Can Sugarcane be Fed to Cattle?

Can Sugarcane be Fed to Cattle?

Use of whole sugarcane as cattle fodder is a common practice in India and South American countries. It probably originated as a summer food source when other feed was not readily available. Feeding of sugarcane dates back to early 1970s when sugar factories in Cuba and other countries faced crisis and farmers were forced to adopt alternate use for their crop.  In many states sugarcane is a preferred crop of farmers as it is perineal, has good growth characteristics, and better biomass availability when compared to conventional fodder. The cultivation to harvesting is integrated and manned by sugar factories leading to lower work burden.  Farm labour working in sugarcane field carrying stack of sugarcane on their head, bicycle, or bullock cart is a common site in rural areas.  However, it is found that these dairy farmers are not aware of the nutrition made available when sugarcane is forms most of the feed.  Objective of the present paper is to offer this information in an easy-to-understand format. Veterinarians are requested to take this extension information to their farmers.

Should Whole Sugarcane Plant be Fed to cows? 

The answer is YES, provided that the other ingredients are properly balanced. Let us first understand basics of sugarcane feeding and its potential adverse effects if fed alone without supplements.

Nutritive value of sugarcane:

The nutritive values of sugarcane is given in the table shown below.  In general, sugarcane is low in crude protein and high in fibre.While it is generally perceived to be low quality fodder, it has high DM digestibility (74.19 to 86.27%) and organic matter digestibility (68.22 to 85.41%) suggesting its good potential as ruminant feed.  The problem appears to be in educating farmers to balance feed to overcome adverse effects of sugarcane feeding.  Number of publications have shown that sugarcane feeding, supplemented with protein, minerals, and  vitamins to support rumen microflora can overcome the side-effects.  In Cuba a product under the name “Saccharina” is available which contains 14% crude protein and 90% DM, prepared by adding 15 kg urea and 5 kg minerals to every ton of chopped sugarcane.  The mixture is then dried before marketing.

Principles of sugarcane forage supplementation:

An important principle is that rumen microflora in cows fed with sugarcane should be supported to satisfy needs of fermentable nitrogen (ammonia, urea) and trace nutrients (peptides, amino acids, minerals and vitamins). It is also necessary to supplement bypass protein, glucose precursors and long chain bypass fatty acids. Urea should not be fed at a rate exceeding 2-3% of the concentrate or grain portion of the feed and should be limited to less than 1% of the total feed. In some countries 10 kg urea is added per ton of fresh sugarcane and fortified with minerals, vitamins and propionate.  A note of caution when urea is to be supplemented; do it in phases slowly increasing the urea levels for enabling rumen microflora to adapt to NPN use.  Urea can be replaced with supplementing legume fodder such as Lucerne @ 600 g / per100 kg live weight. Rice polishings @ 0.5 – 1.0 kg per day is considered the best sources of by-pass nutrients because of their richness in essential amino acids, starch and lipids. Other protein supplements such as oilseed cakes or fishmeal also yielded good results (e.g. raw soybean, cottonseed meal, soybean meal, maize/ fishmeal concentrates). When urea is supplemented it must be combined with protein supplementation.

Feeding Sugarcane to Dairy Cows:

Sugarcane inclusion should not be more than 40-45 % of the diet.  AT this level protein supplement could be through soybean meal + urea at low level (10 g / kg DM), soybean meal + urea at high level (17 g / kg DM), raw soybean, or corn gluten meal.  Out of these soybean meal + urea at low level (control diet) was found to give highest protein milk yield.  In case Lucerne or other leguminous fodder is available these can be supplemented and in that case urea supplementation should be avoided. Sugarcane is not recommended in high producing dairy cows, especially during peak.  In India, it is a common practice to feed 20-22 kg sugarcane to crossbred cows producing around 10-15 kg milk per day. But these cows have low body condition score and suffer from sub-fertility specially delayed oestrus and conception. This can be averted if proper balanced feed is fed as described above.


Dry matter
38-42 %
Crude protein
3.9-4.3 %
Crude Fibre
Ether Extract
6.5- 6.9%


Sugarcane feeding in growing cattle:

  Because of its low fibre digestibility, sugarcane may limit cattle performance and inclusion levels in the diet of growing cattle may be variable, ranging from 20 to 50%.  In a feeding trial post-weaning crossbred heifer were fed on 70 % chopped sugarcane and 30% concentrate with 13% protein which led to higher digestibility of protein and health parameters.  In a feeding trial in Cuba crossbred calves were fed on 73% sugarcane forage molasses-urea (10%) and concentrate (17%). The animals reached 840g average daily gain when the concentrate was offered once a day and 950 g when the concentrate was offered twice a day. It was suggested that crude protein and energy were better utilized when the concentrate was offered twice.

Ensiled sugarcane:

  Sugarcane can also be ensiled and preserved.  However, because of its high proportion of the soluble sugars silage turns alcoholic and nutritive value is seriously depressed. To prevent these issues, it has been recommended to ensile sugarcane soon after it is chopped. Baling and wrapping in plastic sheets is a good option.  Field studies suggest that silage quality is better if it is treated with urea (0.5%), Calcium oxide (0.5%), sodium benzoate (0.1%) and lactobacillus silage inoculants. Treated silage was found to better in terms of DM intake and composition. One disadvantage of treated sugarcane silage is that the DM intake was lower than fresh sugarcane, but these cows had higher milk fat and milk total solids. A possible advantage from ensiling appeared to be indicated by the finding that young actively growing cane was inferior in feed value but aged mature sugarcane gave better quality silage.  This is because with age sugar content goes down and DM increases.

Preservation by drying:

  Chopped sugarcane can be sun-dried or oven-dried. Sun-drying is done by spreading the chopped sugarcane on a plastic sheet in a thin layer (no more than 4 cm) and let it dry during the day under the sun and mixing it 2-3 times a day. At night, the chopped material should be kept in the shed.


Sugarcane can be fed to moderately producing dairy cows in situation where conventional fodder is not available. Even in normal course, if properly supplemented, sugarcane can meet part of the fodder requirements.  From available feed trial data, the following feeding strategy is recommended to farmers rearing cows giving around 10-12 kg milk per day. 15-20 kg of sugarcane can be fed with supplementation described above consisting of vitamins, essential amino acids, long bypass chain fatty acids, Cao and other minerals. The concentrate should be fed to balance energy requirements and protein feeding of around 500 -600 g per day and sodium / calcium propionate @ 10 g per day.  Protein sources should be predominantly bypass type.

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