Balancing Feed Rations

The largest variable expense on a farm is the feed costs. Typically feed costs are what will make or break your farm as they are the single biggest expenditure for most livestock operation. In an already strange year, complete with less than awesome weather patterns, feed costs are all over the map. Maintaining oversight and control of your feed costs will in turn directly reflect on your bottom line.

There are three main variables to feed costs: the nutritional needs of the animal based on its stage of production, the type of feed available and the cost of the feed available. Balancing these variables will help you optimize daily gains, control costs and reduce waste.

Nutrient Requirements

There’s a lot more to feeding than just throwing a bale of hay out there and hoping for the best. Feeding the way you’ve always fed could be a waste of nutrients or show in subpar production yields. The key to knowing what to feed is to know what your animals need.

The nutritional needs of animals will vary depending on their size, age, gender and stage of production. Sometimes breed can have an impact as well. Most of the data for nutritional needs comes from the National Research Council and their research. There are books with the nutritional needs for most animals. You can find the books here.

For educational reading purposes, these are some summary resources on the nutritional needs of common livestock. It’s important to make sure that the resource is using the newest data available which is typically NRC 2007. The Merck Veterinary Manual has summaries as well.

For Canadian resources, the CFIA is in the process of updating the nutrient requirement tables and you can find the proposed new tables here. OMAF and most other provincial agriculture ministries have fact sheets for animal nutrition. Becoming an expert is not necessary but it’s very helpful to have a reasonable understanding of the nutritional needs of your livestock.

Common Terminology

Whether you use the tables or a feed ration program, you’ll need to understand many common shorthand terms for various feed components. Part of the analysis for feeds will include elements of the periodic table like Ca (calcium), P (phosphorus), Na (sodium) and K (potassium).

  • DM = Dry matter
  • TDN = Total digestible nutrients
  • CP = Crude Protein
  • NDF = neutral detergent fibre
  • ADF = acid detergent fibre
  • DIP = Degradable intake protein
  • UIP = undegradable intake protein
  • MP – metabolizable protein
  • NEm = Net energy for maintenance
  • NEg = net energy for gain
  • ADG = average daily gain
  • RFV = relative feed value
  • RFQ = relative forage quality

Feed analysis

Once you know the nutritional requirements of your animals, you need to know the nutritional value of the feed. There are standard tables available from numerous resources including and Feedipedia. This page has all of the terms on a feed table explained.

Regionally, some feeds will be more readily available than others. The following feeds are commonly found in Canada:

  • Corn (grain and silage) – high energy and usually a cheap source of calories. Commonly available in the eastern and southern parts of the country. It’s also frequently put up as silage, including in regions where there are insufficient heat units for grain corn.
  • Barley/Wheat/Oats/Mixed grains – typically used when corn is not available or as an alternative as it has less energy than corn. Some grains, like wheat, can only make up a percentage of the ration or they cause issues.
  • Canola (rapeseed) – fed both as a whole seed and as a forage crop typically to cattle. Canola is highly variable for feed quality and needs to be tested each time especially since it can contain too much sulphur.
  • Sorghum-Sudan grass – increasingly popular drought tolerant forage crop that yields decent relative forage values and is comparable to corn silage
  • Soymeal/Roasted beans – Soybeans are high in protein and typically the most expensive ingredient in feed mixes.
  • DDGS (dried distillers grains with solubles) – a corn by-production that is also high in protein. It does also contain high levels of sulphur so needs to be carefully balanced in the ration.
  • Hay – hay is a broad forage category that includes alfalfa, clover, fescues, ryegrass, bird’s foot trefoil, timothy and orchardgrass. Legumes like alfalfa will be higher in nutrients than a grass like timothy. Hay is highly variable and every source and cut of hay should have a feed analysis.
  • Peas – peas are a good alternative to both soybeans and corn as they have more energy than beans and more protein than corn. They are also frequently harvested as a forage crop with oats.

