Cattle Today

Cattle Today



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

Part 1

About this time of the year, thousands of families start countless cattle on feed in hopes of achieving show ring stardom! The cattle show circuit is a significant component of the beef cattle industry in the United States. Not that it drives the marketing or value of beef in the United States. It is often detached from the “real world” of beef cattle production in that what is selected in the show ring and what is desirable in the industry are a considerable distance apart. But, few, if any, segments of the cattle business extract the excitement and passion as that found in the show ring. Part of this is due to the fact that a large portion of it is related to our kids and their 4-H and FFA projects. This is how many folks get their start. Part of it can be related to the exceptional competition which comes into play. A bigger, more significant part of showing is that it gets into the blood and almost (maybe not almost), becomes an addiction. Cattle showing becomes, for many families, a central part of their lives and each week is spent preparing for the show they will travel to that coming weekend. And most importantly, if showing can be a tool for keeping our kids involved in agriculture, it IS an important part of our industry.

The dollars spent in this industry are phenomenal. When one considers the facilities and equipment and trucks and trailers and travel expenses (a HUGE expense at this time) it is obvious that this enterprise commands a substantial investment and that doesn't even include the cost of the animal's themselves or basics such as feed. And, as almost everyone is aware, feed costs have skyrocketed over the last year or so, making the feed cost portion of producing a quality show animal more substantial than ever.

In addition to the investment a lot of time and effort goes into the development of a successful show program. Notice I did not say show animal. Success in the show ring is seldom achieved the first time around or with the first animal. It normally takes years of work, learning and experience for everything to come together and the first Grand Champion to be won. While a lot can, in fact, be accomplished by spending enough money (a LOT of money in some cases), nothing replaces careful selection of the animal, long hours of work with that animal and a sound feeding program. This article will be dedicated to feeding and nutrition of cattle heading to the show ring. The main things you need to gain from this discussion are:

1) Show cattle are no different from other cattle nutritionally.

2) They need a sound, basic program.

3) The feeding and nutritional program must be designed to express all the genetic potential bred into that animal and management effort applied by the showman.

No Replacement for Sound Nutrition

Every year millions of dollars are spent on one additive or another that will “insure” show ring success. The first thing that absolutely has to be pointed out to anyone feeding a show calf, steer or heifer, is: THERE ARE NO MAGIC ELIXERS OR SILVER BULLETS. There is no “wonder” feed or other product that is going to guarantee your animal to win. Now, this needs to be qualified – there are some good nutritional “tools” that are available on the market that can enhance one factor or another of the animal's feeding program. But there is nothing that can replace sound nutrition and good feeding management. Every calf out there requires the same nutritional components – protein, energy, minerals, vitamins, water, air – whether that animal costs $1,000 or $10,000. Every calf requires a full measure of nutrition regardless of it's breeding if it is to reach its genetic potential.

Secondly, aside from the basics, every feeder of show cattle will have a different opinion on the “right way” it should be done and what works best for him or her. There is no perfect method and this is one of the reasons that it takes time to build a sound show cattle feeding program. You have to determine what works the best for you, your management style and the type of animal(s) you are feeding. But remember, for your program to work, the basics have to be correct.

Core Components

As mentioned, every calf requires the same basic nutrients – protein, energy, minerals and vitamins. I mentioned earlier the other two basic nutrients – air and water but these are given although we will discuss water intake a bit later.

Now, while all calves require these same basic nutrients they do require different levels of nutrients depending on several factors. These include:

1) Class or sex of animal – are you feeding a heifer, bull or steer?

2) Size or age of the animal – there is a difference in nutrient needs of younger, smaller, verses older, larger cattle. For example, younger cattle normally require a higher protein concentration in their diet to insure appropriate growth and development of muscle and bone (structural). These cattle will require a somewhat lower energy (starch or grain, fat) concentration to insure they do not get too fat, too soon.

3) Breed or Breed type – certain breeds require a higher level of nutrient intake to achieve similar results as compared to other breeds.

