10 things to improve feedlot performance

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Source: University of Minnesota

Reduce animal stress and set appropriate expectations for success on your feedlot.

The success of each group in the feedlot is dependent on their cumulative stress. Stress in cattle is like a cup filling up with water. Each stressor adds water to the cup and eventually, it overflows, causing disease or other poor outcomes. Stress is unavoidable, but cattle have a remarkable capacity to cope and often only break when overwhelmed by an excessive amount of stress.

Not all stressors are under our control, the weather being a prime example, but many stressors are. We should reduce stress at every opportunity for the best chance of success. By reducing the stressors we can control, we provide more space or a buffer for those that we cannot.

Treatment of sick animals is incredibly important, and having the proper protocols in place is something every feedlot should strive for. But feedlot teams need to distinguish between treating sick cattle and identifying the cause of a disease outbreak. Prevention is preferable to treatment. Finding and fixing the root problem will reduce the chance of an outbreak in the future.

1. Set appropriate expectations

It is common to have unrealistic expectations for the performance of a group. Each animal is incredibly important, but each high-risk group is likely to lose a small percentage of animals despite our best efforts.

If you have two dead in 500 head (0.4%) of high-risk cattle throughout their feeding period, is there a problem?

Set your expectations for each group appropriate to their risk and the historical performance of your feedlot. Keeping records is the best way to find your feedlot performance and can help you set realistic expectations. It will also help you to know your breakeven price when buying a group.

2. Cattle source

Buying cattle that are very high risk is like starting with a cup that is already almost full — one added stressor and the cup overflows. High-risk animals can be brought into a feedlot, but the expectations should be realistic for your farm.

Success with high-risk cattle depends on the ability of the feeder to do everything (besides sourcing) to perfection.

  • Low risk: One source that has been together for more than 45 days, vaccinated more than three weeks ago, short travel distance, clean health records
  • High-risk: Multiple sources, comingled recently, unvaccinated, long travel

3. Bunk space

Ideally, newly received cattle should have 18 inches of bunk space per head. Cattle should have at least 12 inches of bunk space per head. Competition at the bunk is real, and you can reduce stress if everyone has a spot to stand without having to fight.

If you don’t have enough bunk space, consider trying to add more or reducing numbers in the pen. You might be surprised to find that fewer cattle could mean more profit if you minimize pulls and performance increases.

4. Pen space

Recommended square footage per animal indoors is set at 40 square feet per head. Some facilities get away with much less, but this should be considered an added stress regardless.

When combined with inadequate bunk space, you have a group that is ready to break.

5. Nutrition

This topic is vast, but the big keys are timing, consistency and adjustments.

  • Deliver feed at the same time every day.
  • Feed should have consistent ingredients and be mixed appropriately to provide a uniform delivery along the bunk.
  • Bunks should be called daily to track a group’s intake and to catch errors in the feeding protocol.
  • Work with a nutritionist to help you be as efficient as possible.

6. Husbandry

Husbandry is a broad topic, but it mostly refers to bedding. Look for the amount of “tag” (manure and mud stuck to the hair of the animals).

Clean and dry cattle are high-performing cattle.

7. Water

Water is the most crucial nutrient and drives dry matter intake. The beef and dairy industries often overlook water quality and availability. Feedlots are not an exception.

There should be 1 inch of linear water space per head in a pen. Consider investing in portable stock tanks for the summer months.

8. Ventilation

Ventilation in a building can have a drastic effect on cattle health. Most notably, poor ventilation hinders the mechanism the immune system uses to move unwanted pathogens out of the airway.

Proper ventilation will keep cows healthy, while improper ventilation can override even the best vaccine protocol. Make sure you understand the ventilation of your system, especially with naturally ventilated barns.

Remember, fresh air must come into the system somewhere, so locking everything down tight is a problem.

9. Vaccine protocol

Though you might think this item would be at the top of the list, there are so many things that matter just as much as your vaccination protocol. Vaccines are essential, and they play a vital role in the health of your cattle, but they aren’t a silver bullet and cannot make up for problems in basic animal care.

Remember that vaccines do cause stress in animals — vaccinating at the incorrect time can make the cattle worse. Consult your veterinarian for different protocols appropriate to your system. Make sure to ask about delayed vaccine protocols for incoming animals.

10. Money

You can do everything right for the health of your cattle and still lose money. Taking care of cattle well and making money are connected but not necessarily mutually exclusive. If you pay too much at the beginning, chances are that no matter how well the group performs, your margin will be small or nonexistent.

This ties in with expectations. Know your system, have realistic expectations, set a breakeven, and mitigate your risk when possible.

Author: Joe Armstrong, DVM, Extension educator

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