Putting a feed ration together

When you have identified the feed supplies available to you, the next step is to calculate feed rations for your animals based on their needs for their stage of production. Typically in livestock you will end up with a combination of the following feed rations:

  • Maintenance or dry
  • Early gestation (post-breeding)
  • Late gestation (shortly before birth)
  • Lactating (there may also be an early and late ration here)
  • Creep/nursing for the offspring
  • Growing (post weaning)
  • Finishing

Some of these rations can be combined depending on your management system. The maintenance and early gestation rations might be similar or the same in an accelerated production system. The creep feed and growing feed may also be the same to smooth the transition period after weaning.

The simplest way to get a balanced feed ration calculated for your livestock is to work with a specialized feed nutritionist. Most feed mills either have one on staff or are part of a network with access to a nutritionist. Sometimes these services are included when you agree to source all or most of your feed from that specific mill but there are also independent nutritionists you can hire on a consulting basis.

An alternative option is to use a feed ration program to create your own feed rations. The benefit of doing this is that you can test out various feeds and find the most cost-effective options for your farm. There are a number of paid and free resources available.

Value of Balanced Feed Rations

Once you have a balanced feed ration or a resource to make a ration, the final variable comes into effect, the costs of each feed. Balanced feed rations keep you from wasting ingredients while using the most cost-effective options. For example, you have access or can purchase the following:

  • Grain corn priced at $300 per metric tonne or 30 cents per kilogram
  • High-quality alfalfa hay 14% CP, RFQ of 170 at 87% DM priced at 15 cents per pound or 6.8 cents per kilogram
  • Lower quality July cut grass hay 5.6% CP, RFQ of 100 at 60% DM priced at 10 cents per pound or 4.5 cents per kilogram

In a maintenance feed ration for sheep, all of the following as-fed basis ration options yield similar nutrients (without mineral considerations):

  • 1KG of premium alfalfa hay ($0.07 per day)
  • 0.6KG low-quality hay and 0.6KG of corn ($0.20 per day)
  • 0.75KG low-quality hay and 0.5KG alfalfa hay ($0.07 per day)

This results in higher quality hay being the simplest cost-effective feed choice with one major issue, it has 50grams more protein than needed which will be wasted. Mixing the two hay quality results will optimize the nutrients available.

The cost of feed is impacted by a variety of factors. Buying in pre-made/manufactured bagged feed is generally the most expensive feed option. In order of cost (in general terms, from lowest to highest):

  • Home-grown feed
  • Bulk feed purchases of most kinds (other than manufactured)
  • Totes (500 kilogram is common)
  • Bagged manufactured feed like pelleted grower rations
  • Specialty ingredients like minerals and binders

Investing in on-farm storage options and equipment to mix feed is another way to reduce feed costs once your operation is large enough to support that kind of investment. The cost of feed will be impacted regionally by supply, availability (can it be grown locally), overall commodity prices and seasons. Having storage options can allow you to buy feed at a lower cost in bulk during harvest when prices tend to be lower on average.


Feeding livestock has moved well beyond a scoop of grain and a bale of hay. It is key to know the needs of your animals and the nutritional values of the feed available to your operation. Hay and silage feeds should always be tested to make sure the correct nutritional information is used in your feed ration calculations. When in doubt, work with a trained animal nutritionist that specializes in your species of livestock.

One a brief note, grazing livestock does not mean your feed costs are zero. Feed costs include everything your livestock consumes. If they are grazing and mostly consuming grass, the costs to grow that grass are part of the feed costs for your operation. Calculating the cost of grazing per animal would make up its own article and as a result, will not be included here. If you are grazing, keeping track of your costs can help you determine how to optimize your land base as well as feed costs.

  1. Bill Wood says:

    Thanks you give me a few more ideas for feeding my ewes

    • Ursina Studhalter says:

      No problem, happy to help! Hopefully one of the resources can help you find more alternatives.

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About the author

I'm Ursina, a farmer's daughter who dreamed of one day owning her own farm and made it a reality. I love reading, big sweaters and trail riding across my farm with my horse. My mission? To help others turn their farm dreams into a reality and build their own farm business.

Agriculture Annotated

For Canadian Farmers • By A Canadian Farmer


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