Crisis feeding of weak and poor stock

Key messages

  • Crisis feeding is a survival strategy to provide readily available energy and protein to animals that are in poor condition and weak.
  • Crisis feeding is expensive.
  • Segregation according to needs is recommended as well as early and radical weaning of calves to ensure breeder survival.
  • Crisis feeding for several days is also recommended for weak and poor stock before transport. Severely emaciated cattle may need weeks of feeding before transport.

Types of supplements

Some of the most commonly used crisis supplements in Queensland are listed below with approximate intake requirements given in kilograms per head per day. These supplement levels are for stock which still have access to adequate roughage from the paddock. If there is no pasture available, then roughage must be supplied and stock fully fed for maintenance or better. Refer to the ‘Full hand feeding’ notes below.

Crisis supplements and daily intakes - examples only
Higher intakes and modified formulations may be required for specific situations
Breeders Weaners 6 months and older
M8U (molasses plus 8% urea)1.5 - 3kg1kg
M3U + 8-10% protein meal1.5 - 3kg*1kg
Molasses + 15% protein meal1.5 - 3kg*1kg
Grain1.5 - 4kg*1kg*
Protein meal only1 - 2kg*0.5 - 1kg
Whole cottonseed1.5 - 3kg*0.5 - 2kg
*May require rationing to limit intake to these levels

Molasses-based supplements

  • M8U recipe: 100kg (72 litres) molasses + 8kg urea (prilled); or 50kg urea to 100 gallons of molasses, based on 1kg of molasses = 1.4 kg or 1 UK gallon of molasses = 6.4 kg. Urea must be mechanically mixed in molasses for at least 20 minutes to ensure that the urea is completely dissolved. Use prilled urea, with a small particle size it dissolves faster.
  • 0.5kg of Rumensin® 100 to 1 tonne of molasses mixed evenly and at the correct rate will improve feed conversion. The active ingredient monensin sodium is toxic to horses and dogs. It can be toxic to cattle if over consumed. Some markets do not accept it.
  • Keep urea-based supplements on offer all the time to keep stock adapted to urea and avoid gutsing when troughs are topped up.
  • It is dangerous to swap from a molasses and protein only mix, to a molasses/protein meal and urea mix. To prevent gorging protein meals should be added gradually to molasses and urea mixes.
  • Do not dilute the molasses or dissolve the urea in water.
  • Phosphorus should also be added in phosphorus deficient areas, for example add 1% (1kg in 100kg molasses) of a phosphorus source such as dicalcium phosphate (DCP).

For more information see Molasses supplementation.

Protein meals

  • Protein meals are best fed out every second or third day or twice weekly with enough trough space so all stock can get access at once (e.g. as a guide 15-20 cm per head for weaners to 30-40 cm for adults). This enables the shy feeders to get a share after the bullies have had their share, plus it helps control intakes.
  • Intakes of protein meal can be controlled by adding salt ranging from 5-30%.

Whole cottonseed

  • Feed out twice weekly.
  • Do not feed whole cottonseed to young calves, pigs, poultry or horses.
  • At recommended rates whole cottonseed is unlikely to have detrimental effects on bulls or breeding cows. Limit to 10% of the diet for weaners and young developing bulls; 15-20% for mature bulls and potentially up to 30% for breeders.

For more information see Cottonseed supplementation.


Grains for example. barley, wheat, maize and sorghum contain around 20% more energy than molasses on a dry matter basis or 30% more on an ‘as fed’ basis. Two kilograms of molasses on an ‘as fed’ basis provides similar energy as 1.4 kg grain.

The intake of grain needs to be carefully managed as excess intake can result in grain poisoning also known as acidosis. To minimise grain poisoning risk:

  • Introduce grain gradually.
  • Feed hay first then start with 0.5 kg/head/day until all stock are eating it. Increase grain by 0.5 kg every second day until the desired level is reached.
  • Call cattle to feeding points so all cattle can access the feed at one time to reduce the risks of some gutsing and others missing out.
  • Use close observation and be prepared to segregate non-eaters and poor doers.
  • Avoid sudden changes in intake.
  • Change from one grain to another gradually by increasing the new grain at 25% of the grain ration every 3-5 days.
  • Allow plenty of room or trough space. Allow about 20-30 cm trough length per head for weaners, 30-40 cm for yearlings and 40-50 cm for adult stock.
  • Rolling or coarse cracking grain will increase digestibility. Avoid excessive cracking as the increased surface area allows much faster fermentation by rumen microbes into acid.
  • For lower risk grain can be fed whole in crisis feeding situations.
  • Add 2-4% bentonite.
  • If using self-feeders start with the slides down around 12mm so cattle have to work to get the grain and then gradually open the slides over the next 2–3 weeks. Allow 10–25 cm trough space per head from weaners to adults. Maintaining 5–10% of a “flowable” fibre source in a self-feeder final ration, such as chaffed hay, cottonseed hulls or even whole cottonseed can reduce the risk of acidosis.
  • Don’t let self-feeders run out.

To improve nutritional balance when feeding grains, particularly for lactating breeders or production feeding, a commercial mineral/vitamin mix can be added. Alternatively add 1% limestone (for calcium), 0.3% salt (for sodium). If extra protein is required add urea at 1-2% of the total ration or protein meal at 5–20% as required. To minimise risk ensure urea stays thoroughly mixed at correct rates.

For more information see: A guide to introducing grain.


Depending on quality, hay alone, may not supply enough energy or protein to weak or very poor stock. Lower quality roughage should only be used as filler; cattle should receive their main nutrients from more cost-effective forms of supplements such as molasses, grain, urea or vegetable protein meals.

The feed value of hay and silage will vary depending on the stage of growth of the crop at cutting and the effectiveness of the curing or ensiling process. Good quality hay has lots of highly digestible leaf and is free of mould and weeds. Lucerne, which is generally grown specifically for conserving, provides high quality feed. Grassy lucerne is preferable to pure lucerne to reduce the chance of bloat.

Forages, such as sorghum and oats, cut before they mature also provide good feed. The feed value of failed crops will vary considerably, depending on the stage of growth of the crop when it was cut. For more information see Hay and silage analyses – what do they mean? Hay made from crop residues is generally of very poor quality and should be fed in conjunction with protein and possibly energy supplements.


Roger Sneath, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

This document was reviewed as part of the GrazingFutures Project. GrazingFutures is funded by the Queensland Government’s Drought and Climate Adaptation Program (DCAP) that aims to build drought and business resilience for Queensland livestock producers.

Further information

Dry season management of a beef business: a guide to planning, managing and supplementary feeding (booklet) →

A national guide to describing and managing beef cattle in low body condition (MLA publication, PDF 680KB) →

Full hand feeding of beef cattle – quantities (New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, book) →

Full hand feeding of beef cattle – management (New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, book) →