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Choosing the right self-fed supplements for beef cows

You may have heard the termself-fed supplements — but what are they? And are they all the same?  In this blog, we will answer these questions and others to help producers  choose the right supplement for their beef operations.  

To put it simply, self-fed supplements are just that: supplements that are fed free-choice, meaning they are not mixed in a ration, force-fed or hand-fed in a controlled amount. Ridley Block Operations, which manufactures CRYSTALYX®, takes pride in being a leader in self-fed supplements for the livestock industry.  

Self-fed supplements offer a lot of flexibility when it comes to management and economics. Some may criticize them as being high-cost based on the cost per unit of nutrients vs. hand-fed supplements, like range cubes/pellets, or commodity feedstuffs, like distiller’s grains or other byproducts. However, from a practical standpoint, self-fed supplements can reduce expenses related to labor, equipment, storage, and waste.  Self-fed supplement options range from small blocks to loose minerals and from liquid supplements to low-moisture blocks, such as those offered by CRYSTALYX®. All of these options have nutritional benefits, but their cost and practicality can vary widely depending on their feeding rate, fortification and management, or lack thereof. Making the right decision about the best self-fed supplement for you depends on the quality of the forage being fed, predictable intake levels and practical application. 





Fit the forage 

Supplementation begins with knowing the quality of the forage that is being fed or grazed and the body condition of the cattle. Typically, during this time of year, pasture conditions have long since peaked in quality, and as a result, beef cows are going to need protein supplementation. Many self-fed supplements especially blocks and tubs are geared toward delivering protein. Energy is also important but is not necessarily the main nutrient being offered. In forage-based diets where quantity is not lacking, a supplement ranging from 2030% crude protein will improve forage digestibility and utilization, providing more energy to the cow. If the forage you are feeding is extremely poor in quality (e.g., 7% crude protein or less) and very high in fiber, a supplement with a higher protein level (around 30%) is the better choice. CRYSTALYX® offers several formulations, ranging from 2040% crude protein. 

It is easy for most of us to distinguish between a loose-mineral bagged supplement and a protein tub or barrel. Still, sometimes, producers overlook the fact that CRYSTALYX® formulas that provide protein also contribute significant levels of trace minerals and vitamins to the diet, meeting requirements, in many cases, for a beef cow during mid-gestation.  With this in mind, there are some times of the year during which additional mineral supplementation alongside CRYSTALYX® is not necessary and only serves as an added cost.  

On the flip side, we often see producers using a high-protein formula while their cattle are consuming higher-quality forages or grazing green pastures, which naturally offer protein levels that are high enough on their own, making protein supplementation unnecessary. In this case, using a CRYSTALYX® mineral supplement that does not provide protein such as Crystal-Phos® 8 or Blueprint 6% Phos would suffice.  These CRYSTALYX® mineral supplements are consumed at much lower rates, similar to the consumption of a loose dry mineral, meaning they cost less per head to feed than a protein supplement. These “mineral”-type low-moisture block supplements are becoming more popular and are extremely practical from a mineral management standpoint.  They work well in situations where a dry mineral may not be consumed well and offer superior weatherability with virtually no waste. 

Understanding intake predictability 

Self-fed supplements need to offer a high degree of intake predictability to be successful.  Unfortunately, intake inconsistency can give some self-fed supplements a bad name and rightfully so. Not all block and/or tub supplements are the same, and many products have failed in the industry due either to unnecessarily high intake levels, which translate to uncontrolled costs, or to suboptimal intakes, which lead to inadequate nutrient delivery. The consistent and predictable intake levels seen with CRYSTALYX® boost user confidence and deliver superior performance. In fact, this intake consistency makes CRYSTALYX® an excellent and effective delivery mechanism, not only for protein, vitamins and minerals but also for numerous additives, such as fly control, Bio-Mos® 2 and Bovatec® offered in a self-fed form. 

Supplements with more variable and/or higher intake levels are usually priced at fewer dollars per ton or pound. But while they may seem more pocketbook-friendly, due to higher variations in the intake levels, these products can actually cost more per head to feed than options like CRYSTALYX®, and more importantly, the nutritional benefits they might offer can also be compromised.   


                                       To view all of the CRYSTALYX producer tools available click here. 


Choose what’s practical 

One of the reasons CRYSTALYX® is so popular is because it is practical.  It’s an effective supplement that’s easy to use with minimal time and labor expense.  Yes, there may be other supplement options available that look less expensive to feed, buy in a practical sense would not fit management, the environment or other conditions. 

Perhaps you’re a producer who has multiple groups of cattle scattered across numerous locations, and you can’t get to them all every day. Placing CRYSTALYX® barrels out once every couple of weeks makes a lot more sense than trying to feed hand-fed supplements three or four times a week. Perhaps your cattle are in rough terrain, or maybe obtaining the equipment needed to deliver liquid supplements or commodities is not feasible for you. Additionally, you may lack the storage facilities necessary to fully take advantage of lower-cost commodities that must then need to be hand-fed or -mixed. CRYSTALYX® provides just as many or more advantages that extend beyond nutrition, truly making it a complete supplement. 

One of the most practical applications for CRYSTALYX® is the BioBarrel® single- trip container. This container simply degrades as cattle consume the CRYSTALYX® within, leaving no empty container behind for you to retrieve. In large pastures and landscapes and in cattle operations where labor is at a premium, the BioBarrel® option is often the deciding factor as producers decide which supplement to use.  I have had ranchers tell me that they feed CRYSTALYX® for many reasons, but the BioBarrel® is one of the most advantageous. This container option continues to grow in popularity. 

 CRYSTALYX®: The right self-fed supplement choice 

The cost of all supplements, regardless of their brand or form, is up significantly this year — but don’t let this be a deterrent to taking good care of your animals. In many cases, years like this one justify the consideration of more supplement strategies, as beef producers are taking advantage of lower-cost forage options that necessitate additional supplementation. Furthermore, getting the best performance from cattle is more critical when input costs are high. 


  • Start by choosing the right formula to match the kind of forages you are using. This is the proper supplement strategy. Moderate and low-quality forages should be supplemented with solutions like CRYSTALYX® protein supplements, and higher-quality forages should be supplemented with CRYSTALYX® mineral supplements. 


  • Use the CRYSTALYX® app on your smartphone device to help you find the right product for your operation, calculate intakes, determine the cost per day and more. The app is an easy-to-use tool that can guide your decisions based on forage quality, can help you choose the right fortification level of your supplement, and can outline the benefits of many additives, such as fly control, Bioplex® trace minerals, Bio-Mos® and others. 


  • Do the math and you will realize that not all self-fed supplements are the same and that a lower price and lower quality usually mean higher costs in the end, due to higher intakes and a diminished nutritional value. A perceived cost savings of $100 per ton can be erased quickly by just a few ounces of uncontrolled intake. 


  • Take advantage of unique packaging, such as the BioBarrel. This option is environmentally responsible and also offers savings related to time and labor expenses.