Feed and bedding alternatives


Source: Government of Saskatchewan

When choosing feed for livestock, consider its nutritive value, bulkiness or lack of bulk, presence of other substances and health problems related to its use.


Dehydrated alfalfa pellets and cubes

Dehydrated alfalfa pellets consist of finely ground artificially dried alfalfa forage in 1/4-inch diameter pellets. They can replace up to 14 pounds (6.3 kg) of forage in dairy rations. In beef cow rations, about five pounds (2.3 kg) daily can be used to supplement cereal straw. Alfalfa cubes can be used as the only forage for dairy cattle, but fewer problems are encountered when at least five pounds (2.3 kg) of long hay are also fed. Dehydrated alfalfa pellets may also be used for sheep.

Dehydrated pellets can also be used as a protein supplement when fed with low-quality roughage.

Slough hay

If adequately supplemented, slough hay can provide the forage requirements of beef cattle, sheep and dairy replacement animals.

The feed value for slough hay is usually higher than cereal straw, and can approach that of brome grass hay. Slough hay is more variable in quality than tame grasses. Generally, fine grasses are higher in value. The coarse material is less digestible and will need supplementation with grain to meet the energy and protein requirements of wintering beef cows. Harvest should occur before killing frost because frozen slough hay will deteriorate quickly to the equivalent feed value of cereal straw.

Grain crop hay and silage

Cereal hay is suitable to provide the forage component of rations for all classes of beef and dairy cattle and sheep, and should be equal in value to good-quality brome grass hay.

Wheat, oat, barley, rye, pea, lentil, chickpea, canola and mustard crops can be used for livestock feed. Harvesting cereal crops should occur between the heading and mid-dough stages, and should be timed to retain as much leafy material as possible. Rye hay loses palatability and protein content rapidly after flowering. Canola and mustard crops should be cut during the late flowering to early podding stage.

Good-quality cereal hay or silage is about equivalent to brome grass hay in energy and protein content. Oat, mustard and canola crops that have frozen or have suffered from severe drought prior to harvest should be checked for nitrate content and the ration adjusted if significant amounts of nitrate are present. Canola and mustard crops contain high levels of sulfur. Feed at levels up to 60 per cent of the total ration. Supplement these rations with salt and minerals which contain high levels of copper to avoid copper deficiency problems.

Native grass hay

Native grasses are suitable for use in most beef cattle and sheep rations, and can be used for replacement dairy cattle and, if necessary, for milking dairy cattle. These grasses approach brome grass hay in protein and energy content. Stands which are more than one year old can be used, if available. Care should be taken to avoid cutting while the spears are present on Needle and Thread grass, generally during July and August.

Roadside hay

Roadside hay primarily consists of grass hay (bromes, crested wheat) and some clover or alfalfa. When harvesting and feeding it, watch for glass and other foreign material that might be present.

Russian thistle

It may be used for hay when other forages are not available. Russian thistle can make up a significant portion of rations for beef cattle and sheep, but feed it in very limited amounts to dairy cattle. It is usually equal to fair quality hay in protein content, but is lower in TDN. It is a surprisingly palatable feed. Because of its high ash content, it may cause cattle to scour if fed in large amounts.

False or Wild Barley (Foxtail)

Foxtail has awns which, if fed in large quantities, can become impacted in the mouths of cattle, sometimes causing abscess to form. Use this forage cautiously. Grinding it through a hammer mill may help to break up the awns. Hay with a lot of “foxtail” is unpalatable and should be avoided.

Kochia weed

Kochia weed, if harvested before it matures, makes excellent cattle feed. It is as high or higher in energy and protein as good alfalfa hay. The high mineral content results in it having an extremely laxative effect. Kochia weed should not make up more than 30 per cent of the total diet.


Fresh cereal straw

Straw is a good alternative in wintering rations for cows and sheep if properly supplemented with an energy source like grain and with added minerals and vitamins. All cereal straws can be fed, with oat and barley straws being preferable because they are more palatable. Straw can be used in combination with other feeds as the sole roughage for beef cows. However, its use should be limited to eight to 10 pounds (3.5 to 4.5 kg) to maintain milk production in dairy cows.


