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How to Grow Beef Cattle Feed on Your Homestead

Sarah Hamelman

Let me preface this article by saying that we can grow 100% of our goat, rabbit, and chicken feed right here on our little 20-acre homestead in NW Montana. That self-sufficiency ends with cattle.

I have hand-cut hay before, and I’ve found that 0.25 acres of hay per day is very achievable. Someone with no distractions and a full day could likely cut 1/2 an acre per day. Depending on your region, you would need to cut between 1/2 an acre to 3 acres of hay per cow per year (assuming you give them no pasture). So, the labor of cutting the hay is surprisingly better than I thought, but this is still not very feasible for our little homestead.

Montana is a range state, and getting permits to graze cattle in the neighboring Kootenai National Forest is relatively easy. Still, even with the ability to graze them on 2.2 million acres in the summer, I don’t see it possible for us to grow all of their feed here on our homestead.

Our soil quality is too poor to justify growing this. To make it work, we would need to clear-cut trees, irrigate, and truck in about five acres worth of topsoil. Still, I loved getting into the numbers of this, and I hope what I found is helpful or at least entertaining for you, too.

And let me add this disclaimer– this article should be your starting place and not your one-stop shop. I am one person, I have biases and a limited perspective.

Please use this to help yourself start asking good questions and then go to your local trusted cattle producers for answers.

Local farmers are going to be so much more helpful than I am. All of the information I am sharing below came from people who are much more educated than I am, so of course, I am linking all of these sources accordingly throughout this piece.

What Do Beef Cattle Eat?

Cattle mostly live off grass, hay (dry grass), alfalfa, and herbaceous perennials (weeds). Modern cattle are sometimes “finished” with grains or other feed products during the last few months of life to increase their fat content, some are fed a small portion of grain for a majority of their life. I’ll get into the specifics of these grains or feeds in a section below.

Common forages include:

  • kentucky bluegrass
  • Red clover
  • Timothy hay
  • Grass hay
  • Ladino clover
  • Orchard grass
  • Brome
  • Fescue
  • Lespedeza
  • Soybeans (baled)

Common feed ingredients include:

  • ground corn
  • soybeans (meal, hulls, crushed, etc)
  • recleaned whole oats
  • processed grain by-products,
  • cottonseed hulls
  • cane molasses
  • animal fat
  • vegetable oil
  • brewers dried yeast
  • wheat middlings
  • rolled barley

It Depends on the Breed– A LOT

Cattle will eat about 2% of their body weight in dry matter per day (there is a lot of nuance to this, make sure you read “forage only diets” section for the context).

So a 1,000-pound animal will eat much less than a 2,500-pound animal. I’ll share some breed weights below, know that these are generally “finishing weights” (weight by butcher date) and not the actual, final weight that an animal can grow to be. Also, mature bulls can weigh double the weight of a cow, so keep that in mind.

Dexters weigh 700 to 900 pounds each.

South Devon weighs 1,150 to 1,250

Scottish Highlanders weigh 900 to 1,300 pounds.

Texas Longhorns weigh 900 to 1,500 pounds.

American Angus weighs 1,000 to 2,300 pounds.

Herefords weigh 1,200 to 2,300 pounds.

Heritage Shorthorns weigh 1,200 to 2000 pounds.

Brahman weighs 1,100 to 2,400 pounds.

Charolais weigh 1,250 to 2,500 pounds.

Maine Anjou weighs 1,500 to 3,100 pounds.

It Also Depends on the Purpose and Heritage Lines

Beef cattle now produce 18% more meat per animal compared to 20 years ago (this Beef Magazine article was published in 2011). This is due to selective breeding, good nutrition, and optimal living conditions provided by dedicated farmers and ranchers. 18% more meat roughly translates to 150 to 170 extra pounds (live weight).

What’s neat about this growth is that these larger cows aren’t eating a directly proportionate increase in feed. It’s not one-to-one; it’s actually about 75%. So, a 1,400-pound cow eats 11% more than a 1,200-pound cow, even though she is 16% larger than the 1,200-pound animal. Not only are the cattle getting bigger, but they’re also getting more efficient with their feed intake.

