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The 5 W’s of Managing Feed Delivery

Carl Dahlen, NDSU Extension Beef Cattle Specialist covers the "Who," "What," "Where," "Why," "When," and "How" of feeding situations, to help refine feeding management and optimize feed delivery and utilization.

When we were in elementary or high school, many of us were taught a good way to provide a detailed description of an event was to use the “five W’s:” who, what, where, why and when. Discussing each of the W’s really allowed people to understand a situation, and adding “how” to the list of W’s completed the
picture. This same concept can be applied to feeding programs on our operations.

A progression of answers is available for each individual question; we start with vague statements and provide more detail with each consecutive answer. The level of detail at which the questions are answered in each situation also highlights the level of detail that individuals will use to define their feeding program. By defining the “who, what, where, why, when and how” of each feeding situation, producers are able to refine their feeding management for each group of cattle and optimize feed delivery and utilization.


This is used to describe the animals that are being fed. At this time of year in the northern Plains, we typically will have cows, bulls, steers and heifers that are being fed on our operation. This can be further refined by describing each class of cattle (cows, bulls, steers, heifers) in more detail. For example, potential groups of cows include pregnant cows, open cows, young cows, old cows, thin cows, cows with excess condition, cows that are going to calve early and cows that are going to calve late. Each of these groups of cattle is different and each group may have different nutrient needs.

Cattle FeedingWhat:

The answer to this question is a description of what feed resources are available and several characteristics of each feedstuff. An example of the progression of answers for “what” would be: hay; grass; second cutting; pretty green; 13 percent crude protein, 65 percent total digestible nutrients. Not all producers test the quality of all feeds, but quality is certainly a component of the “what” question. In addition, feed storage methods and length of time in storage can influence feed and feed intake characteristics. Feeds with less than desirable characteristics need to be evaluated closely to determine whether they are appropriate to feed within each respective scenario.


The definition of “where” may be the most variable of the five W’s. At first glance, this seems pretty straightforward: “the cattle area fed in that pasture with all of the inverted tires in it.” However, daily environmental changes can alter the nutrient needs of cattle. The thermoneutral zone (TNZ) is a range of temperatures in which cattle do not use energy to stay warm or keep cool. Temperatures above and below this range require energy expenditures, and temperatures further from the TNZ require greater energy to compensate. Cattle can deal with cold itself, but the additive effects of cold, wind and moisture can be devastating. Producers may need to take precautions to mitigate the effects of cold by finding a way to block the wind and/or moisture by using bedding or a covered area to help dry cattle. Feed deliveries may need to be adjusted up or down, or different feeds may need to be fed to adjust for “where” the cattle are.


Every group of cattle has a reason for being on an operation and the “Why” component of a feeding program defines that reason. One example of “why” we feed cattle could be because the cattle are hungry. Another example could be that a particular group of cows is in low body condition and we would like them to gain about 160 pounds during the next 90 days so they will calve in good body condition and subsequently breed back early next breeding season. This definition of “why” also can be a moving target. We may have a group of thin cows that regains condition and we then feed them with a group of cows that was in adequate condition. Another reason may be that better quality feed was delivered to all cows because calving season is approaching and cows have greater nutrient needs.


The definition of “when” can be further broken down into time as humans perceive it and time as cattle  perceive it. Cattle thrive on consistency, and defining a consistent time to deliver feed to cattle can be very beneficial. In addition, as we increase our expectations of cattle performance, we magnify the effects of consistency. Feedlot cattle on high-grain diets can benefit from or be harmed by consistency and lack thereof to a greater extent than stock cows with free access to hay. Humans may view feeding cattle in the morning or in the evening simply as whether they would prefer to eat breakfast or supper. Cattle, however, may experience this quite differently. Around four to six hours after feeding, the greatest amount of heat is produced naturally as cattle digest their feed. In the coldest months of winter, feeding cattle in the late afternoon may be advantageous so this natural heat production is reserved for the colder nights. In addition, feeding cattle at night can have advantages of moving a greater proportion of cows to calve in the daylight hours.


Answering the who, what, where, why and when questions will allow producers to formulate precise rations for groups of cattle on their operations. A formulated ration on paper, however, may be different from a ration producers can deliver to their cattle accurately. Including the “how” question will help producers get the ration from the paper it’s printed on to the cattle to which it will be fed. Certainly, adding specific weights of each ingredient to a feed mixer in the same order and mixing it for the same amount of time will result in a consistent diet.

However, precision feeding is not limited to those with total-mixed-ration mixers equipped with scale heads and load cells. By weighing a 1-gallon bucket of feed and calculating the corresponding weight of a full loader bucket, producers can know approximately how much of each feed is getting to their cattle. Similarly, getting the weight of a bale or load of bales will give enough information to approximate hay deliver to groups of cattle. Information gained by these types of measurements can be invaluable in describing performance of groups of cattle. Other components of the “how” question include the method of feed delivery, location of feed placement, type of feeding structure, amount of time cattle have access to feed and the amount of feed waste.

Producers need to monitor feeding programs continually to adjust and adapt to a variety of changes that cattle experience. By considering the 5 W’s of each unique feeding situation, producers will be able to define the feeding strategies on their operations. In addition, exploring each of these areas may highlight areas for refining management and cost control.

Carl Dahlen
NDSU Extension Beef Cattle Specialist

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