Year-old straw should also be considered a feed source. It is usually slightly more digestible and palatable than fresh straw. Inspect year-old straw for mouldy pockets and spoilage due to weathering. Do not feed mouldy feedstuffs to pregnant or lactating cows.

Ammoniated straw and chaff

Ammoniating straw and chaff will improve their feed value and increase consumption. Calculate the cost of ammonisation before treating straw. Ammonisation reduces but does not eliminate the need for grain.


Chaff can be used in a similar manner to straw in rations for beef cows and sheep. It contains some grain and weed seeds, making it slightly better in feed value than straw. However, it still must be supplemented with minerals, vitamins and an energy source such as grain. Producers have left chaff piles in fields to be grazed or fed in combination with wintering rations.

Feeding on the ground can waste up to 50 per cent of poor-quality feed. Using tombstone-style feeders or electric fences greatly reduces waste by forcing the animals to clean up the chaff piles. Using chaff as feed leaves the straw on the land to prevent erosion.

Flax straw

It is considered to be of lower feeding value than cereal straws. It is coarse and fibrous and, as a result, cannot be processed, but is readily eaten by cows. If frozen, it should be tested for prussic acid, which can be poisonous. Energy and protein must be adequate to guard against rumen impaction. Research at the University of Saskatchewan shows flax straw can be ammoniated and will make an adequate forage base for wintering beef cows.

Protein Supplements

Liquid protein supplements. Liquid protein supplements can be used as part of balanced rations for ruminants. Most of the liquid protein supplements are mixtures based on molasses, and contain urea and/or preformed protein, supplemental minerals and vitamins. Read the label carefully to regulate the amounts animals receive or the amounts to be mixed in the grain rations. Most liquid protein supplements are low in calcium and usually require a calcium mineral supplementation. Do not feed with other feeds containing urea or with ammoniated straw or chaff because toxicity may result. Do not feed straw and liquid protein supplement only. Some grain or quality hay is required to provide sufficient energy.

Canola meal

The meal produced after oil is extracted from canola contains about 35 per cent protein and as much TDN as oat grain. It can be used as an alternative to soybean meal. If oil meals are used in place of commercial protein supplements, pay special attention to minerals and vitamins in the rations.

During a cold snap, cattle on low-quality roughage need extra energy and protein to prevent rumen impaction.


Western grain screening pellets (GSPs)

These contain a mixture of grains, wild oats, weed seeds, chaff, hulls and some dust. The contents are finely ground and pelleted. They are similar to oats in feeding characteristics (11 to 12 per cent crude protein and 65 to 69 per cent TDN). The amount fed to milking cows should not exceed six to eight pounds (2.75 -3.5 kg) per head daily. They can also be used to supplement roughage (replacing cereal grains) when feeding beef calves and cows, and replacement dairy heifers. Because of their fine particle size and the characteristics of some of their ingredients, digestive upsets such as bloat may occur if pellets comprise a large proportion of the total diet (i.e. greater than 75 per cent).

Fortified Grain Screening Pellets

These pelleted products are similar to GSPs, but are fortified with minerals (calcium and phosphorus), trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese, selenium) and vitamins (Vitamin A, D and E). They may also contain added ionophores to help prevent bloat. These pellets can be purchased with crude protein levels ranging from 11 per cent to 16 per cent (or higher).

Pelleted flour mill by-products

Pellets containing 15 per cent protein, three to six per cent fat, 12.5 per cent fibre and 65 to 68 per cent TDN may be available in some areas. They consist of wheat bran, broken kernels and weed seeds, making them comparable in feed value to oats. They still must be supplemented with minerals and vitamins.

Canola fines screenings

These consist of small or broken canola pods, chaff and small weed seeds. The composition is about the same as whole canola. Because the oil content is high, the amount fed should not exceed 10 to 15 per cent of the total ration as there may be an effect on rumen function or carcass quality.

