University of Missouri Extension

G3161, Reviewed October 1993

Using NDF and ADF To Balance Diets

Ron L. Belyea, Barry Steevens, George Garner, Jack C. Whittier and Homer Sewell
Department of Animal Sciences

In MU publications G3150, Forages for Cattle: New Methods of Determining Energy Content and Evaluating Heat we explained how detergent solutions are used to measure forage fiber. These publications show how neutral detergent solution can be used to measure neutral detergent fiber (NDF). NDF represents the total plant fiber or cell wall including hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin.

These publications also show how acid detergent solution can be used to measure acid detergent fiber (ADF), which contains cellulose and lignin. Both ADF and NDF data help to more accurately estimate feed intake, energy values and animal performance.

Using NDF to predict forage intake

NDF reflects the bulkiness of a forage. Because forage fiber is bulky, there is a limit to the amount of NDF that will fit into a cow's rumen (first stomach). When that limit is reached, she will stop eating. There is no more room until a significant portion of the fiber in the rumen is digested and/or passes on to the lower gut.

We have measured the amount of NDF in the rumens of fistulated cows fed various forage diets. A typical 1,300-pound Holstein will contain 14 to 16 pounds of forage NDF (on a dry matter basis) in her rumen. Thus, she can hold a maximum of 1 to 1.2 percent of her body weight (BW) as NDF. Other researchers have reported NDF intakes of 1.1 to 1.2 percent of body weight for typical forages, although it appears that very high-quality forages and certain byproducts may be associated with 1.5 percent or more.

The proportion of NDF to body weight is an important fundamental relationship. If we know the percent of NDF in the forage and the cow's body weight, we can estimate maximum forage dry matter intake (DMI). A 1,000-pound cow eating hay with an NDF of 65 percent on dry-matter basis and a dry matter of 90 percent would be expected to consume a maximum forage intake of 18.8 pounds (on as fed basis):

1,000-pound cow x 0.011 = 11.0 pounds NDF Intake (NDFI)

__11.0 pounds NDFI__
0.65 NDF in forage
= 16.9 pounds forage DMI


or more simply:

DMI = 1.1 x body weight =
NDF percent
1,000 x 1.1 =
16.9 pounds DMI


16.9 pounds forage DMI
0.90 DM
= 18.8 pounds on as fed basis


These assumptions are for dairy cows. Beef cows appear to eat about 10 percent less forage than dairy cows and estimates of forage intake are set at 90 percent that of dairy cows.

Expected forage DMI for various body weights and forage NDF percents are in Table 1. These numbers should be considered maximums for cows eating diets containing 50 percent or more forage. If forage quality is very high, or if the animal is a very high-producing dairy cow or rapidly growing beef cow or if it is very cold, NDFI and feed intake could increase 10 to 20 percent.

Table 1
Expected cell wall and forage dry matter intake

  NDF intake Forage dry matter intake
Body weight Forage NDF Dairy cow Beef cow Dairy cow Beef cow
1,000 pounds 40 11.0 pounds 9.9 pounds 27.5 pounds 24.8 pounds
50 11.0 pounds 9.9 pounds 22.0 pounds 19.8 pounds
60 11.0 pounds 9.9 pounds 18.3 pounds 16.5 pounds
1,200 pounds 40 13.2 pounds 11.9 pounds 33.0 pounds 29.7 pounds
50 13.2 pounds 11.9 pounds 26.4 pounds 23.8 pounds
60 13.2 pounds 11.9 pounds 22.0 pounds 19.8 pounds
1,400 pounds 40 15.4 pounds 13.9 pounds 38.5 pounds 34.7 pounds
50 5.4 pounds 13.9 pounds 30.8 pounds 27.7 pounds
60 15.4 pounds 13.9 pounds 25.7 pounds 23.1 pounds


On the other hand, if cows are eating large amounts of grain or if the environment is very hot, intake could be depressed 10 percent or more. Byproduct feeds, such as corn gluten feed and soybean hulls, and very high-quality (very immature) forages also are exceptions, since 2.0 percent of body weight as NDFI are possible. However, for most forages and quality stages, 1.1 to 1.2 percent body weight appears reasonable.