Cattle that eat a forage-only diet often take a little longer to mature, but they cost less in resources and manual labor to feed.

Cattle that are grain-finished may require more resources to feed, but they mature faster and tend to gain more weight.

As we learned in the “How to feed chickens without the feed store” article, just because a chicken eats more every day does not necessarily mean that they eat more over the course of their lifetime. We found that Cornish Crosses eat more daily, but they’re ready to butcher much faster. Because of this, it takes twice as much feed and twice as much space to grow a slow-growing heritage chicken than to raise a fast-growing Cornish Cross.

How Much Food Do Cattle Need?

Cattle need about 2-4% of their body weight in feed per day.

Forage-Only Diets

You’ll often hear that cattle will eat about 2% of their body weight per day in forages. It’s true-ish.

Cattle need about 2% of their body weight in DRY matter per day. Most grass hay is about 8% moisture (92% dry matter), while grasses still standing in the pasture are 75-80% moisture (15 to 20% dry matter).

Source: Nebraska Extension EDU

On top of that, cattle are wasteful creatures. They are not as wasteful as goats, but they definitely don’t care about how much time or money you trade for the hay you’re giving them. Depending on your feed setup, schedule, and the personalities of your cattle- expect 6 to 20% waste. There are ways to reduce this waste, like slow hay feeders. If cattle can put their head through the slot and not pull it back out easily, they will waste less.

If given a round bale in a field, cattle will pull out a mouthful of hay, drop it on the ground, pick out what they want, and then go back in for another mouthful. Most of what they pull to the ground will be wasted. You can also fork out how much hay you want your cattle to have a few times a day. This is more time intensive, but it keeps your cattle from having direct access to the bale.

Many western operations with larger herds roll out entire round bales twice a day. The cattle “mob graze” and are competing for it, meaning there is very little waste.

How much your cattle eat also depends on the quality of the forage.

I wrongfully assumed that cattle ate more of the better-quality hay because they liked it more. They might, but that’s not the true reason.

High-quality forage with higher protein content is more easily digested during the fermentation process. This opens up more space in the rumen, allowing the cattle to feel hungrier and want to eat more.

  • Hay that is less than 6% crude protein will be eaten at around 1.5% of the animal’s body weight per day.
  • Hay or dry pasture that is 8% to 15% crude protein is eaten at around 2% of their body weight per day.
  • Alfalfa, pasture silage, or good quality green pasture will have a crude protein content of 16-30%, and cattle will eat about 2.5 to even 3% of their body weight in dry matter.

As you probably guessed, forage higher in protein content is likely higher in vitamins and minerals, too, leading to a much healthier and balanced diet. And then when you add in the fact that these cattle are able to eat more because of the faster fermentation, you’ve got a dense but healthy diet for your animals.

So, to sum up, your cattle will “theoretically” eat 2% of their body weight in forage per day, but that is dry matter, and it does not take waste into account. The reality is that your cattle will need more than 2% of their weight in forage per day. It could be as much as 3-5% of their weight per day in hay or 4-6% in fresh pasture (which is much more difficult to track accurately).

I asked Joe Robbins (more on that conversation below in the “how to mix cattle feed” section) what someone should plant if they were to start a hay field from scratch that is intended for beef cattle. He suggested

  • 1/3 Rye Grass
  • 1/3 Orchard Grass
  • 1/3 Fescue

I don’t know why but I thought that fescue wasn’t a good option for cattle, so I asked more about that. He assured me that it is a good grass, but many people don’t know when to cut it. He suggested cutting it before the seed head is out. Once it’s begun seeding, it’s too late.

How to Calculate The Moisture Content of Your Pasture’s Forage

You can take a sample of your pastures’ forage into a testing facility, or you can do a little at home experiment.

Option 1.

Pull up a handful of grass from your pasture and try to wring it like a wet rag. If any water seeps out, it’s likely higher than 65% moisture.

Option 2.