Canola coarse screenings

They are made up of pods, broken stems and dust, along with some cereal grain and larger weed seeds. They have about the same feed value as light oat grain.

Lentil screenings

Lentil screenings or lentils rejected because of ascochyta blight discolouration make a good protein source for cattle rations. Crude protein varies between 18 to 24 per cent. They can also be used as an energy source.


Barley, oats, wheat and rye are grains commonly used in rations.


It is medium in energy (75 per cent TDN) and protein (10 to 12 per cent) among the cereals. It may be used successfully as the only grain ration for all animals. Its use is widespread in the grain portions of livestock rations, but it may also be used to replace part of the roughage, and is a better choice than heavier grains (high energy) such as wheat and corn. Combining barley with very poor roughage sources will give a feed mixture equivalent to high-quality roughage (alfalfa hay, clover hay or brome hay).


This cereal is the lowest in energy (68 per cent TDN) and compares with barley grain in protein (10 to 12 per cent). Oats can be used as the only grain in beef cattle and sheep rations, except when roughage quality is very low. Oats contain 10 to 12 per cent fibre, and may be used to dilute heavy grains to avoid overfeeding energy. Among cereals, oats are the closest to roughages, and make a good roughage replacement.


It is a high-energy (80 per cent TDN), high-protein (13 to 15 per cent) cereal. It should not be used as the only grain when fed at very high levels because problems with digestive upsets and acidosis may occur. It makes an excellent grain ration ingredient, when the quality of roughage is low in terms of energy and protein. It should be rolled or coarse-ground except when fed to sheep. Sheep chew whole grains thoroughly, so grinding or rolling the grain is not necessary.


Rye is similar to wheat in its nutritive value (80 per cent TDN, 13 to 14 per cent protein), and can be used at low levels in the diet. Rye should not make up more than 40 per cent of ruminants’ grain rations due to palatability problems. Also, rye is the most susceptible cereal to ergot infestation.

Other Feedstuffs

Pea vines

The residue from field peas and lentils is a satisfactory feed that is about equivalent to low-quality grass hay in feed value. The palatability is good.

Brewers mash

This by-product of malting barley can be used as a feed in either wet or dry forms. It is medium-to-low in energy (70 per cent TDN of dry matter), but high in protein (25 per cent of dry matter). It is an excellent source of B vitamins.

Bakery waste

Stale bread and other baking products may be ground and used as a replacement for cereal grains. Because of the fine particle size, it should be mixed with other concentrates and limited to about 10 per cent of the total ration.

Grinding Roughages

When hay and straw are scarce, grinding or shredding has several advantages. Animals cannot sort as easily and will eat everything, reducing waste. Low-quality roughage can be mixed with higher quality roughages and the cows have to eat it all. Feeds with high nitrate levels can be diluted below the toxic level.

Animals can eat more poor-quality roughage, and therefore they grow faster and maintain themselves more easily, if it is ground rather than being left uncut. However, if energy and protein supplementation is not adequate, rumen impaction can be a problem.

There is no point in grinding forage for beef cows if they can get enough to eat without grinding. Grinding increases cost, encourages over-consumption and could lead to impaction. Grinding forage can be worthwhile if mixing it with quality feeds, and limiting feeding to prevent waste.

If hay or straw is tough or damp, it is harder to grind and will take more power to process. Dry forages grind better and require less power. A three-quarter inch (1.91 cm) screen is the best size for best forage intake, reduced bridging and feed particle separation in complete rations.

Restaurant grease, tallow, mineral oil, crude vegetable oil, molasses and water have all been used to reduce dust problems. If water is used, the cut feed should be consumed within 24 to 48 hours to prevent heating.

Bedding Material

Bulrushes, willows, buck brush and other woody material are best used during shortages, if ground or shredded.

These products are generally not well-digested by cattle or sheep. Limited quantities pres­ent in hay are not harmful, but enough hay should be provided to allow animals to sort out and reject the woody material.


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