Feed Management Tips for Small Livestock Farms

How can small farms make the most efficient use of their feed resources and reduce potential environmental impacts? They do it by managing their feed supplies and animals carefully using some of the tips mentioned below. Farmers also need to pay special attention to nitrogen and phosphorus.

Appropriate Use of Feed Additives

Additives, supplements, hormones, antibiotics, and etc. are generally very effective ways to improve animal performance and efficiency. If used, these should be fed as prescribed on the label, or under the care of a veterinarian.

Examples of additives are:

  • Ionophores like monensin or bovatec affect fermentation in the bovine (cattle) rumen and improve performance and feed efficiency. (Monensin and bovatec should never be feed to horses!)
  • Hormones such as anabolic implants and steroids or rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) improve production efficiency, growth rate or milk production in cattle. Hormones are not used in pig or poultry production.
  • Antibiotics, which, when used properly in the diet, can result in improved feed efficiencies and health. Using antibiotics for the purpose of growth promotion and not disease control (called sub-therapeutic use) is under a great deal of scrutiny and is becoming more controversial as scientists look for ways to combat antibiotic-resistance in microbes and pathogens.

Products that improve nutrient efficiency will also reduce excretion relative to production.

How to Incorporate By-Product Feeds in Diets

By-product (often also called co-product) feeds are often used in animal diets. These are by-products of other industries, such as the production of distilled spirits, ethanol, or beer, wheat processing, milling, and soy oil among others. These co-products, such as brewer’s grains, distiller’s grains, soy hulls, and others can make excellent animal feedstuffs.

There are also byproducts from the wheat milling industry, such as wheat bran, middlings, reddog, shorts, etc. By-products from wet corn milling give us high fructose corn syrup and a variety of other corn products including corn gluten feeds and meals. In addition, there are products such as citrus pulp, beet pulp, and whole cottonseed. Some farms even feed expired foods that have been returned to distributors from grocery stores.

One disadvantage of by-products is that their nutrient content is often variable; these feeds should be sampled regularly so estimates of nutrient content can be used in formulating diets. Sometimes, the by-product supplier will provide a nutrient analysis when requested. Advantages of by-products are that they can often be purchased more cheaply than traditional feeds and utilize a material that might otherwise become a part of the waste stream.

Managing Feed Variability

Every load of feed that comes out of the field during harvest or is delivered by the feed company is different from the previous load. Every bale of hay in the summer is different from the previous bale. Every scoop full of grain that is given to a horse or livestock animal is different from the previous container of grain. It is essential that producers get a handle on the variability of their feed and ensure that to the best of their knowledge and ability they are able to balance diets for the nutrients that are in the feeds they are using.

There are feed and forage labs available and feed samples can be sent to these labs to determine nutrient content. In this way diets can be formulated based on the nutrient content of each individual component. It is possible to use published values when nothing else is available. However, these are only averages of many samples and may not reflect actual conditions.

Monitoring Feed and Forage Quality

Every effort should be made to use feeds of a high quality. For ruminants to reach optimum levels of production, it is essential that forages be of the best quality possible. Those too high in fiber, or rained on during production, or that spoil in the silo, will result in lower levels of production, will be more costly to the producer, and may result in greater levels of nutrient loss.

Every extra day beyond the optimum harvest date for hay in the summer will result in a reduction in forage quality and greater costs to the producer. This is an important point to remember; harvesting forage at the optimum time will improve quality, result in greater profitability for the producer, and less waste of feed and nutrients. Feed samples and laboratory analysis

Related: Forage Testing and Interpreting the Analysis…. (dairy) | Hay analysis: Its importance…. (horses)

Monitor Health and Disease

Sick animals are not productive animals, but will continue to consume feed since they have a requirement for body maintenance. They will continue to excrete nutrients in their manure. All animals should be on a regular health and herd management program. They should be vaccinated for disease regularly and monitored for special diseases. To reduce waste, temporarily reduce feed delivery to sick animals and gradually bring it back up to full levels as they recover.