4) Growth or gain rate – what are your gain objectives? This can be “programmed” to a certain degree depending on when the cattle are to show or what weight class you wish to have them in. This is of concern primarily for steers since breeding cattle are generally grouped by age or birth date. If you are showing continuously and will take your animal to a number of shows it is important that you have the animal on a feeding program that will maintain appropriate body condition for its age. Show cattle are generally much better conditioned than the same calf just out on pasture.

5) Stress level – There are many types of stress. Most importantly we consider environmental (is the weather cold, hot, dry, wet?) and handling stress. If you are showing regularly, i.e., transporting and handling the cattle a great deal, this increases their stress level and they will require higher levels of certain nutrients especially vitamins and minerals to compensate.

6) Health – this can be coupled with No. 5 above. Cattle that are shown come in contact with other animals from around your area and beyond. You have no way of insuring the “healthfulness” of any cattle other than your own. In many cases your cattle will come into close proximity of others and can become susceptible to infections by organisms they have not been exposed to previously and for which they have no inherent immunity. For this reason it is very important to keep all vaccinations current. It is also important to keep cattle de-wormed. Internal parasites can consume a great deal of the nutrient meant for the calf. A show calf should be de-wormed every 4 to 6 months to insure internal parasites are kept in check.

The various nutrients have different functions in the body. Let's discuss these briefly:

Protein – Protein is the building block of the body and is the primary component of muscle and developing bone. Proteins are made up of smaller units known as amino acids and through the digestive process, dietary proteins are broken down, absorbed and reformed into the components necessary for the body's growth, development and maintenance. In addition to muscle and bone amino acids and proteins are used to make up enzymes, hormones, skin, hair, etc. Proper protein is critical for optimal growth and development of the show animal.

Energy – Energy is a difficult term to understand because like protein or the minerals it cannot be seen or touched. Energy is the “fuel” which drives growth (weight gain) and the function of all the systems in the body. Energy is produced for this purpose when the body breaks down nutrients components such as starch and fibers (both carbohydrates) and fat. Energy is also released when proteins are broken down. The primary source of energy for the show calf is starch, the primary carbohydrate found in grains such as corn, oats and barley. The next most abundant energy source will be from fat. Almost all feed ingredients contain some fat and it is common to add fat (mainly from vegetable sources) to the diet to increase the feed's energy density. This helps to increase weight gain. An interesting fact about fat feeding: one pound of fat added to the diet will provide 2.25 times more energy than a pound of corn (source of starch). However, it is important that fat is not over-fed since it can interfere with digestion or can cause the animal to become over-conditioned or too conditioned too soon.

The third source of energy is from fiber. Fiber is very similar in its molecular make-up to starch but small differences make it more difficult to digest. Thus fiber is not as good of a source of energy. Fiber is important in the diet though since it stimulates the digestive system, especially the rumen (first stomach) and keeps it active. Inclusion of appropriate fiber levels also help with gut “fill” or a look for fullness in the animal but this should not be excessive. Finally, keeping some fiber in the diet helps offset digestive upsets such as acidosis, bloat or founder.

Minerals – Minerals are divided into two groups. Macro minerals are those required in larger quantities and are involved in the body for growth (bones, teeth), nerve transmission, water balance in the cells, etc. These minerals are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sodium, chlorine and sulfur. Micro or trace minerals are required in much smaller amounts and are utilized EVERYWHERE in the body. These are cobalt, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc. Others required but not as well understood include chromium and nickel.

Vitamins – Vitamins are similar to trace minerals and are required in very small quantities but are essential to the normal operation of physiological processes. With cattle we normally supplement only Vitamins A, D and E. Other vitamins such as the B-Vitamins are not always supplemented since the bacteria in the rumen normally produce adequate levels of these vitamins for the animal's needs. However, on a high grain diet, typical to show cattle, supplementation of B-Vitamins as well as C and K could be useful.

Feeding Guidelines

Understand, as mentioned above that there are as many feeding programs out there as there are show cattle. You have to develop the one that works the best for you starting with sound basic information and going from there. The following is designed to provide you with this basic information.

