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1999 Beef & Bison Production Field Day

The feeding value of barley: A review of

comparative beef performance trials

Vern Anderson, Ph.D.

Animal Scientist

Carrington Research Extension Center

North Dakota State University


Barley appears to be essentially equal to corn in feeding value on an air dry weight basis when compared analytically and in feedlot trials. There is some evidence of underestimation of nutritional value by NRC (1996). Feedlot gains from barley averaged 97.1% of corn gains for growing and finishing beef cattle in a review of several recent trials. Other reviews by Hunt (1995) and Owens (1995) document equivalent performance of barley to corn in a feedlot setting.


Barley has been grown for centuries in temperate climates throughout the world. It is used as a feed for many species under wide ranging management conditions in several production scenarios. As a feed grain, it competes with several other commodities including corn, grain sorghum, wheat, and oats. The returns to feeding barley depend greatly on the nutrients available and the cost. Barley is known primarily as a source of energy, protein, and fiber. It has a unique nutrient composition but compares favorably with several other grains (Table 1). The effective use of these nutrients may vary by species. Similarly, the nutrient requirements of species may differ and vary with stage of production. This paper presents two methods of estimating relative value of feed barley compared to corn.

The use of barley as a feed grain

Barley is usually fed in regions where it is grown. The crop requires less water, fewer growing degree days and lower inputs than corn. Varieties are developed for regional adaptation, and for feed or malting use, although most of the breeding effort is toward superior malting varieties. Substantial differences have been observed in animal performance due to variety (Boss and Bowman, 1996; Bowman et al., 1998; Hinman et al., 1995) in some cases, but similar performance was observed with different varieties (Bradshaw et al., 1994) even when bushel weight and protein levels were not the same (Hinman, 1982). There appears to be a threshold effect with bushel weights above 44 lbs producing similar gains given similar protein and fiber levels. It is generally accepted that high extract malting barley varieties also produce improved animal performance (Hockett and White, 1982; Molina-Cano et al., 1997; and Bowman et al, 1998).

Some non-grain growing areas or deficit grain production areas may import barley as feed for animal production, but in competition with other feeds available for shipment. This scenario includes international markets.

Competition between commodities is strong in cropping areas where many feed grains can be grown (i.e. Dakotas, Minnesota). Livestock feeders should ultimately benefit if they procure grains wisely.

With these considerations, it is important to determine the relative cost of nutrients in barley vs. other grains and relate back to price per bushel for procurement decisions. First, a comparison should be made from a purely analytical perspective, using the laboratory evaluation of barley vs. corn and/or other feeds. This method yields precise values that are verifiable and repeatable. Secondly, a review of animal performance from comparative feeding trials will give biological values. Greater variation will exist in these comparative trials due to differences in environment, genetics, and other factors. The term "value in use" is applied in this case as the level of performance may change with different proportions of barley. The relative worth of barley should be reasonably established with these procedures.

Analytical comparison

The two major nutrients in barley are carbohydrates, primarily non-structural from starch (energy) and crude protein. Energy is measured in calories, with Mcal (megacalories) as the unit of expression for feedgrains. Several assumptions must be made for comparison based on a purely analytical perspective. The price of energy and protein is positive and highly correlated, and nutrient requirements and utilization by animals is similar. Obviously, these criteria are not always met. Yet, the analytical comparison gives us one method for a quick and easy comparison. Nutrient analyses presented in Table 1 are used for the comparison.

Corn will serve as the base for energy values and soybean meal for protein costs. If corn is valued at $2.25/bushel, the value of barley as an energy feed is based on the metabolizable energy (ME) units for each grain as established by NRC, (1996) for beef. Another ME value calculated by Zinn(1993) is included in the table. This value is considerably higher than NRC (1996), however, to be conservative in this comparison, we will use the widely published NRC (1996) ME values. Net energy for maintenance (NEm) and net energy for gain (NEg) are also presented in Table 1. The NRC (1996) coefficients are lower than values calculated by Zinn (1993) and Bowman and Blake (1995). The protein value is based on protein content above corn calculated based on the cost of protein from soybean meal at $225/ton.