All domestic livestock animals can be affected by parasites. Parasites will infest the intestines and can result in substantial decreases in performance. Whenever this happens, the efficiency of nutrient utilization is going to decline and influence nutrient excretion. All animals should be on a regular de-worming and parasite control schedule.

Toxins in the feed or water may also influence animal production. For example, during a drought year forage quality will often decline, and toxins, such as excess nitrates, may be taken up from the soil by plants and influence animal production. Plant growth stress can also result in the formation of mycotoxins in the feed; this can occur in both feed grains and forages. These toxins can result in decreased production, as well as sickness and death. Whenever toxins are believed to be a problem, it is important to test feed and water supplies to ensure the adequate consumption of uncontaminated feeds and water.

Feed Processing

Processing feed is helpful if animals are to digest and absorb nutrients. In recent years, the use of corn silage kernel processors has increased on dairy farms. Kernel processors typically use physical force to break down each kernel of grain and make the nutrients in the kernel more available to digestive processes. This has been shown to result in a significant increase in production in animals fed these diets.

Feed processing includes grinding, flaking, steam rolling, and other processes that improve the availability of nutrients. For example, sorghum grain or milo is unavailable to ruminant animals and horses without some level of processing, such as grinding or steam flaking. It can be utilized by chickens that have the advantage of the crop and gizzard in their digestive system. If there is any down side to feed processing, it would be over-processing or over-mixing. Over-processing usually means that the feed reached too high a temperature. This causes chemical changes that can offset the benefits and actually tie-up or bind nutrients.

Mixing feeds, particularly forage, for too long of a period of time can break particles down into smaller pieces. These pieces tend to move more quickly through the gastrointestinal tract and not be digested at a level required for optimum utilization and health of the animal. Processed feeds are also more expensive than unprocessed, and might not always be necessary (e.g. oats for horses).

Reducing Feed Waste

cows fed a bale of hay on pasture and wasting most of it

A hay bale fed on the ground like this one will result in as much as 40-50% waste. Hay feeders can greatly reduce the loss.

It is common for animals to spill or waste feed. For example, pigs will waste as much as 20% of their diet while eating. This wasted feed is often wet, covered with saliva, and it will spoil and rot. If this feed is left in place, animals will not consume it. Silage left in the feed bunk and not consumed quickly is especially susceptible to spoilage and will not be eaten. Wasted, spilled, and rotten feed is a breeding ground for flies and attracts vermin like mice and rats.

  • Bunks and feeders should be designed to reduce wasted feed.
  • Bunks and feeders should be cleaned on a regular basis so spoiled or rotten feed can be removed.
  • Do not feed animals on the ground. It is a common practice, but there is no greater source of waste than feeding an animal on the ground. Although this might be acceptable with beef cows or sheep on the open range, or even horses, it is not acceptable to feed animals on the ground near a stream. This sort of waste also contributes to the creation of mud in pastures and paddocks.

Use Feed Ingredients High in Nutrient Availability

The availability of individual nutrients can vary from feedstuff to feedstuff; for example phytate-bound phosphorus in cereal grains. Ruminants can utilize phytate-phosphorus but horses and pigs cannot. Pig farmers often add an enzyme, phytase, to swine diets to make the phosphorus more availalable. This reduces the amount of phosphorus supplement needed and also reduced the phosphorus excreted in manure. It is important for producers to choose feedstuffs that have nutrients high in bioavailability. This means that nutrients present in feedstuffs are readily available and utilized by the animal. Related: Managing dietary phosphorus…


Michael L. Westendorf and Carey A. Williams, Extension Specialists in Animal Sciences, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. This article was originally published as Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS 1064. Updated November 25, 2008.

Managing Dietary Nitrogen for Livestock and Poultry

Diets should be managed to reduce nitrogen (N) losses. Protein is the chief N source in the diet, and N is the nutrient we are most concerned with. If a growing pig requires 22% protein in the diet and is fed 25% protein, then the excess (containing N) is going to be lost. Some N is going to be lost in the feces, and some that is absorbed is going to be lost as urea in the urine. Conversely, if a pig requires 22% protein, and is only fed 18% protein, then that animal’s production will be limited to the 18% level. In this case other nutrients in the diet will be in excess and cannot be utilized efficiently. Nitrogen feeding strategies are different for all livestock species.

