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Supplements are concentrated sources of nutrients that are added to the rations of cattle so that the forage or feed meets their nutrient requirements for growth, breeding, calving, and nursing.  If cattle are grazing, the supplement comes in many different forms: bagged, block, liquid, tub, box, or cube (a large pellet).  When feeding supplement on range, it is available 24-7 and we hope that all cattle will like it well enough that they will eat some.  In the feedlot. where cattle are confined, the supplement is added to the other ingredients, mixed, and fed as part of the ration.  Feedlot supplements are usually granular, liquid, or pelleted. If the cattle eat their feed, they will also eat the supplement daily. 


 If no supplement is offered or fed, we assume that the feed they are eating meets all their requirements. Unfortunately, in the Pacific Northwest this is a fantasy !!


Supplements come in many different nutrient makeups as well as the forms mentioned earlier.  Here are a few different makeups:  Trace Mineral Salt, Trace mineral Salt with Selenium, Protein (most include vitamins and minerals along with the protein).  The type of protein can be important.  Some protein supplements get virtually all their protein from urea, or other non-protein-nitrogen sources.  On the label, you will see a line that states Maximum Crude Protein from NPN or Non-Protein Nitrogen. This notation will be right under the line that says Guaranteed Crude Protein.  If there is no statement about NPN, you can assume that the protein is all from natural sources, such as peas, dried distillers grain, soybean meal, canola meal, or alfalfa meal.  There are also mineral and vitamin supplements that have Vitamins A,D, and E, and varying amounts of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and trace minerals.  Some of these products have salt added, while others don't.  The amount of vitamins and minerals is extremely important if the product is meant to supply what is missing from YOUR feed !  There is no silver bullet that will work in all circumstances.


Cattle perform up to a point where one single nutrient becomes limiting. Understanding and using this nutritional fact is the MOST important point when choosing a supplement.  For example, if you are feeding decent quality alfalfa hay to your calves, no protein supplement will improve their gain, or keep them healthy, because Protein is NOT the first limiting nutrient.  On the other hand if you have calves out on stubble in the fall or winter, no vitamin-mineral-salt product will improve their gain or health, because protein IS the first limiting nutrient and energy (or TDN) is right next to it.  


The best way to select a supplement is to start with feed or forage testing. Most feed testing labs offer a standard package that includes most of these: Dry matter, crude protein, fat, two or three different measures of fiber, and ash.

You should go farther and add tests for minerals (both macro minerals like Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium, and Sulfur AND 

trace minerals, Iron, Zinc, Manganese, Copper, and Selenium).  In some instances you may want to add Molybdenum where you have had unexplained breeding and health problems.  


Next, if you're not up to date on nutrient requirements of cattle, or used to deciding which minerals and how much is needed of each, get a nutritionist to review and interpret the feed test for you.  Unless you study nutrition daily, I don't think you will recognize how much a difference between 4 and 12 parts per million Copper will make to your livestock. 


Specialty supplements were not mentioned above.  Products to de-worm cattle, prevent flies, prevent bloat, and improve feed efficiency and gain can be added to virtually all different kinds of protein or mineral supplements.  No antibiotic can be added to any supplement without a VFD from your veterinarian.  He or she must provide the feed manufacturer with a written statement noting which drug, how much of that drug, and how much of the product with the drug that you can purchase.


Now you should be ready to choose the kind of supplement you need, so that you can compare prices for the products that will provide the most benefits for your cattle. 


Michael J Mehren, PhD is a livestock nutritionist testing the nutrient content of different beers available in Hermiston, Oregon.  He can be contacted by email at

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