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Myth busted: Properly processed feed wheat won’t cause digestive upset

Researchers in Lethbridge swapped wheat for barley in a cattle ration 
without any negative effects — but the wheat must be properly processed

Shrinking barley acres have cattle producers on the hunt for a low-cost feed option.

And feed wheat could be the answer — as long as the wheat is processed properly.

“There was a feeling out there that you probably couldn’t feed more than 50 per cent wheat in the diet because wheat is quite rapidly digested in the rumen of cattle,” said Tim McAllister, principal research scientist in ruminant nutrition with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge.

“We were able to, both in a backgrounding and a finishing phase, replace all the barley with wheat without any negative consequences.”

Tim McAllister

“There is the question out there in Western Canada that if we’re not feeding barley to our cattle, which is still the foundation of the industry today, then what are we feeding to them? And wheat is a viable alternative.” – Tim McAllister
photo: Supplied

The use of feed wheat in cattle rations has been growing in Western Canada as a result of its increasing availability, demand has been restricted because of the belief that diets high in wheat cause rumen acidosis and bloat, said McAllister.

That’s a myth, he said. The “No. 1 factor” that contributes to wheat-related digestive upsets is the degree of processing.

“If the wheat was properly processed — whether it be temper rolled or dry rolled to the point that the kernels were just cracked in two — we found that the wheat was efficiently utilized without any problems with digestive upset,” said McAllister.

“If it was overprocessed, that could start to increase the likelihood of acidosis or bloat occurring.”

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Usually, less than two per cent of cattle are susceptible to developing clinical acidosis, he said. “You’d still have to have the proper protocols in place in terms of pen checking and monitoring,” said McAllister. “If you were to have problems, the most likely factor responsible for that would be the processing of the wheat to too fine a particle size.”

‘Viable alternative’

As barley acreages start to shift to canola, identifying wheat as another potential feed source is “quite valuable for the feedlot industry,” said McAllister.

“There is the question out there in Western Canada that if we’re not feeding barley to our cattle, which is still the foundation of the industry today, then what are we feeding to them?” he said. “And wheat is a viable alternative.”

Aside from the digestibility of properly processed wheat, feed wheat generally has higher energy and protein content than barley, he said.

“When it was properly processed, we could potentially replace all the barley in the diet with feed wheat and not have any negative consequences on animal growth,” said McAllister.

And with environmental conditions downgrading large volumes of wheat, the availability of feed wheat has gone up, while prices have gone down.

“(Cost savings) are a big component when you’re talking about feed wheat,” said McAllister.

Even so, cattle feeders choosing wheat over barley going forward will likely be the exception, not the rule, he said.

“If barley is cheaper and available, I think it would still be the preferred grain source to keep them on throughout the entire feeding period. It’s just less likely to cause complications.”

But if the price of wheat is sufficiently low, “that risk is worth taking,” said McAllister.

“The cost of diet and the cost of gain is going to be that much lower, and the production that much more profitable.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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