What Do Beef Cattle Eat?

calf nursing a cow

Beef Calf Diet

When beef calves are first born, their diet consists of their dam’s (mother’s) milk.  Calves gradually start to explore (learning from their dam) and graze on forages as well as drink water.  Beef calves typically grow on their dam’s milk and forage only until they are weaned at 6-8 months of age.  However, some beef cattle farms choose to creep feed their beef calves before weaning.

creep feeding calves

Creep Gate

Creep Feeding

Creep feeding is a term used to allow the calf access to feed specifically formulated for the calf where the dam cannot eat the feed.  Usually this is done with a special feeder and/or a creep gate leading into a pen where feed is available.  Creep feeding is done for a couple of reasons: to prepare calves for weaning, develop the rumen (stomach compartment), meet nutritional requirements, and for added weight gain.

Beef cattle producers know that it is important to prepare the calf for weaning and for their next phase in life which usually includes being sold to a stocker buyer (person who buys weaned calves and continues to grow the calves before they go into a feedyard).  Weaning is very stressful on the calf so if the calf is accustomed to eating feed (as well as forage) that helps the calf overcome the fact that they are no longer receiving their dam’s milk.

beef cattle complete feed

Complete Feed in Pellet Form

Beef Cattle Diet

So, what is in beef cattle feed?  Beef cattle are ruminants (they have 4 stomach compartments) and therefore they can digest different types of feedstuffs from corn stalks to by-products.  Some beef cattle producers choose to purchase a “complete feed” which is usually in the form of a pellet and includes protein, energy, roughage (fiber), vitamins, and minerals.  Complete feeds are usually given to cattle on pasture/hay as a supplement.  There are times (such as the winter) where forage does not meet the nutritional requirements of the animal and supplementation is needed.

On the other hand, producers can choose to feed a commodity (ex: corn, barley, wheat) or make their own total mixed ration (TMR).  If a producer makes their own TMR, they mix feedstuffs together to ensure enough protein, energy, roughage, vitamins, and minerals are available to meet nutrient requirements for the cattle being fed.  This is a common practice when cattle are being finished for beef in a feedyard.

Note- even if cattle are given a TMR, it contains forage/roughage or free choice forage is provided!  Feedyard beef cattle may not be grazing but they are given a roughage in their ration because they cannot survive on grain alone due to their ruminant digestive system.

By-Product Feeds

I mentioned earlier that because beef cattle are ruminants that they can digest by-products that would normally be thrown away because they are not used for human consumption.  A perfect example of a by-product that is commonly fed to beef cattle is distillers/brewer’s grains.  After the distillation process, the “spent” grains are no longer needed and would otherwise be thrown away.  However, most breweries work with beef cattle farms that can utilize and feed the spent grains as a protein source.

Other examples include baked goods (bread, snack cakes, cookies), citrus pulp, beet pulp, wheat middlings, and cottonseed meal.  I like to think of cows as “upcyclers” because of their incredible ability to take something totally useless to us and transform it into beef.


Beef cattle mainly eat forage (grass, hay, etc.) throughout their life.  Some cattle may never see feed supplementation and others may receive it for a small amount of time during their life.  Regardless, the majority of their diet will always contain forage/roughage.  This is important to remember when you see or hear about cattle being on grain.  Even though they are receiving grain in their ration, they are also receiving forage/roughage of some sort because they require it!

Now you know what beef cattle eat!


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