Beef cows are primarily on pasture most of their lives, but in some cases when winter is harsh, they will be fed hay (sun-dried grasses and legumes), and perhaps silage or grain, depending on the producer's management criteria.
Most beef cattle are allowed to fresh grazing. Cows and bulls, especially. Dairy cows are occasionally, though this also depends on the producer, who may otherwise have them kept in a barn for most of their lives. Beef cattle will also consume, hay, a mixture of grasses including but not limited to legumes (sanfoin, clover, alfalfa, laspedenza, trefoil, etc.) and grasses (timothy, orchard grass, wheat grass, brome, fescue, etc.), and possibly grains (oats, barley, corn soy beans, or sorghum). Insalage, silage, cracked corn, rolled corn, and sweet feeds are other feeds that are fed to cattle, mostly to those that a) have to gain weight, b) are growing, or c) are being fed for slaughter. Some calves will be put a pre-weaning/preconditioning ration of calf grower grains and forage mix; older calves (usually when weaned) can be fed a grower ration, hay, or if there's good-quality pasture available, then that as well or as a main source of their nutrition and energy.
Not all operations have means or money to feed their calves grain all the time; some continental breeds like Charolais, Limousin and Simmental require such inputs to further increase growth weights and average daily gains so that they can be sold at heavier weights to the feedlot. It also "primes" them for what diet they will be eating at the feedlot prior to slaughter. A lot of British breed cattle, on the other hand, only need a little grain to no grain at all, and only hay and grass to give the calves the weight they need to be backgrounded or stockered before being sent to the feedlot. British breeds have a tendency to put on fat quicker and consequently finish faster than Continentals do, so it's important to limit energy intake in rations for the time they are being on a backgrounding operation.
In a feedlot, cattle are fed according to how much they have to gain before they are deemed finished and sent to slaughter. As mentioned above, British breeds typically take a shorter time to reach finishing weight than a Continental breed would if they were both on the same ration. Most finisher rations are comprised of an 80% grain and 20% forage diet. Depending on where a particular feedlot is located, cattle can be fed a mixed ration of corn and soybeans, barley and corn, just barley, just corn, or even winter wheat, triticale, oats, field peas, or rye. Such rations are not fed whole: the grain is ground up in a feed mill and other nutrients (except animal by-product due to the BSE scare in 2003) and feed (like silage) are added to that ration. The goal of a feedlot producer is to produce gains as quickly and efficiently as possible with feed that contains high energy, high protein, and low fibre.
Typically the maintenance percentage for all beef cattle is 2.5% of their body weight in dry matter ration per day. However, there are variations to this rule, depending on size, age, gender, reproductive and physiological demands. Lactating beef cows will eat 50% more than dry cows. In terms of quantity, beef cattle will eat more of a forage if it is higher in moisture. Big cows eat more than small cows. Young cattle eat less than mature cattle. Thin cattle eat more than fat cattle.
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