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A midterm checkup for your feeding program

For cattle feeders this is a great time of the year. Cattle are well into their feeding program, health issues are in the rear-view mirror and your nutrition program is running flawlessly. If you are wondering what world I live in, you are right. Life is never this simple. However, with current profitability in the feeding sector, it is easy to take day-to-day management for granted. The following is a checklist to help you fine tune your feeding program and ensure cattle are performing to expectations.

The first question to ask relates to performance expectations. Are they being met? At this point cattle should be gaining at expected levels whether that is 1.5 to 2.5 pounds per day for backgrounding cattle or 3.5 pounds or better for finishing cattle. Short of gate running part of a pen to get check weights, it is not easy to judge how cattle are gaining, particularly when you see them every day. However, one sure sign of poor performance is low and/or variable feed consumption. At this point dry matter intake expressed as a percentage of body weight for yearlings should be in the range of 2.2 to 2.5 per cent, depending on the ration and length of time on feed. Similarly, cattle on finishing rations should be eating at 2.0 to 2.3 per cent of body weight unless they are close to market weight. If intakes are significantly lower than these values, it is a good bet that gains and conversions are poor and it will pay you to look for cause and effect.

Related to the above, is your roller mill stealing your profits? Poor/variable intakes are often a function of inconsistent grain processing, in particular overprocessing which results in excess fines in the ration. These are very small grain particles that tend to accumulate at the bottom of the bunk and are dynamite when fermented in the rumen. The result is cattle going off feed for a day or so and if the problem persists, variable intake patterns develop. Conversely, too much whole grain simply goes through the cattle undigested and results in poor feed conversions. Monitoring the efficiency of your roller mill can be one of the most cost-effective management practices you implement.

Monitoring the moisture content of silage is another important aspect of an effective feeding program. Many of us take for granted that the moisture content of silage in November represents the silage throughout the winter. Unfortunately this line of thinking does not apply. Different fields, varieties, suppliers and resulting variation throughout the pit all lead to variation in silage moisture content. You need to be on top of this variation to ensure your rations are formulated to correct forage-to-concentrate ratios and nutrient levels. Make it a practice to monitor your silage moisture weekly — it is not difficult!

How accurate is your ration mix? The first related question is have you had your feed tested, particularly your forages? This is the only way to ensure that your rations are balanced for the appropriate levels of energy, protein, calcium, phosphorus, etc. and thus to ensure that nutrient requirements are met for desired performance. Other steps include running efficiency tests on your feed wagon and reviewing your protocol for sequencing, loading and mixing ingredients. Issues with under- or overmixing are more common than you think!

More from the Canadian Cattlemen website: Supplementing Vitamins A, D and E to beef cattle

Are you seeing stiff cattle in the pen? In my experience this is an indication of one of two nutrition-related issues. The first is grain overload. At some point during the feeding period you have overloaded the cattle with too much grain, the result is laminitis or stiff cattle. These animals are hard to get up and move, have overgrown hooves and are chronic poor doers. The second is due to a dietary calcium deficiency. The difference between the two is that correcting the calcium deficiency will reverse the issue while cattle that are “burnt out” never fully recover.

Is your implant program current? Cattle implanted last fall and not reimplanted are running on empty. In other words the original implant has paid out and is no longer providing any performance benefit. If you are planning on keeping the cattle for any significant time, reimplanting with an appropriate implant will keep the cattle gaining in an efficient manner.

Similar comments apply to feed additives such as ionophores, antibiotics or repartitioning agents. These products are included in the ration at defined levels for specific reasons (i.e. feed efficiency, disease prevention, carcass quality). Issues with mixing efficiency, ration moisture content, forage-to-concentrate ratio all impact the actual concentration of these products in the total mixed ration. Attention to detail as indicated above will ensure appropriate dietary concentrations.

Finally, while not specifically related to nutrition, perhaps the most important question to address relates to your current cost of gain. Everything looked great in the fall, but what has happened since to the value of the dollar, feed and cattle prices, labour and yardage costs? While this past winter has been favourable for feeding cattle, there is no excuse for not being current and reacting to these issues.

About the author


John McKinnon

John McKinnon is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and a consulting nutritionist who can be reached at [email protected].



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