Dietary Nitrogen Management for Ruminants

Ruminants (cow, sheep, goat, etc.) have a requirement for proteins that are quickly degraded in the rumen, called degradable intake protein (DIP). They also require proteins less quickly degraded or undegradable in the rumen, undegradble intake protein (UIP). If too much UIP protein is fed, then some of that excess will probably be excreted in the feces. On the other hand, if too much degradable protein is fed, there will be too much absorption of nitrogen into the blood supply and it will be lost in the urine as urea. Most research has shown that lactating dairy cows require about 32% to 38% undegradable protein in the diet, with the remainder being made up as degradable protein.

To learn more about protein for cattle see the following Livestock and Poultry Environmental Stewardship (LPES) Curriculum lesson sections:

Dietary Nitrogen Management for Non-ruminants

With non-ruminant animals, like chickens, horses, and pigs, individual amino acids are the basis of diet protein formulation. (Protein is composed of individual nitrogen-containing amino acids). A ruminant has a microbial population that produces essential amino acids in the rumen, so there is less focus on amino acids for them. In the case of pigs, horses, and chickens each individual amino acid is important. Lysine is usually the first limiting amino acid when feeding pigs and horses, and methionine is usually first limiting with chickens. Commonly used feeds are limiting in these amino acids and must be supplemented through balancing with other ingredients or by adding commercially-available crystalline amino acids to the diet.

To learn more about protein for non-ruminants, see the following Livestock and Poultry Environmental Stewardship (LPES) Curriculum lesson sections:

Feed Management on Small Livestock Farms

Why Is Feed Management Important?

Nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture sources can affect water quality. These nutrients are required for plant and animal growth, but too much in agricultural runoff can result in environmental and health concerns. This fact sheet provides some guidelines to help livestock producers, especially those on small farms, reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses by monitoring and/or changing feeding and management practices. This can result in less waste and ultimately a healthier, cleaner, and safer environment. Wasted feed and wasted nutrients also represent wasted money for the farm.

Nutrient Balance on Small Farms

Nutrient inputs on a farm consist of feed, animals, irrigation water, fertilizer, legume nitrogen, etc. Outputs are meat, milk, animals, crops, and manure. When inputs exceed outputs, losses will be present in feed or barnyard waste, in manure, and in lot runoff, etc. These losses may result in excess nutrient storage in the soil. Nutrients may leach through the soil (nitrate) into ground water or run off the soil surface (phosphorus and nitrogen) and directly transported to surface waters.

Each farm should be seen as a complete system or cycle with inputs, outputs, storage, losses, and recycling all taking place. To illustrate, a 120-cow dairy farm will require 29.2 tons of nitrogen and 2.6 tons of phosphorus per year. Outputs (meat, milk, fiber, etc.) will be 6.9 tons of nitrogen and .8 tons of phosphorus, resulting in 22.3 tons of nitrogen and 1.8 tons of phosphorus for disposal, usually through spreading on available land. Similar calculations can be made for all livestock species. See “Whole Farm Nutrient Balance“…

If nutrients are overfed, or if feeding is mismanaged on an individual farm, this will result in more nutrients to manage in manure or as spoiled feed. While these nutrients can be applied to crop or hay ground to raise feed, it is important to try and keep this recycling loop as balanced as possible to avoid build-up of excess nutrients. Proper animal feeding and management practices can ensure that feed nutrients are not wasted, not overfed, and feed efficiency will be optimized on the farm.

Feeding Management

Feeding a balanced diet, avoiding overfeeding, and providing abundant supplies of cool, clean, and pure water will help to optimize feed and nutrient use on an animal farm. One way to understand nutrient requirements is to imagine a stave barrel. Only when all staves making up the barrel are the same length will water stay in the barrel. If all staves are 3 feet long, all the water will stay in the barrel. However, if one stave is a foot and a half long, then all the water will run out of the barrel to the level of a foot and a half. (See Figure below.)



