The tractor mashes the grass down and the brush hog just chops it into little bits that you cannot. I didn't want to spend a pile of money renting or buying equipment either. We are trying to be self-sufficient, and that means getting out of debt too. So I started thinking about how folks made hay before mowers and tractors, and one word came to mind, "scythe". I did some research and finally bought a European scythe with a 28" grass blade from The Marugg Company in Tracy City, TN. After a few short sessions, I finally got the feel of it and felt ready to take on my front pasture, all 2 acres of it. Scythes are wonderful things, they don't need gas, they don't break down, and they don't pollute, and they're quiet. On top of all of that they are great exercise. I now mow 2 acres twice a year with my scythe, and rake it up with a wooden hay rake I made myself. I get over a ton and a half of hay, and what the critters don't eat gets composted.

5/26/2010 8:38:18 AM

Where is the organic version of the implement feeding that is necessary in Northern environments- most of the sources mentioned did not seem to be organic in nature. Otherwise, it was a very informative article. Thanks!



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