Fall Protein Supplementation for Commercial Beef Operations

By Derek Finck

Beef cattle production systems in the Pacific Northwest are centered around forage availability and quality which vary depending on season and precipitation.


Traditionally, spring calving beef cows are turned out starting in late spring and are not brought back in until the around the time snow starts flying.  Forage quality from spring to fall is generally high, and cattle require no protein supplementation.  

Dry matter crude protein content of grasses during this time can range upwards to 20%, providing both adequate energy and protein concentration to maintain and improve cow body condition score and nurse a healthy calf.

Snow pack for many areas in the Northwest was considerably less than average last winter, which could lead to both limited forage availability and an earlier decline in forage quality.  

Short water means short forages, possibly leading to early weaning. In situations such as this, protein most often becomes the most limiting nutrient to the beef cow, and consequently, is the most expensive to supplement.  

When the protein concentration in standing forages drop, a cow cannot consume enough forage to meet her crude protein requirements.


This will cause cows to lose body condition going into winter unless additional protein is supplemented.  

Utilizing existing standing forage is key to maintaining profitability in a beef cow herd, so it is beneficial to find ways to supplement protein while allowing cows to continue grazing.  

This can be done in several ways, including liquid feeds, protein blocks/tubs, high-quality hays, high protein by-products, and range cubes.  

Alfalfa hay is the traditional supplement used in the Northwest, but rising hay prices has recently made other choices more appealing from an economic standpoint.  Both liquid feeds and protein blocks can offer the advantage of convenience because they are self-limiting and do not have to be fed as often, saving time and fuel.  

High protein by-products such as canola meal or distillers grains offer a cost effective solution, but logistically, delivery to the cattle is often more difficult. Range cubes are popular in other parts of the country but are rarely utilized in the Northwest.  

Non-protein nitrogen in the form of urea often makes up a portion of the protein in various supplements.  Urea is beneficial as long as it is used in conjunction with natural protein sources, and can decrease cost per unit of protein.  

Regardless of which form of supplementation fits your operation, remember:

it’s a lot cheaper to maintain body condition in the fall than it is to put weight back on a cow during the winter.