Cattle Today

Cattle Today

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by: Stephen B. Blezinger

Any one who has ever taken cattle off pasture and started them on full feed knows that making this transition can be challenging. Whether you are receiving new cattle out of the sale barn and starting them on a preconditioning or finishing program, developing bulls or heifers or possibly simply starting a show steer, how these cattle are handled as they make these dietary and management changes can have huge effects on long-term performance. Once we have these animals on feed, keeping them on feed in a consistent, performing manner can also be a challenge. This article will provide some guidelines for getting fresh cattle started on feed and will then look at some important feed bunk management concepts.

Start Them Right

The objectives for starting cattle are to get the cattle eating well and to keep the cattle healthy. The driving force for keeping cattle healthy is nutrient intake that supports the immune system and relieves stress. The bottom line is that dry matter intake is the most important driving force for healthy, high performing cattle and the lowest cost of gain.

Here are some guidelines to follow to getting cattle off to a good, solid start.

1) Long stem grass hay. Feed alone for the first 12 hours. Put it in the bunk, after the cattle arrive, to attract them to the bunk. After the first 12 hours, you can deliver some of the mixed ration on top of the dry hay. It is a good idea to not free choice hay in a round bale feeder, some cattle will eat too much hay and not enough starting ration resulting in poor health and performance. Also, if you feed hay in one location and the ration in another, some cattle may consume primarily the mixed ration which could result in a digestive system upset.

2) Feed deliveries. A total mixed ration is the best method for feeding cattle. Target delivery is one percent of their body weight as dry matter for the first ration feeding, working up to about 2.75 percent of body weight by day 14-21. New cattle should be fed twice a day so you would actually split that feeding levels over two feedings each day. Again, work the cattle up evenly and steadily. Underfeeding the cattle will result in poor performance and immune response. Overfeeding the cattle will result in acidosis or bloat. These digestive upsets will teach cattle that eating from a feed bunk results in an uncomfortable feeling and it teaches them not to eat.

3) Water intake drives feed intake: no water intake = no feed intake. This is probably No. 1 in importance. Water should be clean and easily accessible. Starting pens should have one watering space for every 20 calves (if there are 100 calves, 5 should be able to drink at the same time). Some new calves will have only drank from streams or ponds and will not recognize an automatic waterer. Allow the waterer or tank to overflow to help calves find it. Placing the waterer along the fence will help fence-walking calves find it. Electrolytes added to the water can also be beneficial to stressed calves.

4) Limit wet or ensiled feeds to 10-20 percent of the diet. This would include feed such as corn silage, haylage, wet corn gluten feed and/or wet distiller grains.

5) Protein levels for the diet should be 13-14 percent.

6) Feed the starting supplement or feed at the full rate from day one to make sure calves get their full dose of protein, drug, vitamins and trace minerals.

7) Ionophores such as Bovatec™ or Rumensin™ in the starting supplement are believed to help control coccidiosis when fed at the proper rate of 100 mg per 220 pounds of body weight.

8) Antibiotics such as Aureomycin™ are approved to be fed at 1 gram per 100# of body weight for 3-5 days to prevent or treat respiratory disease.

9) Complete starter feeds. The use of complete starter feeds can be useful in high stress cattle. Select one that is very palatable and nutrient dense. Assuming cattle will eat one percent of their body weight on day 1 they can get a full dose of the protein, Bovatec™ or Rumensin, trace minerals and vitamins with these complete pelleted products along with a good dose of energy. You can gradually increase the rest of the ration so that by day 14-21 the majority of the diet is regular ration and you can easily transition them off of the pellets.

10) Facilities – Starting cattle should be kept in a little tighter quarters to keep the feed bunk in front of them as much as possible. Be sure they are kept clean and dry. Bed them enough to keep them comfortable but not too much so that they eat the bedding.

11) Working facilities – be sure that working facilities don't add stress to the calves or the producers. Stress for either one will mean that cattle don't get treated promptly enough and have a greater chance for permanent damage or death. Texas A&M research shows about $100 hd loss on cattle that get sick and don't respond promptly. Chutes that don't properly restrain cattle can result in poorly placed implants and could cost the producer about $10 per head in lost performance.

12) Processing – process cattle right off of the truck if possible. Delaying process will simply mean two stress occasions instead of one. Cattle can be implanted and vaccinated a second time 14-21 days later.

13) Hospital pens – have a place where sick cattle can be segregated and treated with some TLC. This will control spread of the sickness and speed recovery of the sick calves. Don't put the hospital pens in some dark, damp barn, or they will become death pens.

Feed Bunk Management

In today's cattle feeding business, narrow profit margins mean few mistakes can be tolerated. This fact, along with employee turnover or multiple employees making feed calls at feedyards has led to the development of more systematic approaches to feed bunk management. These approaches rely heavily on records and "science," but also require judgment. Several systems are in existence in commercial feedyards that are similar in principle. For instance, South Dakota State University has developed a system, initially to simplify feed calls and feed bunk management for the many students responsible for these duties at the Beef Feedlot Research Center. What SDSU discovered was that many producers feeding cattle could improve their efficiency by using a systematic approach to feed bunk management.