Chop grass into small 1/2 to 1-inch lengths. Weigh it on a food scale and set aside 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of the chopped grass. Spread this evenly on a plate, and place a cup of water in the center of the plate. This water will keep your grass from catching fire.

Heat for one minute, and check to see if dry. Repeat the microwaving process (in 15 to 30-second intervals now) until dry. Reweigh when dry.

Use this equation to find the moisture content:% Moisture Content= {(W1- W2)/W1}*100Where: W1 = weight of forage before heating W2 = weights of forage after heatingDry matter (DM) is the percentage of forage that is not water.

DM equals 100% minus the % Moisture Content.

This equation was pulled from the article “How do I determine the proper moisture content of my forage?“.

What Nutrients Do Cattle Need?

Beef cattle need at least 17 minerals in their diets.

  • 0.10% magnesium
  • 0.6% potassium
  • 0.07% sodium
  • 0.15% sulfur
  • 0.15 PPM (parts per million) cobalt
  • 10 PPM copper
  • 0.5 PPM Iodine
  • 50 PPM Iron
  • 20 PPM Manganese
  • 0.10 PPM Selenium
  • 30 PPM Zinc

Beef cattle also need the following vitamins:

  • 1000 IU/lb Vitamin A
  • 125 IU/lb Vitamin D
  • 16 IU/lb Vitamin E

Can Cattle Live on Grass or Hay Only?

Yes, many cattle thrive on grass or hay only, and many farms use grass-only or grass-finished as their method for raising their beef cattle.

Can Cattle Live Exclusively Off Pasture?

Cattle used to live exclusively off pasture, with no hay or alfalfa inputs. Some cattle producers still do this today, but it does take some creativity and smarts to pull it off. This method was the standard for many years until “The Great Die Up,” also known as the hard winter of 1886-1887. A horrific cold snap and deep snow completely covered the ground in the mountain west, even burying the usually milder valleys. Cattle were typically dropped off in their winter pasture and then left to their own devices for the winter. Before then, it hadn’t been much of an issue. But when cattlemen returned to check on their herds in the spring thaw of 1887– they found cattle dead in trees. The cattle kept climbing the snow and used that to try to reach the higher branches out of starvation. Millions of US cattle starved that winter, and Montana lost about 360,000 cattle– half of their herds.

Use your library card to read That Hard Winter in Montana, 1886-1887, by Robert S. Fletcher for free online.

Can Cattle Eat Grains/Feed Too?

Cattle can absolutely eat grains too. Cattle always need some kind of forage in their rumens to keep them in good health, but grain is a good way to speed up their growth rate, which is especially helpful for meat producers or serious homesteaders.

Corn is a universal grain that is densely planted, relatively cheap to grow, and full of bioavailable nutrients for cattle, especially when it’s cracked or ground.

Oats are not as economical or densely planted, but they’re excellent for show animals because they develop sleek coats. Oats are also ideal for dairy cows because they help increase milk production– very similar to how they help human mamas with the same issue.

What’s Grass Finished vs Grain Finished?

I’m opening a can of worms here that I probably don’t want. People have very strong opinions on which option is “better,” and there is no reasoning with many of them on either side. What I’ve found from visiting farms and talking to ranchers in different regions of the US is that this is largely based on location. This is just my anecdotal experience, but it does seem to be a pretty consistent theme.

Ranchers in the west tend to fall into the “grass-finished” category because grains are more difficult to grow and largely inefficient in the area. There is a lack of water here– you often have to pay for irrigation. Farmers east of the Mississippi are more likely to “grain-finish” cattle because grains are very easy to grow, and the space they take up is well worth the sped-up growth rate for cattle. In this area, farmers often pay for tile drainage installation because they have so much water it needs to be pulled from the fields.

Grass-finished means that the cattle eat a forage-based diet their entire lives, and do not eat any grains.

Grain-finished means that the cattle eat a forage-based diet for their entire lives, but during the last few months or weeks, they are given grains in addition to the hay/pasture. Some are in feedlots, where the hay and grains are trucked into them– they don’t have grass, but they are given a constant supply of hay.

