It is essentially impossible to overemphasize the importance of understanding both cattle behaviour and the practical aspects of nutrition in managing the feedbunk. Cattle are always attempting to tell us things about their well-being and appetites if only we are astute enough to “read” what they are saying. Behavioural indicators include:
Feed intake is routinely expressed as pounds of ration dry matter consumed per 24-hour day. Intake may be rather accurately predicted by knowing the live weight of the cattle and the ration composition. For example: An 800- pound steer fed a finishing ration would consume about 2.2 per cent of its body weight as feed dry matter per day, or 17.6 pounds. This calculation may be extended to estimate feed intake for a pen or an entire feedlot to include feed purchase requirements over an interval of time and predict animal performance. This estimate is quite accurate for purposes of predicting average consumption over a feeding period, but little more than a guide for calling day-to-day feedbunk volumes for a specific pen of cattle.
Animal weight, body condition, sex, backgrounding, health, social status and breeding influence intake and cattle performance in addition to weather, day length, ration, staff and feeding techniques, feedbunk availability and feedbunk construction. It’s a lot to manage but obtaining optimum feed intake is essential to maximize rumen fermentation and cattle performance. Each additional pound of daily feed intake above maintenance results in about a two per cent increase in feed efficiency. Each feedlot should work with its nutritionist to develop a structured feeding protocol that works for them. Some are better qualified to implement “clean bunk” feeding techniques, while others may have greater success with plateau, limit or ad lib feeding techniques. The following guidelines are meant only as suggestions for developing a feeding protocol:
1. Label pens and/or bunks with a unique identification number.
2. Maintain accurate records for each pen of cattle on feed to develop a five-to seven-day running average, on-feed, dry-matter intake. Input data for the quality control management tool includes pounds of ration fed each day, ration dry matter, number of head, gender, in-weight, current weight, days on feed, and pen and lot numbers. Always note changes in head count, weather, ration fed, clean bunks or other variables.
3. Do not increase or decrease the daily ration allowance more than 10 per cent from the previous day. Excessive ration changes disrupt the desired “steady state” feed intake causing digestive upsets, including acidosis (overloads and bloat).
4. When a decreased amount of ration is to be fed, reduce only the morning feeding. Trimming feed assignments with the afternoon feeding often results in clean bunks the next morning setting into motion an undesirable “roller-coaster-like” response upon feed intakes.
5. Deliver feed evenly along the entire bunk. Cattle tend to eat at the same bunk location each day, and uneven feed distribution patterns can only add to a fluctuation in feed intake for individual cattle. Run feed from the feed truck with the truck moving forward, not while backing up.
6. Feed a properly mixed TMR (totally mixed ration) so cattle cannot sort out ration ingredients or particles of various sizes.
7. Clean feedbunks regularly to keep them free of inferior feed, mould, feces, rocks and any other debris. Allow 9-1/2 to 10 inches of bunk space per head for larger cattle that are well on feed, and 12 inches for calves still learning to eat under feedlot conditions.
8. Always maintain a keen eye on the weather. This may require delayed feeding to allow cattle time to clean up feed that was rained on the night before, or more frequent feedings on rainy days to keep the feed fresher, or perhaps switching to lower-energy rations during extremely cold weather. This is well-founded advice since lower-energy rations (with more roughage) are less likely to result in digestive upsets during intervals of anticipated erratic intakes. An added benefit is the greater heat of metabolism associated with the fermentation of roughage, which provides warmth to the body during extremely cold weather.
9. Step up to the next ration when they are consuming between 2-1/2 to three per cent of their body weight. Strive to have cattle on the finishing ration in 21 to 35 days. Younger cattle typically take longer than yearlings.
10. When changing rations, feed the lower-energy ration in the morning and the higher-energy ration in the afternoon for a few days before going completely to the higher-energy ration. Use more intermediate rations if cattle are fed only once per day. Closely monitor intake, health, behaviour and feces of cattle more closely than usual when changing rations.
11. Make certain the entire feeding crew, including weekend and part-time staff, fully understands all feeding principles and bunk management protocols. This will result in fewer errors in delivering quality-controlled feeds to the cattle.
12. Flag pens fed special medicated feed or when withdrawal rations are being utilized.
The Quality Starts Here manual on good production practices for controlling feed quality offers the above guidelines on feedbunk management in commercial feedlots.