As some farmers face the probability of low-quality wheat this growing season -- in some cases below quality standards for milling -- they may need to look for alternative markets for their crop. One option is to use it as animal feed, but several factors need to be considered before incorporating this wheat into livestock diets.
Stephen Boyles, an Ohio State University Extension beef specialist, said that as a general rule mold-free wheat can be used to substitute up to 50 percent of the grain portion of finishing diets for cattle.
"While some experienced feeders have used larger amounts of wheat, I tend to recommend lower levels to people not familiar with feeding wheat," Boyles explained. "When feeding lower-quality wheat, limit wheat to 40 percent of dry matter or 50 percent of corn in the diet, whichever is highest. Also, you should take longer to build up to full feed than you would with corn, and carefully monitor consumption. I would not recommend using wheat in high-grain diets on self-feeders or in creep rations. Salt (7-12 percent) might be used as an intake inhibitor for cattle on grass using a self-feeder."
The way wheat is processed is also important. Boyles said that although the kernel must be cracked or broken, over-processing will result in the production of many fine particles that are undesirable, since the rate of wheat starch digestion in the rumen is very rapid. An excessive amount of fine particles will cause generally low and erratic intakes, digestive upsets, and poor performance.
"Rolling rather than grinding generally results in fewer fine particles," Boyles said. "If wheat is dry-rolled, it should be rolled or ground as coarsely as possible while still breaking all the kernels. Steam-flaking wheat can improve animal performance. Mixing grains should occur after grain processing rather than before. Mix wheat with silage, haylage or corn grain to reduce the risk of animals eating too much at one time."
There are a few problems associated with feeding wheat to cattle, Boyles warned. For example, when feeding high-concentrate rations, it is not advisable to change back and forth from wheat to other feed grains. Additionally, since wheat is a fast-fermenting grain in the rumen, problems of depressed feed intake, acidosis and abscessed livers have been reported. That's why it's crucial to limit the amount of wheat in the ration, mix it with other grains, and feed animals at least 15 percent roughage - making sure rations contain approximately 6-10 percent fiber.
"Buffering agents are added to overcome the problems of reduced feed intake when high-wheat rations are fed to cattle," Boyles said. "Adding 3.5 ounces of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) per head daily gives a slight improvement in performance of steers on wheat rations. A finely ground feed-grade limestone can also serve as a buffer. Adding an additional 1-1.3 percent of finely ground feed-grade limestone to wheat rations may give a slight improvement to performance of cattle. However, avoid increasing the calcium levels of the ration above 0.9 percent."
What about sprouted wheat or grain infected by head scab or vomitoxin? Boyles said sprouting does not appear to affect the nutritional value of wheat, but those feeding this grain to cattle must be aware that mold and fungal infestations are more likely with sprouted wheat - and feeding moldy wheat to livestock must be avoided to prevent mycotoxin poisoning.
Meanwhile, the occurrence of scab in wheat does not automatically mean vomitoxin is present, but high levels of scabby kernels in harvested grain should raise red flags. If molds or toxins are suspected, the best thing to do is to have the wheat tested.
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