Grass-finished tends to be leaner, firmer, with slightly higher vitamin and mineral contents, and the fat is yellower, and not as prominent. Surprisingly enough, grass-finished beef tallow has four times as much omega 3 alpha-linolenic acid. It’s essential for human growth and development, but an excess is linked to an increased chance of prostate cancer.

Many people think grass-fed beef is healthier because it has less saturated fat. However, this study found that grass-fed beef actually had higher levels of saturated fat called stearic acid compared to grain-fed beef. Another saturated fat called palmitic acid was about the same in both types of beef. So, if you eat fattier cuts of beef or use beef fat, you might consume more saturated fat, especially if you prefer grass-fed beef.

With all that said, grass-finished is considerably more eco-friendly because it uses less cropland, which means less erosion, less or no fertilizers, and less likely to contaminate groundwater (unless the cattle are run directly through creeks and rivers), and grassland tends to increase biodiversity.

I am very fortunate that my grandparents let me keep a cow at their Indiana farm throughout my entire childhood and teen years and let me be involved with the daily work there. My husband had a very similar upbringing, too. Now that we live in Montana, we’re preparing to bring in cattle again. Our families’ operations raised cattle on grain-finishing diets– and it was admittedly the absolute best beef we’ve ever had. We still prefer it over grass-finished, though grass-finished is still delicious in its own way.

I use deer, rabbit, and beef tallow for soaps, body butter, and cooking, and we like to mix our venison with 20% beef fat for added flavor and texture. I would love to grain-finish our cattle so they are ready faster and have that extra fat which I think is nearly priceless.

Some people choose to not feed grains to cattle, here are usually their reasons for that:

  • Unbalanced diets. It’s “easier” to improperly balance grains (absolutely read about their nutrient needs instead of blindly shoveling grain at cattle) than it is to balance grasses improperly. Too much grain with not enough forage leads to bloat. After some farmers or homesteaders have a bad experience with grain they leave it alone.
  • Grass-Only is often more eco-friendly. Farming grains takes more efforts, and depending on the operation, it may use tilling methods or sprays that will negatively affect the soil and waterways.
  • Grass-Only can utilize land that’s unsuitable for crops. Native grasses have deep root systems and are uniquely equipped to survive where they grow. They can withstand flooding, drought, and even wildfires. Crops need more human intervention to survive the season and grow back the following year. This is especially true in the western states in the prairies, grasslands, and high deserts.
  • Some people don’t want to ingest corn. Corn-fed beef has higher caloric value because it’s not as lean as grass fed.
  • Grass-fed beef is more earthy or gamey, while corn-fed beef has that rich, buttery beef flavor. It’s a matter of personal taste. Grass-fed meat is not a beginner-friendly meat because it’s very easy to accidentally toughen up while cooking. Corn-fed has more natural marbling, which makes it much more forgiving, both in steak and hamburger form.

How Much Space to Grow Grass/Hay/Alfalfa for Cattle?

Generally speaking, it’s usually better to feed hay-only or hay-primary diets to older (over 300 to 500 pound) cattle, while younger cattle (500 pounds or less) can handle the higher protein and energy that’s naturally occurring in alfalfa.

Alfalfa is usually denser, meaning you can grow more of it in an acre, compared to most hay species. It’s more common in western states because the need for irrigation makes it more cost-effective.

Dairy cattle can tolerate (or even need) more alfalfa than beef cattle because of their high milk production.

If your homestead naturally produces low-quality grass, you may want to tactfully use alfalfa as a supplement to balance out the protein requirements. It’s more common for grass-finishing operations to use alfalfa to help increase their nutritional values.

If you choose to feed alfalfa, do so alongside a higher fiber hay, like grass hay.

If you’re transitioning into feeding alfalfa, keep a close eye on your herd and check them multiple times a day to watch for signs of bloating. If you have chronic bloaters, remove them from the herd to feed seperately, without alfalfa. Or, sell them.

You can use an anti-bloating agent like Bloat Guard or baking soda to keep your cattle’s rumen healthy and in check.

This is a 1971 advertisement for Bloat Guard.

