Winter Feed Cost Comparison Calculator – Managing Variable Costs

Winter feed is the largest year-over-year variable cost faced by producers. A cow-calf operation feeding a predominantly purchased hay ration to 100 head for 180 days could pay $50,000 a year for winter feed. A 350-head herd fed for 150 days can cost over $150,000 a year for winter feed alone if good quality hay is priced conservatively at $143/tonne.

In October 2021, 80% of Canada’s agricultural land was considered to be in drought. Low soil moisture, crop yield losses, feed quality concerns and forage and grain deficits are a reality for many, and the cost of hay and other inputs have increased dramatically, putting the squeeze on many budgets.

In October 2021, extreme drought still covered 28% of Canada’s agricultural landscape. For those who are struggling, contact local and provincial farm organizations to learn about what may be available in your community. Scroll down for drought management strategies and resources.

While prices may be outside of one’s control, producers may be able to manage their budget by adjusting their rations and considering the use of more economical alternative feedstuffs. Stretching winter feeding budgets may present a challenge but one worth considering to help manage budgets not only for this winter season but in future years.

As winter rolls in, livestock feed supplies remain variable across Canada. Late summer rains have extended grazing in some regions. Other areas have or shared bumper supplies to carry through. Corn crops thrived under the hot summer days and nights leading to a record year for Canadian corn production.

Producers should discuss feed and water test results and ration formulation with a qualified nutritionist or ag extension staff. The examples used in the calculator are generic and may not work on individual farms.

Knowledge is power, so knowing your available feed supply and where it may fall short on nutrition is the first step to manage winter feeding for your herd. A feed test will point out where supplementary nutrients may be required. The next step is sourcing additional supplementary nutrients that are affordable and available to offer nutrient balance.

The Beef Cattle Research Council’s Winter Feed Cost Comparison Calculator (Click to download [.xlsx file | 107kb]) is a flexible decision-making tool that helps producers compare the cost-effectiveness of different, regionally available feed and alternatives. Two examples of how to use the calculator (one in the east the other in the west) are below and demonstrate the financial outcomes of switching between feed inputs this year. Continue reading

Feed Grains for Beef Cattle: New Web Page

Feed grains, such as corn, barley, oats, and wheat, are important for Canadian beef production. Cereals are used as forage, including silage, swath grazing, or baled green feed, however cereal grains are a particularly attractive energy and protein source for the feedlot sector because of their high nutritional value, competitive pricing, and ready supply. Continue reading

Barley Comes up the Backstretch

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Like cattle performance, crop yields reflect the interplay between genetics, management practices and environmental conditions. Statistics Canada reports show that barley yields weren’t keeping up with other feed crops for decades. Barley yields increased 0.39 bushels/acre/year between 1980 and 2009, slower than either wheat (0.44) or corn (1.66). But since 2010, Canada’s barley yields have improved faster (1.32) than both wheat (0.84) and corn (0.66). This apparent tripling of barley yield gains is remarkable, especially considering that canola, corn and wheat development receive tremendous research investment, and their expanding acreages have squeezed barley’s shrinking acres onto less productive farmland.

Canada’s beef industry can share some credit for barley’s improved performance. Alberta Beef Producers, Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association and the Beef Cattle Research Council have supported Alberta Agriculture’s Field Crop Development Center, where Dr. Flavio Capettini leads Canada’s only dedicated feed and forage barley breeding program. This team’s work under the 2013-18 Beef Science Cluster illustrates how much effort it takes to breed a new, improved feed grain variety. Continue reading

Barley Variety and Silage Quality

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.


packing sileage
Barley silage is the main roughage fed in Western Canadian feedlots, but few barley breeders try to improve its feed quality. Most breeders focus on improved grain yields, malting characteristics and better disease and lodging resistance, and pay little attention to feed quality traits like protein, starch, or neutral detergent fiber (NDF) content and digestibility (NDFD).

