Benefits and challenges of feeding a higher grain diet to beef cattle


Source: OMAFRA

With the recent push towards lighter carcasses, more marbling and earlier slaughter, the role of high grain-corn diets has been reinforced. In some cases diets of whole corn plus supplement are fed for 90 to 100 days (no forage). However, before moving in this direction a number of factors need to be considered.

Market signals

This idea is based on the fact that it should be profitable. Producers frequently comment that the stated desires for lighter, better finished carcasses are not being rewarded in the form of cash. Ensure that a more profitable market really exits before buying into such philosophy and the associated risks!

Animal history

When considering very high grain finishing programs the history of the heifers or steers to be fed is important. Animals backgrounded on moderate quality forage diets tend to reach higher carcass weights if fed to the same level of finish as ones that enter the feedlot early. In the backgrounded animal, the lower energy diet allows for lean growth, but very little fat deposition. Furthermore, continental breeds tend to mature later, and begin depositing fat later. As a result, the spring-born continental-breed calf that is backgrounded and grassed for another summer enters the feedlot too heavy to allow it to develop finish without pushing the carcass size too high. To reduce this oversized carcass from cattle entering the finishing program too big and lean, very high-energy diets must be fed. High energy means high grain.

In recent years it has been shown that a higher energy level from weaning until beginning the finishing phase will allow the animal to begin laying down some fat. Furthermore, this will allow the animal to grow more quickly, and the shorter an animal lives the less energy is expended as maintenance. Faster growth gives an opportunity to save on the investment, feed and manure associated with longer birth to beef intervals and associated maintenance. Basically, two major options arise;

  1. Include grain in ration from weaning until slaughter
    • Corn silage or barlage or forage + grain, etc..
  2. Aggressive forage management
    • Feed excellent hay/silage in winter. Cut early and often!
    • Top notch grassing in the summer. No continuous grazing!
    • Alternate shipping times. That is, sell them earlier in the summer, as opposed to holding such animals all summer

Core energy in the growth phase (Accelerated Backgrounding) will allow the use of more high quality forage in the finishing diet.

Grain overload/acidosis

Dry shell corn can be fed as 90% of the diet for a period for one reason; the size of the particle is big enough and provides enough stimulation to act as roughage. Cattle need roughage! Barley is not ideal for an all grain ration. Processing corn can rob it of this roughage or scratch factor ability. For example, steam flaking can improve it by making large flakes. Other processing, such as dry rolling corn, create fines. In a high grain diet, such fines, plus the absence of the physically large whole corn-seed particle is a major acidosis risk factor! When corn in this form is a large portion of the diet, a fibre source must be used. In TMRs corn silage is ideal. Cattle suffering from acidosis will perform at less than their potential, and may have binge-purge eating habits. Other secondary health problems may also arise.

The quick and dirty

  • Make sure that “market wants” (rhetoric) are tied to “market signals” (cash) before pursuing new goals.
  • Increasing energy in backgrounding rations helps to reduce ultimate carcass size by making the achievement of finish easier. This Accelerated Backgrounding may also allow higher forage finishing diets to be used.
  • Higher grain diets are higher risk diets. Fines, intake patterns and the physical form of feed must all be considered to reduce the risk of acidosis and poor performance.


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