Strive for consistency when feeding cattle

Nutrition with John McKinnon

Strive for consistency when feeding cattle

Striving for consistency may not sound like the most exciting goal, but when it comes to feeding cattle, it should be one of our golden rules! Consistency is essential if we want to keep cattle on an even keel and prevent wild swings in intake. This includes consistency in when we feed; how we load, mix and deliver rations; in how cattle are brought onto feed and how ration changes are made. It is a simple fact that cattle are subject to going off feed. This is due in large part to the nature of the ruminant’s digestive system. The rumen is the primary organ responsible for feed digestion. Feeds are fermented in the rumen by the activity of bacteria, protozoa and fungi. The makeup of this microbial community is dependent in large part upon the nature of the diet.

For example, when cattle are on high-forage diets, the rumen bacterial community is very efficient at digesting fibrous feeds. When the diet is primarily grain, the rumen bacteria population shifts to organisms responsible for digesting starch. If dietary changes are carried out gradually, as in the case of feedlots that utilize step-up feeding programs, the shift in the rumen microbial population is gradual with little effect on the animal. Issues arise when this dietary shift is too rapid, or when there are disruptions in feed delivery (i.e. diets are changed too quickly, missed feedings, wrong diet fed, etc.). Such abrupt changes cause disruptions in the rumen microbial population, the rumen becomes more acidic (low rumen pH), the animal goes off feed. In serious cases we see animals suffering from sub-acute or acute acidosis (dehydration, loose manure, lame animals).

If one looks at successful commercial feeding programs, they are not only designed to meet nutrient requirements, but also contain a core set of management principles designed to minimize digestive upsets and optimize feed efficiency. As this year’s feeding season is starting, it is a good time to review some of these core management components.

One key to a successful feeding program is communication. Whether it’s between the manager and the feeding crew, within the feeding crew or between the feeding crew and other units such as the health crew, clear communication can prevent mistakes or allow preventive steps to be taken to minimize the impact of mistakes when they occur. A classic example is when the wrong diet is fed to a particular pen or when the health crew pulls a pen for re-implanting and forgets to tell the feeding crew. Both situations can throw cattle off feed or, in worst-case situations, lead to acidosis.

Successful feeding programs also have protocols in place to ensure that the feeding is done right. For example, feed truck drivers should have protocols that ensure the right ration and right amount of feed is delivered to each pen. Today, most feedlots rely on computer-based feed delivery programs to provide drivers with the ration to be fed and the amount of each ingredient that needs to be loaded, as well as the ingredient sequence for loading. Typically, large inclusion items such as grain or silage are added first, while smaller inclusion items such as supplement are added last.

Understanding the mixing capacity of the feed wagon is also important. Over-filling can result in a poor mix or increased mixing time, while under- or over-mixing can lead to a poorly mixed ration. Many feedlots will have a protocol in place that stipulates mixing time or the number of revolutions of the mixer, starting from the point of the last ingredient addition.

A common feeding error, particularly with new drivers, is uneven distribution of feed in the bunk, typically at the far end. Such distribution issues lead to a buildup of feed and feed spoilage. Other issues that can lead to spoiled feed include poor mixing, bunk access issues, manure in a water bowl and/or feed bunk, as well as poor pen conditions. In such cases a protocol for bunk cleaning needs to be implemented.

Computer-based feed delivery programs not only dictate the ration to be fed, but also which pens receive the ration and how much is to be delivered to each pen. The amount of feed delivered will ultimately be the responsibility of the bunk reader. How bunks are managed (i.e. slick bunk, limit feed, full fed with carryover) will be a management decision; however, the feeding philosophy should be clearly communicated to the entire feeding crew such that there is consistency in bunk management, no matter who is feeding or calling bunks. Similarly, there should be a protocol in place that is clearly communicated to all involved that dictates how rapid cattle are brought up on feed (i.e. magnitude of feed increases) and when rations are changed.

While I have tried to highlight some of the core components of a successful feeding program, space limits me from going into more detail. If you have not already done so, now would be an excellent time to sit down with your nutritionist and review in detail all aspects of your feeding program.

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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