Space Needed to Grow Hay for a Cow

If a cow needs 2% of their body weight in dry matter, and cattle range from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds each, then each animal will need 20 to 40 pounds of dry matter per day. When you factor in about 15% waste and 8% moisture content (for hay), that actually jumps to 23.53 pounds for a 1k pound cow, or 47.06 pounds for a 2k pound cow.

Here is the math for that:

  1. Dry matter content of hay = 92%
  2. Percentage of hay consumed = 85%
  3. Amount of hay actually consumed = (20 pounds) / (85%) = 23.53 pounds
  4. Multiply by 2 for the 2k pound animal = 47.06 pounds.

If an animal is a dry lot only (meaning no grass) for the full year, they need about 8,588 pounds of hay per year (as a thousand-pound animal) or 17,176.9 pounds of hay per year (as a two-thousand-pound animal). This does not consider the less feed eaten if raised from a calf– this assumes a full grown animal for the full year.

Space Needed to Pasture-Raise Cattle (Hay and Pasture)

Most people raise their cattle on pasture for a majority of the year, and then feed hay during the winter months. Several of these producers know they give their cattle 1-10 acres of space each during the summer, and then feed “X” amount of hay bales over the winter. Many don’t know how much space it takes to grow the hay, they just know how much the hay costs per bale and how many bales they need.

But for this figure, we’ll go deeper into it. To grow all your own pasture and all your own hay, you have to rotationally graze cattle and/or have dedicated pasture space with dedicated hay fields.

Here in Montana, you can put one animal unit (AU), also called a cow and calf pair (equal to a thousand-pound mama and a six-month-old calf), on ten acres. So, if you wanted three mama cows with their three babies, you need 30 acres.

In the midwest, it’s closer to 1-2 acres per animal unit. There, it takes 3-6 acres to feed three mamas and their three babies.

Basically, you need to figure out how productive the land is in your area– either your land specifically or a general number from your local region.

For example:

Please note that the numbers above are state averages. They do not tell you whether irrigation is used or not. Many farms in Florida do not irrigate, while nearly all of Arizona does. Context is important here, so make sure you’re following average practices in your area if you want to at least hit average yields.

The above numbers also don’t tell you how many cuttings you should make per year; they only tell you the total amount for the year. You’ll have to cut according to your area’s growth rate.

You can make your land more productive through intensive rotational grazing, better land management, fertilization, and irrigation. The perk of being a small homesteader is that it’s much easier to upkeep your land because it’s usually a more manageable size.

A 1,000-pound cow eats 8,588 pounds of hay per year. 8,588 pounds is 4.2 tons. For context, a 4×4 round bale is usually 400 to 600 pounds, while a 5×6 round bale is often 1,200 to 1,700 pounds. This means each AU needs about 5 to 21 round bales per year.

A growing beef will be a small calf for part of the year and not eat as much; they will instead eat 2.5 tons of hay rather than 4.2 tons.

With the above numbers, we can make rough estimates of how much space it takes to grow all the hay for a cow/calf pair in each state.

  • 0.51 acres per AU in Arizona.
  • 1.35 acres per AU in Florida.
  • 1.43 acres per AU in Iowa
  • 1.61 acres per AU in Alabama
  • 1.75 acres per AU in Indiana
  • 2.08 acres per AU in Maine
  • 2.24 acres per AU in Texas
  • 2.62 acres per AU in Montana
  • 3 acres per AU in Alaska

Now, from those above numbers, you may have noticed something. I said that Montana needs about 10 acres per AU, yet these calculations show 2.62 acres needed for hay– what gives? The reason for this is that most Montana hay fields are either near a river or irrigated with pipes. Montana ranchers don’t usually run their cattle near the waterways, and they usually don’t irrigate their pastures. This is the difference between 2.6 acres and 10 acres.

Space Needed to Pasture-Raise Cattle (Without Hay)

I highly recommend “Kick the Hay Habit” by Jim Gerrish and this article from Farm Progress as beginning steps. This book was really interesting and changed how I think about pasture. I don’t think this method is feasible for many homesteaders, myself included, but I’m glad I learned about it.