NDF is a measure of “structural carbohydrates”, the parts of the plant that hold it up. Cattle digest NDF slowly, so NDF contributes to gut fill and can limit feed intake, growth and efficiency. In a Beef Cluster funded study published earlier this year, Dr. John McKinnon and colleagues compared 80 silage samples collected from farms from across Saskatchewan and Alberta, that had been produced from seven different barley varieties (Nair et al., Can. J. Anim. Sci. 96:598-608). In an upcoming paper, they compared three of the two-row varieties that had produced silage with similar protein, starch and NDF levels, but different NDFD, and their effects on feedlot performance and carcass traits. Continue reading

Feed Barley Breeding Investments

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.



As a relatively small crop, barley doesn’t attract much interest from private breeding companies. There are roughly 10 million acres of barley in North America, with six million in Canada.  Corn is a much larger crop, with 80 million acres seeded in the U.S. alone. Statistics Canada reports that Canada’s barley acreage has dropped by around 116,000 acres per year since 1980, while corn acreage increased by nearly 23,000 acres annually. At the same time, corn yields increased three times as fast as barley (1.8 bushels per acre per year for corn vs. less than half a bushel per acre per year for barley). These differences add up. In 2014, Canada produced almost 25% more corn than barley, using about half as many acres.

Part of the reason that corn yields have outstripped barley yields is due to fundamental differences in the plants themselves. Corn is open-pollinated, so breeding companies can cross two unrelated varieties to create a commercial variety that greatly outperforms both of its parents because of hybrid vigor. But if the seed produced by the hybrid is saved and re-seeded, Continue reading

Ergot: Low Levels Cause Big Problems

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.



Ergot develops when a fungus called Claviceps purpurea infects susceptible grass and grain plants during flowering. Rye is most susceptible annual crop, followed by triticale, then wheat. Barley and oats are less susceptible but not completely resistant. Ergot is not a concern in corn. Ergot can also infect a number of perennial grasses. Cool, damp weather conditions during the flowering period (like those in Western Canada over the last few years, and that appear to be shaping up again this summer) cause the flowers stay open longer. This allows more opportunities for ergot spores to spread and infect the seed head. Ergot spores can survive for a year on the soil surface. Less summer fallow, continuous grain-on-grain rotations and un-mowed grass in road allowances allow ergot spores to build up in the soil and help the disease cycle to continue and build.

Continue reading

Improving barley and triticale feed



Continued improvements in the yield and nutritional quality of barley grain and annual forages are essential to maintain a competitive cattle feeding sector in Canada.

Research currently underway, funded by the National Check-off and Canada’s Beef Science Cluster, is working to develop varieties of barley (grain and forage) and triticale (forage) with improved nutritional quality, yields, yield stability, disease resistance, and water use efficiency. This research will also expand the germplasm resources available to ensure that varietal development continues into the future.

Continue reading

Ergot spotted in Western Canada -keep an eye out

This is a guest post written by Karin Schmid, Beef Production Specialist with the Alberta Beef Producers.

The cool, wet conditions across parts of the country this spring, especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan, may have created the perfect environment for ergot.  While virtually unheard of a decade or two ago, veterinarians and researchers agree that problems with ergot are clearly on the rise in the prairies.

What is ergot?

Ergot is a plant disease caused by the Claviceps purpurea fungus.  Although traditionally associated with rye and triticale, ergot also affects wheat, barley, and a variety of grasses including bromegrass, quackgrass, wheatgrass, orchardgrass, wild rye, and bluegrasses. Continue reading

New technologies to breed better barley



The nutritional value of barley grain comes from its seed starch content, but a great deal of barley is used for silage, greenfeed or swathgrazing. Therefore, it is important to know the nutritional value of the cut plant.

Nutritional value largely depends on how digestible the fiber (lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose) in the stem and leaves are. Barley varieties with higher whole plant digestibility allow cattle to obtain more nutrients per tonne of feed. Some barley varieties have more digestible fiber than others.

A recently-completed research project funded by the National Check-off and Canada’s Beef Science Cluster studied the use of genomic technologies to make selection for improved digestibility in feed barley easier and faster. Continue reading