Energy supplements

What is energy?

Energy is not an actual physical nutrient that we can see and measure when we look at a feed. There are three main components that contribute to a feed’s energy value and these are carbohydrates, fat and protein. It is the breaking down of these molecules that gives the animal energy to fuel its bodily processes.

Basically, energy holds molecules together. When molecules are split apart by chemical reactions that are undertaken in the body (all body processes require energy), they release this energy in the form of heat. This energy is then available to the animal but some will be lost as urine, faeces, gases (e.g. methane) and heat.

The molecule in which animals store energy is called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Heat is released when a phosphate is split from this molecule. Animals renew the supply of ATP by breaking down glucose which supplies sufficient heat to drive the chemical reaction to tack the phosphate back on.

So how do animals build up supplies of glucose? The principle source is in the form of carbohydrates in the diet. These carbohydrates include sugars and structural materials, particularly cellulose. Proteins and fats also supply energy. They are digested by the rumen bugs to form small acids. These in turn are absorbed into the blood which transports them to the liver where they are converted into glucose.

Energy value of feeds

Energy is measured as megajoules (MJ), with the total amount of energy stored in a feed being the gross energy (GE). However, not all of this is available to the animal. Gross energy minus energy in faeces = digestible energy (DE). When urine and gases are then taken from this, it leaves metabolisable energy (ME). Metabolisable energy is the energy within the absorbed nutrients. When the nutrients are metabolised they generate heat and the products produced such as maintenance activity, protein and fat deposition are called the Net Energy.

Cereal grains and molasses are high-energy feeds. They have large amounts of stored energy in soluble sugars which are easily digested and absorbed by the body to form glucose.

The energy content of the pasture diet eaten by cattle can be determined using Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy (NIRS) technology. For more information see Assessing pasture diet quality (NIRS).

End of dry season pasture usually has low energy value. It generally has considerable amounts of stored energy (easily demonstrated with a match!), but the molecules which store it are very difficult to digest (many cannot be digested!).

The energy value of cattle feed is therefore related to:

  • how much energy is stored in it, and
  • how digestible it is.
Energy and digestibility of maturing pasture (Source: Adapted from Bell 1998). Click to enlarge

Hayed-off grasses, more typical of the early dry season, may have quite reasonable energy value. They may not be high in soluble sugars but their structural components are still digested readily enough.

Table 1. Approximate dry matter digestibility (DMD), metabolisable energy (ME) and protein content of some feeds

FeedDM%DMD%ME (MJ/kg DM)CP%Tropical grass plus legume total protein
Tropical grasses
Phase 1: Early, rapid growthLow (<30)7010.010-1612-16
Phase 2: Beginning to grow stem, mostly green608.58-1010-12
Phase 3: Flowering and seed set, growth slows, 10-30% greenMedium-high (50-70)557.56-87-10
Phase 4: Senescence, no growth, no greenHigh (>80)506.53-67
Quality lucerne hay80-90709.522NA
Cottonseed meal88659.842NA
Whole cottonseed917913.121NA
Corn (chips)888412.78NA

*NA = not applicable

Temperate pastures: Figures for temperate pastures can be estimated by adding the following to the figures above in Table 1:

  • Digestibility +10
  • ME +1.5
  • Protein +2–4

Tropical grass plus legume: These figures would apply only where there was sufficient legume in the pasture to increase animal liveweight gain.

Energy requirements of cattle

The amount of energy cattle need daily is variable and depends mainly on animal weight, growth rate and reproductive state (see Table 2).

Table 2. Typical daily energy (MJ of ME) requirements of Brahman-cross cattle

Animal typeMaintenance*Extra energy needed for:
Growth rate of 0.5kg/dayLate pregnancyMilking 5 L/day
100 kg weaner17.56.5NA**NA
200 kg weaner42.018.5NANA
300 kg yearling57.528.5NANA
400 kg cow (store)68.535.512.022.5
*Maintenance = no growth, not pregnant, not lactating **NA = not applicable

Table 3a and 3b give two working examples that put daily energy utilization into perspective:

  1. 400kg lactating cow during the wet season
  2. 200kg weaner during the dry season.

Table 3a. Examples of daily energy utilisation by beef cattle in the dry tropics (400 kg lactating cow)

Time of yearWet season
Pasture 50% digestible
Animal (Brahman cross)400 kg cow in store condition producing 5L of milk per day
ME needed to maintain weight91 MJ
No energy supplement
Pasture eatenDry 13.5 kg
OutcomeMaintains weight

Table 3b. Examples of daily energy utilisation by beef cattle in the dry tropics (200 kg weaner)

Time of yearDry season
Pasture 40% digestible
Animal (Brahman cross)200 kg weaner in store condition
ME needed to maintain weight42 MJ
No energy supplement
Pasture eatenDry 4.2 kg
OutcomeRapid weight loss
Pasture plus urea + sulphur dry lick
Pasture eatenDry5.3 kg
ME28.5 MJ
OutcomeRapid weight loss
Pasture plus M8U
Pasture eatenDry5.9 kg
M8U intakeWet1.2 kg
ME8.5 MJ
Total intakeME40.5 MJ
OutcomeMaintains weight

The example shown above for a lactating cow is based on a 400kg cow in store condition. However, a typical Brahman-cross mature cow will weigh 500 kg (Fordyce pers comm.) in store condition (body condition score 3).

In the late dry season in northern Australia the metabolisable energy (ME) values of the pastures are unlikely to provide enough energy for a typical 500 kg lactating cow. In the wet season pastures should provide enough energy for a lactating cow, hence it is recommended to seasonally mate so that cows are lactating during the wet season.

Written by Geoffry Fordyce, Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, and Kiri Broad, formerly Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

For more information

Further information on energy requirements of beef cattle and how to correct energy shortfalls, FutureBeef recommends attending a Nutrition EDGE workshop.

Related information

Molasses supplementation →

Supplement labels: what are they saying? →

Crisis feeding →

Body condition scoring →