Cattle Today

Cattle Today



by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

As we continue our discussion on managing our current economic situation in an effort to remain profitable or at least keep our heads above water, we have to re-evaluate the feeding and supplementation tools that are available to us. The use of liquid feeds is not new. Feeding molasses and similar products to cattle has been a common practice for over a century. The form and methods of feeding have changed significantly though. More producers are finding an application for the use of liquid feed products every day with other cattlemen asking questions such as: are they useful, cost effective, how do they compare to dry supplements, blocks, etc.? Will they fit into my program? One problem that the liquid industry faces is the great deal of skepticism which exists regarding the viability of molasses based products, although much of it is based on poor experiences many years ago. Fortunately, the liquid industry has come a long way in that time and the products manufactured today are based on years of experience as well as sound academic and industry-based research. The liquid feed industry was born to meet a couple of different needs. One, to provide a convenient, economical means of supplementing the nutritional needs of cattle. Two, to utilize a growing supply of liquid by-products from a host of feed and grain processes. While the cost of ingredients common to liquid feeds such as phosphoric acid and urea have gotten quite expensive, opportunities still exist to implement liquid programs in different cattle operations. Let's take a detailed look at liquid supplements, their applications, the pros and cons.

Basic Principles

Initially, liquid feed was composed primarily of molasses, urea and maybe a little water (sometimes a LOT of water). With the growth of the sugar industry (cane and beet) molasses became plentiful and a need existed then and now to use it in an economically feasible manner. Molasses was a logical carrier for the non-protein nitrogen (NPN) of urea and other sources such as biuret because of the presence of significant quantities of readily fermentable carbohydrates (sugars, starches, etc.). These carbohydrates are quickly broken down by ruminal bacteria and act as an easily accessible energy source for the metabolic reactions utilizing urea and converting it to microbial protein. This is vital to the utilization of non-protein nitrogen by the rumen bacteria.

Over time a number of factors emerged which demanded alterations in this simple formulation and manufacturing of liquid feeds for cattle. These factors included:

1) Research showing the need for other nutrients in cattle diets to maximize productivity.

2) Increased availability of liquid by-products from other industries which proved valuable in liquid feed manufacture. Some of these other by-products include but are by no means limited to:

a. Corn Steepwater – a by-product of corn sweetener production

b. Whey – a by-product of cheese production

c. Condensed Molasses Fermentation Solubles - Alcohol and yeast

d.      Condensed Brewers Solubles – a by-product from beer brewing

e.      Corn or Milo Distillers Solubles – Alcohol/Ethanol

f.      Lignin Sulfonate – a by-product of the paper milling industry

These by-products can be obtained relatively cheaply and are generally easily incorporated into feed formulations. In many cases, this will typically reduce the cost of manufacturing as long as nutrient composition is considered as well as palatability and physical handling properties.

3) Research into a multitude of ingredients which illustrates usefulness in cattle feeds when properly handled. Such ingredients include phosphoric acid, ammonium poly-phosphate, fat products, feather meal bloodmeal and a host of others.

4) Technological advancements in the feed industry. Such advancements include suspension capabilities which allow for the use of non-soluble ingredients such as limestone or feathermeal. Ingredients such as these would tend to settle out of a conventional liquid. By using suspending agents such as attapulgite clay or xantham gum, it is possible to hold these insoluble products within the liquid for extended periods of time.

Through the acceptance and implementation of these and other factors, current liquid feed products tend to be highly technical, value-added products which, when fed as a supplement, can provide for virtually all the nutrients needed by the cow on hay or pasture.

It has been stated that liquid feed manufacturing is the making of silk purses from sow's ears. In many cases this statement is very true. With the increase in the cost of molasses and the availability of liquid by-products from other industries, as discussed above, the use of these by-products has become increasingly common in the manufacture of liquid feed. Some of these by-products are not very “pretty” in the beginning.

One issue that has to be considered with the liquid feed manufacturing process is ingredient variability. All by-products, liquid or dry, suffer from some degree of variability in dry matter content, nutrient composition and physical characteristics such as color or smell. Take a look at Table 1. Note in some of the by-products, the range of normal values found. This variability is due to a number of factors. These include source of the product, base material from which the product is extracted, efficiency or technology employed in the refining process. As with dry feed ingredients you have to remember that these by-products are not the main product coming out of the process, they are simply the left-overs and subsequently not as subject to quality control efforts. This is why it is important that the company you are purchasing a liquid feed product from has an excellent quality control program and a technical staff well versed in dealing with the product variability. Even with these things in place you can still expect to see some variation in the liquid supplements you receive in terms of color, thickness or viscosity, odor and palatability.

Making a Complete Product

Over the years, a number of other ingredients have been discovered to have nutritive value in liquid livestock feeds. The table below discusses a number of these ingredients and their utilization.

Although this list is not comprehensive, it does include many of the most widely used ingredients. As research and application continues, more ingredients will become available for use in liquid feeds.

Pros and Cons of Using a Liquid Program

The two most common uses of liquid feeds and liquid supplements are as free choice pasture supplements and as a feed conditioner and carrier of nutrients, medications and additives onto a mixed ration.

