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Livestock Feed

Introduction To Animal Foods

Feeding is the most important factor in successful farming. An animal will only perform at it's potential if it is fed well. Being 'well fed' does not imply being 'over fed'. An animal that is fed well is given just enough (but not more) of the correct foods so that it can realise its production potential.

To feed more than necessary would be wasteful and uneconomical and could lead to health problems in the livestock. The successful farmer will feed at the 'optimum level'. In other words, he will feed just enough that is need for optimum production.

It requires a great deal of skill, knowledge and practice to be able to feed animals optimally. The first step is to gain a good understanding of the different types of food that can be fed to livestock.  The second step is to learn how the different foods can be mixed together to form balanced rations for animals.

It is also important to observe the animals around you. By noting what they are fed and how well they seem to be doing, you can begin to develop an eye for feeding animals well. This step will never be completed, for there is always something new to learn about the way different animals respond to food. In addition, new foods are constantly being developed, and it will be up to you to try them out and see if they work for your animals.

Terms And Definitions

Before looking at the different types of food stuffs in more detail, there are several terms and definitions with which you should become familiar.

Feed Stuff

This is a broad and general term that is used when referring to any food or fodder. It includes naturally occurring plant or animal products and by-products (e.g. grass, maize, brewers' grains). It also includes vitamin or mineral supplements which are chemically synthesised, or otherwise manufactured pure nutrients. In other words, you will be quite safe referring to anything that is fed to an animal as a 'feed stuff'.


A ration is a 24-hour allowance of feed stuff that is given to an animal. The important thing to note is that the term carries no implications that the allowance is adequate in quantity or kind to meet the nutritional needs of the animal for which it is intended. Some confusion normally arises as to the difference between the words ration and diet. These can be explained as follows:

  • ration:  the daily allowance or amount of food for one person (e.g. a soldier) or one animal (e.g. a steer). Remember, the ration may not be enough for optimum production.
  • diet:  this is what the person or animal usually eats or drinks (e.g. the actual food chosen, not the amounts).
Maintenance Ration

This is the ration which would allow the animal only enough to stay in the initial condition (i.e. to support life with no product, no gain, no loss of body substance). It is the minimum amount of food required to keep the animal alive. This can be particularly important for maintaining stock when there is a shortage of feed (e.g. drought conditions).

Balanced Maintenance Ration

This definition has two parts. 'Maintenance Ration' here refers to a feed mixture which is just sufficient to meet the requirements of a specified animal in a 24-hour period. The animal receiving the ration will neither lose nor gain weight. 'Balanced' means that the proportion of carbohydrate, fat and protein in the ration is correct.

Groups Of Foods


Carbohydrates are made up of sugars and starches (called soluble carbohydrates) and fibre (called crude carbohydrate).

Sugars and starches provide energy and heat. If they are not used immediately they will be stored as fat.

Fibre is a woody substance with little nutritional value. It does, however, have an important role to play in keeping the digestive system working smoothly. It stimulates the digestive process and helps in the absorption of food.

All carbohydrates are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.


Proteins contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. In addition, they also contain nitrogen. Proteins are used to maintain the body, and to grow and repair tissues. Proteins also provides heat and energy. Protein is especially important for young, growing animals and for animals who are producing milk, eggs or meat.


Fats also contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, but no nitrogen. Fats renew fat tissue and provide heat and energy. The energy value of fats is two and a half times higher than that of carbohydrates.

Other Terms That Are Used


On the farm, roughage is normally considered to be material making up fodder such as hay, silage, pastures, etc. The distinguishing characteristic of roughage is usually a high fibre content. For hay, this frequently runs between 25 - 30% of the dry matter.


Technically, all feeds supplying nutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) are classed as concentrates if their crude fibre content does not exceed 18%. In the feed trade, the word 'concentrate' has been used to indicate commercially prepared supplements.

Basal Feeds

Basal feeds are concentrated sources of energy and are especially rich in starches and sugars. They include the whole group of grains (e.g. wheat, maize, oats, etc.) and their by-products. Basal feeds have a protein content that is greater than 16% and a maximum fibre content of 18%. The main difference between basal feeds and other feed stuffs is that basal feeds have a high digestible energy content. Basal feeds make up 60 - 90% of all rations.


Feeds of this type are concentrated sources of protein, minerals and vitamins. A mixed protein supplement is, by convention, a mixture of feeds which carries 30% or more of protein. Single feeds containing 20% or more of protein are included in this group.


Any food constituent, or group of food constituents of the same general chemical composition, which aids in the support of animal life.


This is a measure of the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by one degree Centigrade. One kilocalorie = 1000 calories. A specific number of calories is required by animals each day to either maintain or increase their body weight.


This is an approximate measurement of the amount of food which has been absorbed by the animal. Not all food which is taken in by the animal can be absorbed.

Digestibility is usually described as a percentage.


This may seem a strange term to use in conjunction with feed stuffs. However, there are harmful substances which, when used at certain levels, are harmful enough to be classed as toxic. Urea is an example of a feed stuff that is potentially toxic if too much is fed at one time. If the correct amount of urea is fed, the feed stuff is very valuable. The term 'toxic' must not be confused with 'poison'.

Learn more about Animal Care and Nutrition

Learn more about animal care and nutrition with a course from ACS Distance Education. Be able to look after your livestock better - understand how optimal nutrition can improve the health of your livestock and boost their immune systems.

We have a large selection of Agricultural courses to select from, including courses specialising in animal care and nutrition. Develop your skills and knowledge to develop your career or manage your farm better. Studying can help you gain the necessary tools to understand how to improve your farming business, or give you the understanding to enable you to diversify your business or make it more sustainable.

The links at the bottom of this page will take you to pages for listings of all our Agriculture courses, and also those courses specific to animal care and nutrition.

If you have any questions or would like to know about the different courses and study options available, get in touch with us today. You phone us on (UK) 01384 442752 or (International) +44 (0) 1384 442752, or submit your questions to our specialist Agriculture tutors - they will be pleased to hear from you.

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