Using ADF to estimate NEL or TDN

Energy content of a forage often is estimated from ADF content. Energy can be expressed as total digestible nutrients (TDN), digestible energy (DE), metabolizable energy (ME), net energy of lactation (NEL), net energy of maintenance (NEM) or net energy of gain (NEG).

TDN is expressed in percent, while DE and ME are expressed in energy units (i.e., Mcal per pound); these usually are used to formulate swine, sheep and horse diets. For this discussion we will use NEM, NEL, NEG and TDN to formulate diets for cattle. There are separate equations for estimating these four energy values; they all are based on ADF percent. The basic assumption is that high-quality forage has low ADF and NDF compared to low-quality forage. High-quality forage digests more completely and has higher energy values (Figure 1).

Relationship between harvest stage and fiber content

Figure 1
Relationship between harvest stage and fiber content.

The relationships among TDN, NEL, NEM and NEG for high-quality alfalfa (ADF = 30 percent) and two low-quality alfalfas (ADF = 40 percent) are illustrated in Table 2. Although each forage species (i.e., legumes, grasses, Sudan-sorghums, corn silage, etc.) has its own separate equations for predicting energy values, all equations are based on a negative correlation with ADF. Most testing laboratories use computer programs containing these equations to estimate the appropriate value. However, not all labs use the same equations for a particular forage species. Thus, if you sent the same forage sample to several different testing labs, the results may not agree.

Table 2
Relationships between energy values for alfalfa

Term ADF ( percent)
30.00 40.00
NEL 0.66 0.54
NEM 0.66 0.54
NEG 0.40 0.23
TDN 65 55


An example follows:

For legumes:

For alfalfa with an ADF of 34 percent, then;

Balancing diets using NDF and ADF

Using the previous information, we can balance diets maximizing forage intake. Table 3 provides data on low-quality forages:

Table 3
Concentrate supplementation needed by a dairy and beef cow fed low-quality forage

Dairy cow Beef cow
Use NEL needed Use NEM needed
Maintenance 10.0 Mcal Maintenance 9.0 Mcal
Milk (60 pounds) 21.0 Mcal Milk 6.0 Mcal
Total 31.0 Mcal Total 15.0 Mcal
Forage DMI 16.7 pounds Forage DMI 15.2 pounds
Forage NEL 8.7 Mcal Forage NEM 7.9 Mcal
Energy needed from grain 22.3 Mcal (31.0-8.7) Energy needed from grain 7.1 Mcal (15.2-7.9)
Amount grain 26.2 pounds (DM) Amount grain 8.4 pounds(DM)
(22.3 ÷ 0.85 Mcal per pound) (7.1 ÷ 0.85 Mcal per pound)
29.1 pounds (as fed) = 26.2 ÷ 0.90 9.3 pounds (as fed) = 8.4 + 0.90


Assume a 1,000-pound dairy cow producing 60 pounds of milk or a 1,000-pound beef cow of superior milking ability in early lactation eating low-quality legume forage (NDF = 65 percent and ADF = 42 percent of DM):

This is relatively high-concentrate ration. We can increase forage intake if we feed a high-quality legume forage (NDF = 45 percent and ADF = 30 percent) Table 4 provides high-quality forage data; an example follows:

Table 4
Concentrate supplementation needed by a dairy and beef cow fed a high-quality forage


Dairy cow Beef cow
Use NEL needed Use NEM needed
maintenance 10.0 Mcal maintenance 9.0 Mcal
milk (60 pounds) 21.0 Mcal milk 6.0 Mcal
Total 31.0 Mcal Total 15.0 Mcal
Forage DMI 24.4 pounds Forage DMI 22.0 pounds
Forage NEL 16.1 Mcal (24.4 x 0.66) Forage NEM 14.5 Mcal
Energy needed from grain 14.9 Mcal (31.0-16.1) Energy needed from grain 0.5 Mcal
Amount grain 17.5 pounds (DM) Amount of grain 0.6 pounds (DM)
19.4 pounds (as fed) 0.7 pounds (as fed)


G3161 Using NDF and ADF to Balance Diets | University of Missouri Extension

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