This method basically free-ranged cattle during the winter on scrubby sageland (BLM, Forest Service, Public Land), saved the ranches’ hay fields/pastures for summer, never cutting the hay. This also allowed sage grouse to nest in the summer in peace, while the cattle are kept up on their private ranches.

If you weren’t aware, most western ranchers let their cattle free-range on the range in the summer via a permit and then pen them back up on their private property from mid-fall to mid-spring. Yes, Montana is an open-range state; if you don’t want your neighbors’ cattle on your property, it’s your responsibility to build a fence.

I can’t say exactly how much space this takes (I’M SORRY), but I encourage you to look into it for yourself if you think that may be an option.

How to Mix Cattle Feed

Many people read these articles because they want to feed their animals even after major supply disruptions or some kind of an apocalypse. In these instances, you’re not going to have access to much if any machinery, and large animals like cattle will be too difficult to feed by hand for many. For these situations, you’ll need to use an all-forage diet or all-forage with up to 2% of the animal’s weight in corn (that is in addition to all the hay or grass that animal wants). Is corn as optimal or nutrient-dense as a blend of other grains or crops? No. Does it make for better performance and faster growth than grass or hay alone? Yes.

I spoke with Chris and Joe Robbins of Valley Vista Farms and asked them for their advice for a new homesteader wanting to get into raising a couple of beef cattle for the family. Joe and Chris have an impressive list of wins with their cattle at the Kentucky and Indiana State Fairs. They also crop farm, they ran a successful feed store, and continue to raise cattle for show, as beef, and for local 4-Hers.

Here are their suggestions for new homesteaders wanting to raise beef cattle of their own.

Calves Under 400 pounds

Need:

  • 14-15% protein
  • 3 to 3.5% fat
  • All the grass or grass hay they will eat

Start feeding grains once they hit 300 pounds. Give about 4-5 pounds of grain per calf per day. As they grow, continue to give them 2-3% of their body weight in grains per day, from the day they are 300 pounds up until the butcher date at around 1,200 pounds.

Cattle at 400 to 700 Pounds

Need:

  • 12-14% protein
  • 2.5% fat
  • All the grass or grass hay they will eat

At 500 pounds, start feeding 10% Urea. If you’re like me, you didn’t know what that was. Beef producers have given urea to cattle for at least 70 years; it’s a non-protein nitrogen that is naturally occurring in the earth, it’s also found in mammal urine. Urea has the chemical formula CO(NH2)2, and it’s composed of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms.

When urea is included in cattle feed, it provides a source of nitrogen that can be utilized by rumen microbes. These microbes convert the urea into microbial protein, which the animal can then digest and use for growth and production. This is particularly important in ruminant animals like cattle, which have a unique digestive system that relies on microbial fermentation in the rumen to break down fibrous plant materials.

Urea itself is safe for human consumption when used in appropriate amounts. In fact, it’s commonly found in many skincare products and as an organic fertilizer.

Joe also shared that he likes to see his cattle gain about 100 pounds per month of life; many are ready for butcher at 12 months old, at roughly 1,200 pounds.

With that said, I asked what the recommendation would be if homesteaders could only feed one ingredient in addition to the hay/grass. He suggested I feed a complete supplement that is 32 to 40% protein in a 6:1 ratio. Six pounds should be corn (my one ingredient) with one pound being the supplement.

Bio-Mos Feed Supplement fits the bill, as does Kalmbach Generations 40% Beef Supplement, though, it is medicated, which some may not want.

Obviously, these feed supplements aren’t going to work if you want to forego the feed store 100%, but it is a great option if you want to grow some of your cattle feed while still hitting quick growth rates.

Use this calculator to find the nutritional information for feed ingredients; it’s a wonderful tool from Clemson.

I made this basic feed formula for beef cattle using the above calculator from Clemson. Please note that I am not an expert, and this is more of a suggestion. Definitely talk to a trusted rancher, vet, or animal nutritionist before making and mixing your own feed.

Be sure to check out this guide to feed mixing by UC Davis.