In we use the NRC (1996) for beef as an example, ME is valued at $.0303 per Mcal with corn at $2.25 per 56 lb. bushel. Barley would carry a value of $1.76 per 48 lb. bushel for energy alone with ME at 3.03 Mcal/kg. If protein is valued at $.26 per pound, (soybean meal at $225 per ton, and barley is 13.2% protein compared to 9.8% for corn, an additional $.17 worth of protein would be added per bushel of barley for a total of $1.93. Therefore, one bushel of barley (48 lb.) would be worth 85.7% of the price of one bushel of corn (56 lb.). Stated another way, if corn is worth $.0402 per pound then barley is worth $.0402 per pound. A spreadsheet can be set up to make several comparative calculations quickly and easily. The relationship will change if the price of protein relative to energy changes.

Value in use comparison

The primary use of barley is in feeding beef cattle. The greatest volume is used in feeding young animals to market weight. The swine industry is not extensively developed in barley growing regions, nor are poultry or dairy enterprises numerous. Therefore, we will concentrate on beef feedlot gain for estimating the value of barley, however, there are advantages to using barley in dairy and swine rations over other grains. The primary considerations in determining feed value of barley are dry matter intake, animal gain, and feed efficiency. These items, while important, are overshadowed by the ultimate measurement, return above feed costs.

Combinations of grains are often more productive than one grain alone. The proportion of each grain becomes a variable as well as the differences in performance from increasing/decreasing levels. The calculation of value in use reflects the difference as a the amount of grain changes in a ration.

In beef feeding, barley is used in diets for growing and finishing steers and heifers. Growing diets use lower levels of grain (4 to 10 pounds per head daily) and higher levels of forage. These diets are fed to weaned calves for moderate growth rate. Growing calves have higher protein requirements as growth is largely muscle, bone, and organs rather than fat. In a review of forage based diets fed to cattle, Hunt (1995) concluded that barley feeding improved protein status compared to corn due to more extensive ruminal fermentation resulting in greater microbial protein synthesis.

Finishing diets may include 15 to 22 pounds of grain daily. As steers approach harvest weight, the rate of lean tissue deposition decreases and fat accumulation increases. Fat deposition requires less nitrogen, hence lower protein requirements for finishing steers.

The value of barley will depend to some extent on the comparative cost of protein. With higher protein requirements in growing steers, the value of protein in barley may be enhanced compared to finishing. An extensive series of studies could be developed to answer this question precisely. In the mean time, we have a number of trials that will yield data on comparing barley in various proportions with other grains (Table 2). Considering all barley varieties studied, animal gains from barley were 98.4% of all other grains during growing. Finishing performance was 96.5% of other feed grains, again, considering all barley varieties evaluated. It is readily apparent that some varieties perform better in the feedyard. Breeding efforts are underway at a number of institutions to develop feed specific barleys with higher yield and/or protein content.

If comparisons with other grains are made using only the best performing barley varieties, growing value remains at 97.1% but finishing performance increases to 97.9% of other grains. Corn vs. the best barley variety comparisons yield gains of 98.0% of corn for barley diets during growing and 96.4% during finishing.

Reviews by Hunt (1995) and Owens et al., (1995) support the essentially equivalent value of barley to corn in feedlot diets. Hunt’s review (1995) supports the thesis that barley is undervalued in NRC(1984, 1996) tables. Owens et al., (1995) reviewed 565 feeding studies involving over 23,000 cattle on feed and concluded that cattle fed barley gain faster than cattle fed corn, wheat, or milo.


Barley appears to be essentially equal to corn on a weight basis when compared by analytical methods. Further, animal performance or value in use supports equal value of barley to that of corn, and of other feed grains, especially if an optimum variety is used.

