Wheat: Feeding Wheat to Cattle

The nutrient content of wheat compared to other feed grains is shown in Table 1.  Wheat has more protein, less fibre and a higher TDN value than barley and oats.  It is comparable to corn in terms of energy but has a significantly higher protein content and a more rapid rate of starch digestion.  The protein content of wheat is more variable than other feed grains because of the many classes of wheat grown.  In general, HRSW has the highest protein content with HRWW and durum having a slightly lower protein.

Table 1. Nutrient content of various feed grains 

DM basis Oats Barley HRS Wheat Corn
% CP 13.6 13.2 17.2 9.8
% Fat 5.2 2.2 2.3 4.1
% ADF 14.0 5.8 4.2 3.3
% TDN 76 83 88 90


 Source: Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle

The rapid rate of starch digestion, as well as the gluten component of the protein, makes wheat more difficult to feed than other grains.  Dry rolled wheat has the fastest rate of starch digestion of all feed grains.  This is followed by dry rolled barley.  Corn and whole oats have the slowest rate of starch digestion.  A fast rate of starch digestion increases the potential for digestive upsets such as acidosis, bloat and erratic feed patterns. 

Wheat should be processed to improve its digestibility.  Because of its small kernel size, the increase in digestibility is large – 20-25% compared to an improvement in processed barley of 12-15%.  However, wheat must not be finely ground as this increases the likelihood of digestive upsets. Aim for a coarse roll where the kernel is only broken into 2-3 pieces.  Avoid fines at all costs.  Tempering wheat has been shown to be effective in reducing fines and maintaining performance.

Proper feed management is critical.  Wheat should make up no more than 40-50% of the grain mix for animals on high grain diets (i.e. animals receiving more than 50% concentrate – feedlot animals, dairy cows).  Wheat can be fed as the only grain to dry cows, beef cows and heifers as long as forage is provided free choice and intakes of wheat do not exceed 8 lbs of wheat per day for cows and 5 lbs/day for heifers. 

An adaptation period of 2-3 weeks should always be provided. Introduce wheat slowly into the diet by starting with a grain mix containing 10% wheat.  When intake patterns are settled and consistent, increase the proportion of wheat to 20%.  Follow this pattern until the maximum level of 40-50% has been reached.  Other factors which reduce the potential for digestive upsets include limit feeding (i.e. no self feeding), feeding grain more than twice daily, feeding a complete mixed ration and including ionophores and buffers in high grain rations.

Wheat is usually available for feeding to cattle when it doesn’t make “human grade”.  Light test weight wheat and sprouted wheat can be fed successfully to cattle.  Sprouted wheat has a similar feed value to non-sprouted wheat.  Frozen grain will have a lower bushel weight than the 60 lbs of “normal” wheat.  When the test weight is above 50 lbs per bushel, feeding value should be very similar to 60 lb wheat.  It has been estimated that wheat with a bushel weight of 45-50 lbs will have 95% the feed value of “normal” wheat.  Table 2 shows some limited Manitoba data on low test weight wheat.  Feed by weight not by volume.  Processing low test weight wheat can be difficult because of the variation in kernel size.  It is safer to under-process than over – process.

Table 2. Bushel weight and nutrient analysis

%, DM basis 1 2 3
CP 16.7 17.5 16.0
ADF 8.5 5.6 4.2
TDN, calculated 82.7 86.0 87.5
Bushel weight 43.2 50.0 50.5
Source: 2004. MAFRI offices in Russell and Hamiota

Nutrition Update
Volume 15 No.3, February 2005