There are many different ways to feed show animals. Many feeders use a commercial show feed purchased from a feed company. There are many types available and this normally insures a quality product that has been developed over time and is based on sound nutrition, research and experience. Other feeders prefer to mix their own show feeds. This gives them added flexibility and versatility but requires the inventorying of numerous ingredients and taking special care that the mix is consistent. Variability in mixing can cause cattle to go off feed. While this route is typically less expensive it is recommended that anyone just getting started in feeding show cattle should use a commercial feed until they are accustomed to feeding and have a good grasp of cattle feeding basics.

Whether you are using a commercial show product or mixing your own, it helps to understand some of the basic ingredients used in show cattle feeds. Feeds vary with the different regions of the country, but there are several basic feedstuffs that are the components of most show cattle rations. As discussed earlier, all ingredients cost much more than they did just a year ago, primarily because they follow the corn and soybean markets. As such in many cases in an effort to keep feed costs down somewhat, more emphasis are placed on by-products (discussion below) which tend to be somewhat lower in costs. Some of the more common feed ingredients include:

Oats – commonly used as a main show feed ingredient; oats are fairly high in protein and sufficient in fiber, thus provide for growth without adding excessive condition (fat). The ratio of fiber to starch in oats helps prevent cattle from experiencing digestive upsets such as acidosis, bloat, founder, etc. Oats can be fed whole, rolled or crimped. Processing helps increase digestibility of the grain

Barley - much like oats in its features, except that this feed is higher in energy, and will put condition on cattle. Barley is a very good show cattle ration component. Barley is normally fed rolled, crimped or steam-flaked.

Corn - used as a main ingredient in steer rations, this feed is high in energy and will induce rapid gains, and put on condition. Corn can be added to the ration in one of several forms including ground, cracked, crimped or steam-flaked. Once again, processing increases the nutrient digestibility and availability.

Alfalfa Meal or Pellets - used as a source of protein and fiber.

Cottonseed Hulls – fiber source. Provides a texture to the feed that cattle find very palatable.

Protein Supplements - there are many sources of protein (soybean meal, cottonseed meal, etc.). In some instances a protein supplement pellet may be used that contains sources such as those listed but may also include some urea. Urea can be used effectively in show cattle diets at low levels. However, given the cost of urea at this time, its use is not as common as in previous years

By-Products – Many feed by-products can be effectively utilized in show rations as long as their strengths and limitations are understood. These may include corn gluten feed (protein), soy hulls (fiber), hominy (energy), distiller's grains (protein), etc.

Minerals – required in relatively small amounts but essential to ALL physiological systems and critical to growth, development, immunity, etc. The minerals component of the diet MUST be properly balanced

Vitamins – Like minerals, vitamins are also fed at low levels but are absolutely essential to proper growth and development. Most important are Vitamins A and E.

Salt – Salt provides needed sodium and chlorine, two essential minerals in the diet. It can help stimulate intake and appetite at appropriate levels. Feed at a level of .4 to .6% of the diet. Do not over-feed.

Molasses – Liquid molasses is an important part of a quality show feed. It helps provide additional palatability and texture to the feed that the animal will find enticing. Additionally it helps “stick” the smaller or finer particles to the larger particles thus reducing “fines” in the mixture.

Feed Additives – Many products are available for many purposes including growth enhancement, improvement of feed efficiency, offset of digestive upset or stress effects, increased finishing, enhancement of hair-coat appearance, etc.

Once these components are mixed together you want a good quality, consistent mix, in other words, all the components mixed thoroughly. This should be true whether you are using a commercial product or if you are mixing it yourself. The feed should have a nice texture with a good ratio of larger to smaller particles. An over abundance of small particles creates a problem with “fines” or very fine material in the feed bunk. Cattle typically do not find these as palatable, especially since it may contain a large portion of the minerals and vitamins. This is one reason it is important to include molasses in the mix to help bind these particles to the larger feed particles. Another option is for these ingredients to be included in a pellet that can subsequently be added to the mix. The bottom line is for each mouthful of feed to be exactly like the next or the last.


The information above provides some of the very basic knowledge needed to understand feeding of the show animal (or any other animal for that matter). In the next issue we will explore some concepts of designing a show cattle feeding program based on this core information. Putting it all together will hopefully provide you with the foundations of a solid show cattle feeding and nutrition program.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is and nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs Texas. 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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