Table 1. Nutrient content of barley and other common feed grains1

Item Barley Corn Sorghum Wheat Oats
Feed Number1 402         410         428            434           423        
Dry Matter, %                                                  
                                                                         ------------------100% dry matter basis------------------
Crude Protein 88.1       90.0        89.0           88.0           89.2       
Acid detergent fiber 5.77 3.30 6.38 4.17 14.0
Neutral detergent fiber 18.10 9.00 13.30 11.70 29.3
TDN 84 90 82 88 77
Ash 2.4 1.6 2.0 2.0 3.3
Fat 2.2 4.3 1.7 2.0 5.2
Calcium .05 .03 .05 .05 .01
Phosphorous .35 .27 .34 .42 .41
Potassium .57 .33 .44 .41 .51
Metabolizable Energy, Mcal/kg
Beef1 3.03 3.25 2.96 3.18 2.78
Owen et al., 1995 3.34
Dairy2 3.29 3.12 3.12 3.47 2.98
Swine3 3.22 3.90 3.63 3.66 2.97
Poultry3 3.09 3.94 3.72 3.60 2.83
Net Energy Maint, Mcal/kg1 2.06 2.24 2.00 2.18 1.85
Bowman and Blake, 1995 2.16
Zinn et al., 1993 2.14
Net Energy Gain, Mcal/kg1 1.40 1.55 1.35 1.50 1.22
Bowman and Blake, 1995 1.48
Zinn et al., 1993 1.47
Net Energy Maint, Mcal/kg 2.06 1.94 1.94 2.18 1.86
Net Energy Gain, Mcal/kg 1.40 1.30 1.30 1.50 1.22
Net Energy Lactation, Mcal/kg                           1.94 1.84 1.84 2.04 1.77

1 National Research Council. 1996. Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle, Seventh Edition.
2 National Research Council. 1989. Nutrient Requirements of Dairy Cattle, Sixth Revised Edition.
3 Feedstuffs Reference Issue, 1997.

Table 2. Barley compared with other grains in beef feedlot performance trials.

Item Enterprise Barley vs.    % of Concentrate  Animal Gains, % 
Anderson et al., 1994 Growing steers corn 100 98.3
Finishing steers corn 100 97.6
Anderson et al., 1996 Growing steers hulless oat 33 96.8
Growing steers hulless oat 67 101.6
Growing steers hulless oat 100 98.1
Finishing steers hulless oat 33 106.3
Finishing steers hulless oat 67 100.0
Finishing steers hulless oat 100 96.4
Anderson and Boyles, 1988 Finishing steers corn 35 99.3
Finishing steers corn 60 90.2
Anderson, 1991 Finishing steers gr sorghum 25 101.2
Finishing steers gr sorghum 50 94.3
Finishing steers gr sorghum 75 100.0
Dion and Seoane, 1992 Growing steers corn 100 95.6
Hill and Utely, 1989 Growing heifers corn 50 100.0
Hoppe, et al., 1997 Finishing steers corn 33 93.9
Milner et al., 1996 Finishing steers corn 100 92.6
Milner et al., 1995 Finishing steers corn 100 88.2
(three barley varieties tested) Finishing steers corn 100 87.6
Finishing steers corn 100 103.1
Nichols and Weber, 1988 Finishing steers corn 100 97.9

Overall average (21 observations) 97.1                  
Growing average (6 observations) 98.4
Finishing average (15 observations) 96.5
Overall average of selected barley varieties compared with all grains                           97.6
Growing average (6 observations) 97.1
Finishing average (13 observations) 97.9
Overall average of selected barley varieties compared with only corn 97.1
Growing average (3 observations) 98.0
Finishing average (7 observations) 96.4

Literature Cited

Anderson, V. L. D. Burr, and J. T. Hagen. 1994. Wet distillers grains for backgrounding and finishing steers in North Dakota. Carrington Research Extension Center Beef Production Field Day Proceedings. Vol. 17:29-33.

Anderson, V. L. and S. L. Boyles. 1988. Three barley-corn diets for feedlot steers. North Dakota Farm Research Bi-monthly Bulletin. 47(3):16-19.

Anderson, V. L. 1991. Four grain sorghum-barley diets for feedlot steers. Carrington Research Extension Center Beef Production Field Day Proceedings. Vol. 11:20-24.