It is possible to feed grain as a forage substitute, but that is not something I’m comfortable talking about. I don’t understand how it’s possible to do that without majorly upsetting the rumen. I know people do this successfully, I just don’t understand how. There is a section on that in this article from NDSU.edu.

Grinding this feed makes each ingredient more bioavailable, and it makes it so the cattle aren’t able to “sort through” and pick out only their favorite ingredients. The feed should be at least cracked open, and the texture should be somewhere between cracked and large ground. It should not be made into a powder because this powder is digested too quickly by the rumen. Larger pieces are better for their gut health.

800 Pounds to 1,200 Pounds

Joe recommends soybean meal for cattle 850+ pounds. Feed it in a very small quantity to get the fat content up to cycle faster– about 1/4 pound of soybean meal per head per day.

By the time cattle are getting to butcher weight, they will be eating around 35-40 pounds of feed per day. Corn should be the #1 ingredient in your finisher because it’s 7-8% protein, and they should still have access to unlimited grass or grass hay.

Growing and Mixing Your Own Cattle Feed

Corn

Corn is:

  • 9% protein
  • 5% fat
  • 7% fiber
  • 73% carbohydrate

Soybean Meal

Soybean meal accounts for 66% of the global output of animal feed, and that figure includes fish meal and oil meals.

Soybean meal is different from ground soybeans. Soybean meal has already had the beans pressed, which extracts the soybean oil. This oil is extremely high in fat. If you decide to feed your cattle ground soybeans rather than soybean meal, make it no more than 10% of their feed. These high oil levels (fat) will essentially drown their good gut bacteria.

Do not feed raw soybeans to young cattle under 300 pounds because the beans contain trypsin, an inhibiting enzyme, which is known to slow protein digestion in pre-ruminants (calves with new digestive systems).

Ground soybeans are more digestible but go bad quickly. They have to be used within three weeks of being ground. If you’re doing it all yourself, store the beans whole, then press and grind (if 25% of feed) or grind (if less than 10% of feed) as needed. You should do this once a week or once every two weeks.

Protein meal is:

Whole soybeans are:

  • 36-38% protein
  • 20% fat
  • 30% carbohydrate
  • 9% fiber

Oats

Oats are ideal for dairy animals, nursing cattle, show animals, or beef cattle who need a little boost.

Oats require more space to grow than corn and cost more to purchase. Because of this, they are not an economical option for many homesteaders or producers.

Oats are:

  • 6.5% fat
  • 68% carbohydrate
  • 10% fiber
  • 13% protein

Corn, Soy, and Oat Cattle Feed

Feeding these three ingredients (80% corn, 10% soybean meal, 10% oats) will give you a cattle feed with the following nutritional profile.

  • 13.6% protein
  • 3.1% crude fiber
  • 4.3% fat

If you don’t have a way to make soybean meal, this is what that would look like instead (replacing soybean meal with crushed soybeans). The ratio is now 80% corn, 10% whole soybeans, 10% oats; it will give you a cattle feed with the following nutritional profile:

  • 12.6% protein
  • 3.5% crude fiber
  • 5.7% fat (kinda high, not ideal)

How Much Space to Grow Grains for Cattle?

Since it’s recommended to feed 2% of the animal’s body weight in grains per day (if you want that fast growth rate), you’ll need to feed slightly more every day. Calculating this is tedious, so I have calculated needs on a month-to-month basis. This will give you a slightly high estimate (since cattle will eat less in the beginning of the month and more– closer to the predicted weight– at the end of the month).

This chart is also based on a growth rate of 100 pounds of weight gain per month.

Based on this growth rate, you can expect to feed around 4,500 pounds (2.5 tons) of grain per beef animal, from 3 to 12 months old.

If you only feed corn as your grain, you would need about 1/2 (0.55) an acre— if your yield is similar to the national average. Yield varies wildly from state to state. Iowa averages 5.5 tons of corn per acre; Texas averages 3.5 tons per acre.

If you feed a combination of corn, oats, and soybeans, you would need 0.44 acre for corn.