As pasture supplements, liquid feeds are fed most commonly in lick-wheel feeders which provide access to the liquid by the cow licking a wheel mounted in the lid of the feeder which rotates down into the tank. The feed sticks to the wheel and is licked off by the cow. In some circumstances the feed is provided in an open-top trough or feeder where the cows simply drink the product. Product fed in this manner is typically lower in dry matter and may be somewhat less stable. Intake control is also more difficult. The advantages to the use of liquid pasture supplements are convenience of supplementation and relatively low cost as a source of critical nutrients. In our current society where labor is always in short supply, convenience is a major factor. For smaller operations, a liquid feed dealer delivers the product out and fills the tanks on a “keep-full” basis or when the producer calls and orders feed. In this situation, the producer does not handle the product at all except to possibly move the tanks from time to time as needed. In many cases the dealer can even be expected to move the feeder if necessary. In some situations, a dealer may even provide the feeders in which the product is fed. This is not overly common and should not be expected. Liquid feeders are extremely cost effective. With large lick-wheel feeders which have 4 wheels a producer can easily supplement up to 100 mature cows (25 head per wheel). If a feeder costs $180.00 the cost per head is $1.80 per head. Compare that to a conventional trough-type, dry product feeder which typically averages $5.00 to $8.00 per head. Larger cattle operations may, in fact, have their own storage tank and delivery unit. The producer or his labor force will be required to fill the tanks as necessary.

Another application which is becoming increasingly popular is placing liquid tanks in receiving pens for newly arrived feeder cattle. Several small feeders can be placed in each pen, right along the fence lines. Often these are simple open-top feeders which make it easy for the cattle to smell and eat as they walk the fences. The product is lower in protein, especially NPN, than typical liquids and higher in dry matter and sugars as well as other critical trace minerals and vitamins. This provides an easily available source of energy and other critical nutrients for these stressed animals.

A potential down-side of supplementing cattle with liquid feeds is that intake can be somewhat erratic. In situations where lush grass is available, cattle will not eat as much product, in some cases little if any. In other situations where grass is mature and dormant or hay is of poor quality or possibly not plentiful in supply, they may eat considerably more. In general the producer has to look at liquid feed intake on an average consumption basis. A good average to shoot for is about 2.0 lbs per head per day and evaluated over at least a month's period of time and even better, 2 to 3 months. On a day to day or week-to-week basis there are two many factors which can affect intake up and down. Additionally, a 2.0 average intake can provide a fairly adequate intake of critical nutrients. Extremely low intake products (1.0 lbs or less) are limited in effectiveness because they simply do no deliver adequate volumes of the product. Prolonged excessive intake is also not to the producer's advantage since it does become expensive and the cow is obviously eating the supplement instead of getting out and foraging when she should. Most manufacturers are able to control intake to some degree by manipulating palatability, pH or nutrient content which can help hold intake in check.

Bulk product which is added onto a dry feed mix serves several purposes. One, it improves the palatability of the feed by reducing dustiness and helping fines stick to larger feed particles. Two, it provides a very good carrier for protein (primarily from NPN), trace minerals and vitamins, fats and medications. Third, it is a very cost effective means of adding these materials since the storage and delivery system is very simple, requiring a tank, a pump and some simple plumbing as opposed to elevator legs or augers.

Comparing Liquid Products

One of the best places to start evaluating a liquid feed on the feed tag. Any time you purchase a feed or supplement, the supplier is required to give you a tag which indicates an approved format with the guaranteed levels for the specified nutrient.

Crude Protein Concentration

Total crude protein and percent equivalent protein derived from non-protein nitrogen (NPN, urea or similar) are on the feed tag. Natural protein can be calculated from these values as: natural protein (%) = total CP (%) - equivalent protein derived from NPN (%).

Energy Concentration

It is difficult to compare the energy concentration of different liquid supplements because common energy values such as TDN are not given. The following feed tag values will assist in making such comparisons.

1) Moisture content. A liquid feed can contain from 20 to 40% (or more) moisture. Water contributes no energy and a liquid feed with less moisture usually has a higher energy value.

2) Total invert sugar. Like starches in conventional grains, sugars are the major source of energy in most liquid feeds. The higher the better.

3) Fat content. Fat contains 2.25 times the energy of sugar or starch. The addition of fat increases the energy value of a liquid feed. Fat is known to have additional metabolic benefits when used as a dietary component, especially as related to reproductive function.

4) Ingredient composition. Good ingredients for making liquid feed are cane, citrus, beet and corn molasses. Grain distillers solubles and molasses distillers solubles provide more protein and vitamins than molasses, but the energy value is much lower than the original molasses because sugars have been fermented into alcohol.

5) Estimated TDN. The TDN value of a liquid feed can be estimated using the above values with the following formula: TDN = total invert sugars (%) + natural protein (total CP - NPN) (%) + fat x 2.25 (%) + 8 x ((100 - % moisture) ÷ 78).

Minerals and Vitamins, other additives

Minerals and vitamins in liquids are less important than protein and energy and may not be needed if cattle consume adequate levels of a good mineral/vitamin supplement fed separately. However, virtually all better-quality liquid supplements contain a mineral and vitamin component of some type. Liquid feeds can be an excellent source of phosphorus because of the use of phosphoric acid which is a highly available source. However, the levels of phosphorus may be diminished in many products due to it's current cost.


The liquid feed industry provides an economical, labor saving means of improving cattle productivity. The added convenience and cost effectiveness of this supplementation method is gaining in popularity every year as more cattlemen become familiar with the applications As we learn more about the nutritional needs of these animals and the opportunities in use of liquids to meet these needs, the possibilities appear virtually endless. The task lies in improving the industry and educating the producer in a few important areas. Understanding the limitations and using the product correctly can go far toward profitable supplementation.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at [email protected] For more information please visit


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