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Feed Bunk Management

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With feeding margins very tight for backgrounded cattle this fall, there is renewed interest in lowering feed cost of gains and improving feed efficiency. There are several factors that affect backgrounding performance, such as vaccination programs and overall health, balanced rations, implant programs and feed additives.

One of the most overlooked management items that has a profound effect on feeding performance and overall costs is basic bunk management.

The tendency when managing confinement cattle in general is trying to maximize feed intake. Good appetites result in improved daily gains. However, over-feeding can have negative consequences, especially with younger groups of calves adapting to backgrounding rations.

If uneaten feed continues to accumulate in the bunk, it can lead to several issues. Not only is it more difficult to estimate the pen’s feed intake and deliver the correct amount of feed, uneaten feed can spoil in the bunk, further reducing intake.

Providing excess feed also allows cattle to fluctuate their intakes.

Fluctuating daily intakes are not only hard to predict but are inefficient. For example, a steer may choose to reduce his daily intake by 50 percent for one or two days. At some point, the steer decides to eat, and because he is hungry, he over-consumes the following day, leading to potential bloat issues or acidosis, pushing him off feed for several days.

Not only is this yo-yo intake pattern inefficient, it increases the risk of sickness, as well as morbidity.

Several years ago, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Dr. Robbi Pritchard conducted a feeding study comparing steers fed all that they would eat versus steers managed on a slick bunk strategy where the feedbunks were managed to be completely clean each morning prior to feeding. The steers on the slick bunk protocol had the exact same average daily gain, but improved feed efficiency. The slick bunk program eliminated a lot of the intake variation, and the researchers attributed the improved feed efficiency to reduced digestive upsets and reduced bloat in the slick bunk pens.

Based on this experiment, Pritchard has developed a feedbunk scoring system to help reduce feed intake variation and improve efficiency in confinement-fed animals. The guidelines focus on reducing the daily variability in intakes, developing a program where cattle are hungry every morning and have consistent intake throughout the feeding period. It all hinges on a basic four-point bunk scoring system and can be seen in the table to the right.

Along with the scoring system, there are a few guidelines to help make feed call decisions each day.

Feed calls should be made at the same time every day.

Feed should be delivered at the same time every day, ideally within a 15-minute window.

Do not increase feed offered by more than three-quarters of one pound of dry matter.

In adapted cattle, feed should not be increased more frequently than every third day.

Remove stale feed and watch for sorting.

Cattle behavior and aggressiveness in coming to the feed bunk can tell a great deal about whether or not feed deliveries should be increased. Shoot for the 25-50-25 rule. About 25 percent of cattle should be standing at the bunk, 50 percent should be coming to the bunk after being stimulated by the feed wagon and 25 percent should not be ready to eat.

If the bunk score is two or higher, reduce the feed by five to 10 percent.

A successful slick bunk program increases feed efficiency by keeping feed intake consistent from day-to-day. A successful feeding system requires not only evaluating that day’s bunk scores but comparing it to the previous two to three days of feed calls. Having a scoring sheet with the entire week’s feed calls is essential to making consistent feed calls.

In truth, feeding cattle successfully is part art and part science, requiring previous experience and personal judgement, taking into account weather, future conditions, overall health and pen attitude.

Feedbunk management is an important part of feeding, helping to minimize feed waste, improve pen health and improve feed efficiency.

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