Boss, D. L. and J. G. P. Bowman, and R. M Brownson. 1994. Effects of barley variety or corn on feedlot performance, carcass characteristics, and diet digestion by steers. Proc. West. Sec. Am. Soc. Anim. Sci. 45:313.

Boss, D. L. and J. G. P. Bowman. 1996. Barley varieties for finishing steers: I. Feedlot performance, in vivo diet digestion, and carcass characteristics. J. Anim. Sci. 74:1967-1972.

Bowman, J., and T. Blake. 1995. Barley feed quality for beef cattle. Proceedings of V IOC and VII IBGS. p82-90.

Bowman, J., T. Blake, L. Surber, D. Boss, D. Anderson, and D. Kress. 1998. Montana State University, Animal and Range Sciences Dept. Report (via internet)

Bradshaw, W.L., D. D. Hinman, and R. C. Bull. 1994. Steptoe vs Klages barley varieties and processing methods on feedlot steer nutrient digestibility, carcass characteristics and performance. University of Idaho Caldwell Research Extension Center Progress Report No 287.

Dion, S. and J. R. Seoane. 1992. Nutritive value of corn, barley, wheat, and oats fed with medium quality hay to fattening steers. Can. J. Anim. Sci. 72:367-373.

Hill, G. M. and P. R. Utley. 1989. Digestibility, protein metabolism and ruminal degradation of Beagle 82 triticale and Kline barley fed in corn-based cattle diets. J. Anim. Sci. 67:1793-1804.

Hinman, D.D. 1982. Comparison of malting vs feed barley varieties on beef cattle performance. University of Idaho, Caldwell Research Extension Center. Progress Report No. 5.

Hinman, D.D., S.J. Sorensen and P. A. Momont. 1995. Influence of barley bushel weight and blended barley on the performance of beef cattle and diet digestibility. University of Idaho, Caldwell Research Extension Center. Progress Report No. 297.

Hocket, E. A. and L. M White. 1982. Proc IV Int. Barley Gen. Symp. 234-241.

Hoppe, K. F., V. L. Anderson, H. Hughes, K. Froelich, and K. Alderin. 1997. Performance and economic comparison of finishing North Dakota calves in North Dakota or Kansas using corn or barley as major ration ingredients. Carrington Research Extension Center Beef and Bison Production Field Day Proceedings. Vol. 20:28-33.

Hunt, C. W. 1995. Feeding value of barley grain for beef and dairy cattle. In. A nutritional guide to feeding Pacific Northwest barley to ruminants. Richard C. Bull (Ed.) University of Idaho EXP 776.

Milner, T. J. , J. G. P Bowman, and B. F. Sowell. 1995. Effects of barley variety or corn on feedlot performance and feeding behavior. Proc. West. Sec. Am. Soc. Anim. Sci. 46:539-542.

Milner, T. J., J. G. P. Bowman, L. M. M. Surber, S. D. McGinley, T. K. Daniels and J. T. Daniels. 1996. Feedlot Performance and carcass characteristics of beef steers fed corn or barley. Proc. West. Sec. Am. Soc. Anim. Sci. 46:539-542.

Molina-Cano, J-L., M. Francesch, A. M. Perez-Vendrell, T. Ramo, J. Voltas, and J. Brufau. 1997. Cereal Sci 25:37-47.

Nichols, W. T, and D. W. Weber. 1988. Wheat vs. corn and barley in beef finishing rations. Proc. West. Sec. Am. Soc. Anim. Sci. 39:406.

NRC. 1984. Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle. 6th Edition. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C.

NRC. 1996. Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle. 7th Edition. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C.

NRC. 1989. Nutrient Requirements of Dairy Cattle. 6th Revised Edition. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C.

Owens, F., D. Secrist, and D. Gill. 1995. Impact of grain sources and grain processing on feed intake by and performance of feedlot cattle. Proc. Symp. Intake by Feedlot Cattle. Oklahoma Agric. Exp. Stn, P -942, pp 235-256.

Zinn, R. A. 1993. Influence of processing on the comparative feeding value of barley for feedlot cattle. J. Anim. Sci. 71:3.

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