Why are Feedbunk Management Systems Important?

Feedbunk management is much more important in high grain rations. As ration energy levels have increased, problems associated with the low ruminal pH conditions in high grain rations such as sudden deaths, brainers, founder, rumenitis, liver abscesses, clostridial infestations and off feed conditions have increased. Also cyclic feed intake upsets the steady environment in the rumen and an “up and down” or “yo-yo” pattern of feed intake is established. This along with the increased level of fermentable carbohydrates (grain) increases the acidosis risk. Also, recent research has indicated that feeding cattle at 97-98 percent of full feed gives the same performance as 100% (two to three pecent more efficient). Programmed systems of planned feed deliveries for the entire feeding period have been studied. This research interest has led many feeders to place an increased importance on feed bunk management systems.

What is Feed Bunk management?

One definition of feed bunk management is to deliver a consistent, nutritious, fresh ration in a manner that maximizes (or nearly maximizes) feed intake and minimizes waste and spoilage. Therefore feed bunk management includes not only feed delivery decisions, but also feed mixing, nutrient balancing, feedstuff quality control and characteristics, feed processing, and other factors related to feed “presentation.” Feed delivery decisions (feed calls) are essentially an estimate of the amount of feed a pen or group of cattle will consume. Factors such as cattle size, weight, breed, ration, weather effects and health must all be taken into account. Also the effect of a given feed intake on intake at subsequent feedings must be accounted for. For example, cattle may consume the feeding just after an increase, but lose appetite and crash a day or two later. This is the classic mistake that sets the stage for roller coaster consumption patterns.

Systematic Feed bunk Management Bunk Scoring Systems

Although several systems exist, I normally recommend the following: Feed calls should be made prior to the morning feeding with two additional observations made during the day, one during consumption of the first feeding and one later in the day prior to the afternoon or evening feeding. Feed should never be increased by more than 10 percent. Decreases of more than 10 pecent may be justified to force cattle to clean the bunks. Feed calls should never be decreased in the afternoon. Another system recommends that feed calls be made in the morning and both morning and afternoon feedings are then mixed. Afternoon feeding requires only delivery of the previously mixed feeds. Several factors affecting the feed calling decision are shown in Table 1. It's a good idea to develop a bunk reading sheet that contains the following:


Table 1. Factors Affecting Feed Calls

1. pen number                6. days on feed
2. lot number                  7. days on ration
3. head count                  8. indication of slick bunks
4. in weight                     9. indication of when bunk last cleaned
5. current weight            10. amount of feed fed last 5-7 days


Table 2 shows the South Dakota State University Bunk Scoring System. This system allows the feeder to estimate actual consumption rather than feed deliveries, see trends in intake (increasing, decreasing, steady) and by keeping at least four days of records available accounts for the delayed response in cattle behavior to a feed change.


Table 2. SDSU 4-Point Bunk Scoring System

        Score                                Description 

            0                  No feed remaining in bunk.
            ½                 Scattered feed present. Most of bottom of 
                                 bunk exposed.
            1                   Thin uniform layer of feed across bottom   
                                 of  bunk. Typically about 1 kernel deep.
            2                   25-50% of previous feed remaining.
            3                   Crown of feed is thoroughly disturbed. 
                                 >50% of feed remaining.
            4                   Feed is virtually untouched. Crown of     
                                 feed still noticeable.


Producers need to learn to interpret cattle feeding behavior. At the time of feeding, 25 percent of the cattle should be lined up ready to eat, 50 percent should be standing and working their way to the bunk and 25 percent should be getting up and stretching. There may be times when the bunk is read as slicked (having no feed remaining), but because the cattle are not aggressive, you wait to increase the feed to be delivered to them. Weather can have significant effects on cattle feed intake and feed call decisions. Heat can dramatically reduce appetite, and should be factored in. Also, rain can affect feed palatability, especially in warm weather. Stale feed should be removed from the bunks and discarded. Rain also effects feed consumption because of the secondary effects of muddy lots. Mud, by virtue of restricting cattle movement and making access to feed and water more difficult can severely reduce feed intake. Finally, cattle seem to have the ability to sense the coming of cold fronts. They do increase intake generally during cold weather, especially relative to hot weather, but may become increasingly aggressive as a cold front approaches. Because of this some feeders supply "storm rations" consisting of additional roughage or higher levels of a lower energy ration.

Other factors to consider in feed bunk management relate to feed “presentation.” Rations should be fresh and palatable and uniformly nutritious. Therefore mixing and ingredient selection and processing are important. Fine particles (fines) that separate in the bunk should be avoided. These may contain concentrations of minerals or feed additives, or highly fermentable grains. The use of ration conditioners, high moisture feedstuffs or improvement of uniformity of particle size may help reduce fines.


Good feed bunk management may reduce the incidence of digestive tract related problems, simplify feeding decisions for the producer or employees, but most importantly greatly improves efficiency and reduces the cost of production.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at P. O. Box 653 Sulphur Springs, TX 75483, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at [email protected]


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