Ask A Farmer: What do feedlot cattle eat?

What do cattle eat in the feedlot?

I have had several conversations where folks assume that grain-finished cattle have little to no access to grass pastures. That is not the complete truth and many are surprised to learn just how short the period is that those cattle remain in the feedlot. The majority of the animal’s life is spent on pasture.

Recently I have started a new series of posts, directly answering questions I receive from readers. On the Ask A Farmer tab, there is a contact form where you can submit your questions. A few weeks ago, I shared a little about feeding corn to cattle. Turns out, corn and other cereal grains are a great source of energy in cattle diets. Yesterday I started a series focused on the concerns surrounding cattle feedlots and CAFOs. Today we’ll address a few concerns about the cattle and what they eat.

How long are cattle kept in feedlots?

Freshly received cattle at the feedlot eating wheat hay

Most beef cattle in the country are weaned around 7 months of age and will spend time in the backgrounding or stockering phase of cattle production. During this phase, the primary focus is growth of bone and muscle tissue, development of the immune system function, and cheap gains based on a diet of primarily forages. The stocker phase of cattle production utilizes mostly pasture where cattle graze grasses and other forages. It is important to introduce cattle to eating feed out of a bunk before transitioning to the final feeding phase. Many farmers will begin the transition in diet of stocker cattle by introducing grains or grain by-products.

Most cattle entering the feedlot are around 700-800 pounds or larger and near a year of age or older. When cattle enter the feedlot, they are given their vaccinations, ear-tagged to match their pen, and started on a high-forage (grasses and legumes) diet. Their diets slowly transition to 75-85% concentrates (grains, grain by-products, high-energy, low fiber feeds).

Feed mills like this one easily mix more than 1 million pounds of cattle feed daily

Cattle remain on feed for roughly 3-4 months on average and will finish around or above 1,200 pounds. Finished meaning the group of cattle has met a desired carcass composition to meet meat quality goals. Texas A&M University has a great fact sheet that describes carcass grading and Jenny Dewey shares great examples on her California Meat Locker blog.

What do feedlot cattle eat?

Here is a photo of cattle ration in a feedlot. Can you identify the different feed ingredients?

The feedlots where I have worked started their cattle rations with high-quality forage. This can be something like alfalfa or wheat hay. As the cattle increase intake, they are transitioned to a higher-energy diet. The goal of finish feeding in the feedlot is to provide a diet high in energy that is readily available for digestion.

Corn is the predominant grain used because it is a great source of starch (carbohydrates) utilized for energy. Other grains used include oats, barley, sorghum, distillers (brewers) grains, and by-products of numerous grain and fiber milling processes.  These are referred to as the concentrate portion of the ration.

Corn or wheat silage is a very common feed ration ingredient to be used. It can account for the forage and concentrate portion of the diet. Silage is the entire plant (seed and stalk), harvested in an earlier stage with higher moisture, then stored in an anaerobic environment (without oxygen) where fermentation occurs and breaks down the plant cell walls.

The grains are usually processed to make the starch (carbohydrates), protein, and other nutrients inside the kernel more readily available for digestion. The most popular method I have seen used for corn is steam flaking – the corn is steam flaked to soften the kernel the rolled flat into a flake. Other methods include grinding or dry flaking.

All of the feed ingredients are blended well and fed to cattle 2 to 3 times per day depending on operation.

Corn Silage

One of my favorite parts of working in the feedlot was to see the bunks filled with feed on a chilly morning, all the cattle lined up in a row, steam rolling off the freshly batched feed and the smell of fresh corn flakes. Always made me want to grab a bowl and spoon with a glass of milk!

Silage being packed at harvest

Next week I will share more of my thoughts on cattle feedlots including the use of feed additives, antibiotics, animal welfare, and ask the question “Is there a better option?”



  1. Thanks for explaining such useful things. I was eager to know how corn is used in making rations for cattle. I just learned that i may use steam flake corn which is much more digestible than a dry one….



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