Feed bunk management key to a sound feeding program

Nutrition with John McKinnon

There are a number of steps producers can take to ensure that cattle maintain relatively high levels of feed intake while on high-grain rations.

In my last two columns, we have looked at issues with starting cattle on feed, as well as providing insight into the design of backgrounding and finishing programs. In this column, the focus will be on management of the feeding program, particularly feed bunk management.

At its most basic level, feed bunk management is the practice of ensuring that cattle are fed to meet performance expectations. Specific goals include feeding the correct ration, ensuring that cattle are fed the right amount of feed and taking steps to ensure that cattle remain healthy when fed high-grain rations for extended periods.

Feeding the correct ration is a function of identifying performance expectations for the cattle being fed and providing a well-mixed ration that meets nutrient requirements for that class of cattle. Using a step-up feeding program with defined energy and protein concentrations at each step of the program, as discussed in my October column, can help facilitate feeding the correct ration, particularly when feeding a variety of pens that differ in frame, weight and performance expectations. A well-mixed ration includes accurate weighing of ingredients as specified by batch sheets or by the truck computer, following a specified order of ingredient inclusion where small volume ingredients are added towards the end of the load, and allowing for appropriate mixing. For many truck-mounted mixers, a minimum of three minutes is required for proper mixing.

Ensuring that the correct amount of feed is provided daily to each pen is perhaps the most difficult task associated with feeding management. Most feedlots keep cattle on full feed within defined limits. In other words, cattle are eating very close to appetite. With such a strategy, one will typically see the bunks empty for a defined period of time (one to two hours or more) over the course of a 24-hour period. Feeding in such a manner prevents cattle from over eating, particularly on high grain rations.

A question one is often faced with is whether to increase the amount of feed provided if bunks are empty in the morning. While it might seem like a no-brainer, the answer can often depend on the behaviour of the cattle. For example, if bunks are empty prior to feeding, one can often be faced with one of two situations regarding animal behaviour. In the ideal situation, the majority of animals are lying on their bedding pack chewing their cud or sleeping. In this case, cattle are content and you fed the correct amount yesterday and do not need to increase today.

However, if cattle are lined up at the feed bunk waiting to eat, then not only are you dealing with hungry cattle, but also have a situation where cattle can overeat and be at risk of a variety of digestive disorders including acidosis.

Another difficult decision faced by those reading bunks is how to catch up with hungry cattle. Take for example cattle that have settled into the lot and have gotten over any stress-related issues associated with newly arrived cattle. These animals are growing and their intake will increase with increasing body weight. As well, it will be necessary to transition these cattle to higher-grain rations as they get heavier.

In the case of increasing the amount fed to hungry cattle, it is wise to provide defined increases over a specified number of days. For example, if a pen of 600-pound calves were fed 25 pounds (15 pounds of DM) per head of a growing ration and bunks were empty the following morning, a maximum increase of 10 per cent (i.e. 2.5 pounds as fed) of the previous day’s offering could be provided. The pen should then be held at this level for two days before another increase is given. As cattle get heavier and are eating more grain, such increases should be limited to 0.5 to one pound per head, every second day.

In the case of transitioning to higher-grain rations, moving cattle up a step-up program is the ideal method to follow. At each step of the program, give three to four days of feeding to allow the cattle to adjust to the higher level of grain being fed. Other practices one can follow when changing rations include not moving to a higher ration on the same day you increased the amount fed and transitioning to the higher grain ration during the afternoon feeding.

In addition to the steps discussed above, there are numerous steps one can take to ensure that cattle maintain relatively high levels of feed intake while on high-grain rations. These include incorporating day-to-day aspects of feeding management such as multiple daily feedings; consistent feeding times; providing initial cover to cattle with slick bunks, particularly those on the finishing ration; recognizing and adjusting to weather-induced changes in feeding behaviour; and distributing feed evenly over the entire bunk. As well, ionophores can be fed to help minimize day-to-day variation in feed intake and to help control digestive disorders.

Hopefully, incorporating the above bunk management practices along with advice from previous columns in this series will help you get cattle off to a strong start and growing towards your production goals.

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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