Pros and Cons of Various Feed Forms

Producers often ask me whether they should feed a meal, pellet, block, or textured feed for their livestock.  The answer is that the best form of feed will depend on many factors: the type of livestock, if there is more than one species to eat the feed, the productive goals for the animals, the type of storage available, the equipment to handle the feed, the topography and size of the pastures, and the weather, to name a few. 

Sheep eating out of a feeder

Producers often ask me whether they should feed a meal, pellet, block, or textured feed for their livestock.  The answer is that the best form of feed will depend on many factors: the type of livestock, if there is more than one species to eat the feed, the productive goals for the animals, the type of storage available, the equipment to handle the feed, the topography and size of the pastures, and the weather, to name a few.

The truth is that any form of feed can work for you.  In any given area, you can find producers that successfully using each form that feed can come in.  These  forms – meal, pellets, blocks, tubs, and textured – have pros and cons that make them unique.

Meal feeds are those that are made up of ingredients ground to about the same consistency.  If the ingredients are of different sized particles, some segregation of particles can occur.  Also, with some of the smaller species such as sheep and goats, the livestock may be able to pick out the particles they prefer, and leave the others behind, negating the “balance” of the formula.

Generally, the ingredients are ground “dry”, meaning that no steam or moisture was added to the mix.  Some molasses may be mixed with meal mixes, but you have to be careful.  Since most meals have salt and mineral ingredients that absorb moisture, adding a moist ingredient like molasses can cause clumping.

One of the benefits of meal mixes is that you don’t have to worry about making the ingredients stick together as you do with a block or a pellet.  With this constraint out of the way, you don’t have to give up some nutrition for binding.

If the feed you are using is to be “salt limited”, then meal mixes work very well since the contact of salt on the animal’s tongue is how the “limiting” works.  So control of intake of meal mixes can be achieved at lower levels of salt inclusion.

Feeding meal mixes requires that you have some type of trough or tub at a designated feeding station.  However, if properly placed in the pastures, this can be turned into a positive in that it helps keep the livestock distributed through the pasture and not clustering together when they hear the “feed truck” coming.

Pelleted feeds are meal mixes that are mixed with some level of steam and molasses and forced through a pelleting die to form some size of a pellet.  The benefit of pellets over dry mixes is the steam.

Steam on carbohydrate granules in feeds breaks down the outer layer of starch in the granule.  This allows the microorganisms in the rumen to access the starch more readily, increasing the digestibility of the feed.  A general assumption is that you can get around a 10% improvement in digestibility from steaming fine particles as opposed to dry.

The drawback to pellets is that you have to keep in mind that you are forcing ingredients through a pellet die under pressure, and you have to make the pellet stick together.  This requires some level of sacrifice on the part of nutrition.  Pellet size will make some difference in this requirement in that larger pellets can have more abrasive material in them (mineral or salt ingredients), however, they must have more “sticky” ingredients, like cottonseed meal, to hold it together than smaller pellets do.

Feeding pellets is probably the best characteristic of this type of feed.  The larger pellets (greater than 3/8”) can be fed on the ground wherever you find your livestock.  Eliminating the need for troughs or tubs can be a cost savings.  However, if you are in very rough, or sandy country, feeding pellets may be difficult.  Also, pellets can be handled bulk, instead of sacked if you have the equipment for it, saving from $40 to $44 per ton in cost.

Blocked supplements are a unique concept of mixing and holding ingredients together in a large size.  Formulating a ration that will stick together tight enough to slow intake, but leave it soft enough to allow sufficient intake is a learned mixture of science and art.  The drawback is that in order to accomplish this some sacrifices in nutrition must be made.  In order to control intake, salt, binders, and other limiters must be added.  Because of this, the energy level of blocks is lower than other mixes that don’t require a limiter, such a pellets that are hand fed.

The big plus of blocks is that they can be fed anywhere.  In troughs, or on the ground, livestock can eat them free choice.  And, hopefully, they will only eat the desired amount each day.  Because they can be placed anywhere in the pasture, they can help with grazing distribution by encouraging the livestock to utilize parts of the pastures that are not used as much as others.

Tubs are a type of feed consisting of mixing ingredients into a liquid slurry, then cooking, or using a chemical binder, it until it gels.  The best characteristic of the tubs is that the surface area softens slowly, so consumption is controlled without salt.  Thus, the energy level can be higher than in the pressed blocks.  One drawback is that they are generally marketed in 250 to 500 pound sizes.  This is not a problem in itself, but producers tend to buy one tub for many head of livestock, and it’s questionable whether more timid animals get to eat what they need either through not enough time to get to the tub, or the material in the tub not softening up enough each day.

Textured feeds are those that have ingredients of different particle size, as are used in feedlot rations.  As mentioned before, the drawback to these type of feeds is that smaller ruminants can pick out the preferred ingredients, and leave the others in the trough.  However, the major benefit is that for rations that must contain roughage, such as feedlot rations, it allows for the roughage to be in a coarse form, which is necessary for rumen function.  Fine grinding the roughage parts of a feedlot ration can lead to a faster passage rate through the rumen, which will cause the rumen to become too acidic.  This acidic condition is called acidosis, and if allowed to get extreme, can result in death within 24 hours.

As you can see, each type of feed form has its pluses and minuses.  The form that is right for your livestock and your operation will depend on your specifications.  As I said earlier, any feed will accomplish what you need it to.  However, some will do it more economically than others.  To choose the one that is right for you, compare them for nutritional value, ease of feeding, and the equipment needed for handling it.  Comparing these characteristics among feeds will give you the answer you need.

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