Soybeans yield 51.9 bushels per acre. A bushel of soybeans is 60 pounds. This equals 3,114 pounds of soybeans per acre. You need about 450 pounds of soybeans per cow. This means about a tenth (0.14) of an acre will cover your soybean needs. Please note this is whole soybeans. Soybean meal is not the whole bean, so you’ll need slightly more than this to make your feed. Let’s double it to be extra safe (I know that’s overboard, but I prefer security). That would put you at a quarter of an acre to cover the soybean demand per cow.

Finally, you need 450 pounds of oats per beef. Oats yield between one and four tons of oats per acre. For this example we’ll assume that you can grow 2.5 tons (5,000 pounds) of oats per acre. This means that you need 0.09 of an acre– or 3,920 square feet of oats per cow.

Total space needed to grow corn, soybean meal, and oats per cow: about three-quarters of an acre (0.78).

The grand total amount of space needed to grow all the grain for your cattle

1/2 an acre if only feeding corn

3/4 an acre, if feeding corn, oats, and soybeans (80% corn, 10% soybean meal, 10% oats).

Grand Total Amount of Space Needed to Grow All the Forage and Grain for Your Cattle

You need 0.5 to 3 acres per cow on pasture or a hay diet. About 2 acres per animal on average.

Cattle that are grass-fed only will take about two years to mature compared to one year to mature if grain-finished. The first year they will consume 2.5 tons of hay, the second year they will eat 4.2 tons of hay. In total, that is 6.7 tons of hay, requiring 3.35 acres over the course of two years for grass-finished.

A grain-finished beef needs about 1.5 acres of grass/hay and grain over the course one year.

A grass-finished beef needs about 3.35 acres over the course of 2 years (you could call this 6.7 acres, but in all reality, you’ll just use the same space twice if managed correctly).

Remember that cattle are herd animals and shouldn’t be kept alone. So practically speaking, you would need 3 acres for two grain-finished beef cattle, or 6.7 acres for two beef over the course of two years.

Quick Advice from Joe

Before we ended that call, I asked Joe about any advice he might have for me or anyone else who wants to get into raising a few cattle on the homestead. Here is what he told me.

  • Don’t start with a bull or a pregnant cow if you’re new. Start with weaned beef calves and go from there.
  • Get a good calf that is already on feed and fully weaned from the mama cow.
  • Look for bright eyes, a good coat, and not skinny.
  • Don’t try to save money by getting the cheapest calf you can find; you’re buying a problem if you do.
  • Two calves are plenty if you’re starting out. Cattle shouldn’t be kept alone, but two is enough, especially for a beginner. Keep one beef, or part of one from the locker (after butchering) and sell the other to offset your feed costs.
  • Finally, the piece that really stuck with me is one that Joe said his father also gave him: “You can’t starve a profit from an animal.” Considering the fact that his cattle are ready for the locker in 12 months and have taken home several purple ribbons from the KY and IN State Fairs, I will follow every single piece of advice he shared with me.

Thank You!

I appreciate you being here, and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. This is a pretty complex subject that really needs an entire book to do it justice and fully explore the nuances, but this is my best attempt to be concise. If you can call 7,000 words concise, oops.

Make sure you check out the other “How to feed homestead livestock without the feedstore” articles if you found this one interesting.

Kayla and I are working on making this site accessible and genuinely helpful, and we promise it will always be 100% AI-free. We want to share more recipes we have extensively tested and regularly share with our families. Alongside that, we will also add more homesteading content. This was our first article where we called experts we trust to better write the article. Thank you again, Joe and Chris Robbins at Valley Vista Farms, and Marvin and Laurel Rode from Rode Farms in Southern Indiana.

We hope to talk to more farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders soon. There are so many brilliant, educated, and experienced people out there who have shared very little of their knowledge online, and I hope we can preserve some of this “gold” for others to enjoy.

If you want to support our efforts, please check out our Facebook (we have a group and a page) and Instagram. If you see something you like, please share it. Below is a pin for you to save to your Pinterest board for easy reference. Again, thank you so much! <3

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