That is exactly what is happening with a balanced diet. If all nutrients are in a perfect balance, then there will be no excess and no wastage. It is impossible for all nutrients to be in a perfect balance in commercial or practical diets, but we want to come close to meeting an animal’s nutrient requirements. If the diet is balanced except for one underfed nutrient, then the entire production of the animal will be limited to the level of that “limiting nutrient” and all other nutrients will be wasted.

Overfeeding can be harmful to animals and to the environment. Animals that become overconditioned or obese may be unproductive and at greater risk of health problems. Excess feed is often wasted and may remain in the feeding area, become contaminated, and end up in the manure pile. Water is the most abundant, cheapest, and least understood of all nutrients required for livestock production. Water is of concern whenever it is in short supply or contamination is suspected. If subfreezing temperatures turn water into a frozen nutrient, it will mean trouble for domestic livestock. Distress is often brought on by cold wet winter weather requiring an animal’s digestive system and metabolic processes to function at peak efficiency to convert feedstuffs to energy so that they can remain warm, healthy, and productive.

Conversely, in hot summer weather, water is essential to the animal as well. It serves to cool the animal and works as a solvent or buffer for chemical reactions in the body. When the weather is hot in the summer, an animals’ requirement for water will increase. A lactating dairy cow requires on the average between 15 and 35 gallons of water per day; non-lactating dairy and beef cows require about 15 gallons per day; an adult horse will consume up to 15 gallons per day, which will increase 2 to 3 times when exercising; an adult sheep between 1 ½ and 3 gallons a day; adult swine from 3 to 5 gallons per day; and adult hens about a pint.

A quick rule of thumb is that for every 2 pounds of dry feed intake, an animal should receive one gallon of water. This will vary with stress, weather conditions, heat, cold, disease, productive state, work, exercise, etc., as well as the water and salt content of the feed. Often the first sign that water consumption is inadequate is when animals stop eating. Water is essential to maintain adequate feed consumption.

How does this affect nutrient management?

If we want our animals to reach maximum levels of production, then they will only have optimum feed intake if they receive adequate amounts water. Level of salt in the water or the diet can influence water requirements as can the presence of heavy metals, nitrates, microbes, and algae. Water is not related to runoff or contamination on the farm in the same way that overfeeding or imbalanced diets are, but water influences the ability of animals to use feed. If water is inadequate or contaminated, then animals will use diets less efficiently, eat less, be less productive, and may excrete more nutrients in waste.

How Do I Feed My Livestock to Avoid Waste and Maximize Efficiency?

Check out the list of helpful feed management tips for practical ways to manage feed and nutrients. Some of the topics on the page include:

Feeding animals is both an art and a science. It is a science influenced by years of research and it is an art developed by centuries of practical experience. Healthy animals fed balanced diets and provided with abundant supplies of fresh water will be the most productive. These animals will be the most profitable to the farmer and the most efficient users of nutrients.


  • National Research Council. 1989, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2001. Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Poultry, Beef, Swine, and Dairy. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.
  • Ralston, S. L. 1993. Analysis of Feeds and Forages for Horses. Rutgers Cooperative Extension. NJAES. Factsheet – FS714.
  • Singer, J. W. and D. L. Lee. 1999. Feed and Forage Testing Labs. Rutgers Cooperative Extension. NJAES. Factsheet – FS935.
  • Williams, C. A. 2004. The Basics of Equine Nutrition. Rutgers Cooperative Extension. NJAES. Factsheet – FS038.©2007 Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.All rights reserved.
  • Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS 1064
  • N.J. Agricultural Experiment Station
  • Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick

Cooperating Agencies

  • Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and County Boards of Chosen Freeholders.
  • Rutgers Cooperative Extension, a unit of Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, is an equal opportunity program provider and employer. Published: June 2007

Authors: Michael L. Westendorf and Carey A. Williams, Extension Specialists in Animal Sciences, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. This article was originally published as Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS 1064. Updated November 25, 2008.

Equipment and facilities for managing manure on small farms

The number of small farms is increasing in much of the country, ensuring up to date information is available is important to protect water and environmental quality. This webinar focuses on some of the farm and manure management needs of smaller farms. This presentation was originally broadcast on April 20, 2018. More… Continue reading “Equipment and facilities for managing manure on small farms”