Source: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs
Looking for opportunities for production efficiencies on-farm is an important aspect of improving your bottom line. Tight profit margins often prompt an assessment of efficiencies that can be made on the farm. Since feed inputs represent a significant share of input costs on a feedlot, it’s a logical approach to look to feeding strategies to take stock of potential areas for improved efficiencies.
Measuring feed to gain (F:G) is the most common approach to assessing feed conversion. Often when feed efficiency is discussed, the focus tends to be on aspects of the ration itself that help improve feed efficiency and the genetic merit of cattle in converting feed into pounds of gain. These ration attributes are very important, and include composition of the ration (ingredients), grain processing, additives, and growth promotants.
This article will cover some practical feeding aspects that are often left on the periphery of discussions about improving efficiencies in a feeding program. These are aspects that should not be overlooked when fine-tuning production efficiencies to help increase profitability on farm.
Assessing your feed storage approach
Depending on your feed storage approach, there can be a considerable amount of feed waste before it even reaches the feed bunk. With any stored forage, the presence of oxygen can lead to decomposition of the silage by aerobic organisms, leading to dry matter losses. In a bunker silo, this can be a result of poor packing, insufficient cover on the silage pile, oxygen exposure or water seeping at the walls, and/or mismanagement of the face of the pile. Packing to achieve a bulk density of at least 45 lbs as-fed/cubic feet reduces exposure of feed to oxygen. Managing feed-out from a bunker or tower silo is an important aspect or reducing dry matter losses. Recommended removal rates are 4 inches/day in the summer and 3 inches/day in the winter. This must be balanced with removing just enough feed for feeding as dry matter losses occur when silage is exposed to oxygen. A disturbed or rough face surface can result in dry matter losses in the range of 1-3%.
Although dry commodities are not as vulnerable to spoilage, exposure to the elements can result in losses. Storing dry commodities in bins, commodity sheds, bags, etc. helps to reduce exposure to moisture and prevent spoilage and losses. Furthermore, it’s important to protect feed commodities from rodent or other wildlife damage. With any feed ingredient, shrink can also occur where feed trucks are overfilled and particles are lost to the wind. Protective shelters and coverings over conveyors and feed loading areas can prevent losses to the wind.
Making assumptions about the nutritional value of feedstuffs is costly as a result of either over- or under-feeding nutrients to cattle. Working with your feed advisor to test home-grown and purchased feedstuffs leads to more accurate ration balancing. the introduction of NIRS technology has helped to reduce the costs of feed testing. Furthermore, purchased ingredients may come with a certificate of analysis or guaranteed analysis, which may help you reduce feed testing costs.The small investment in feed testing can help save thousands of dollars through precision in ration balancing over the course of the feeding period.
The objective with a TMR (total mixed ration) is to promote uniformity in the feed mix so that every mouthful is consistent. Providing a consistent ration can help improve feed efficiency and reduce digestive upsets. A mixer test can help determine if a uniform mix is being achieved. A mixer test typically involves taking a series of samples (roughly 10 samples) at equal intervals from the bunk, fresh after feed delivery or directly from where feed is dispensed as the feed truck or mixer empties out. A substrate (often a mineral) is tested in all the samples to determine how homogenous or uniform the mix is. The assay results can be used to calculate the coefficient of variation and determine whether the mixing is adequate. Mixer tests should be done routinely to ensure consistency in feeding, but especially with any significant changes to the ration, after adjustments to equipment are made or new equipment installed. Your mixer test should reflect your typical mixing routine (mixing time, order ingredients are added to the TMR, batch size, etc.).
Improper bunk management can result in digestive orders, eratic dry matter intake, and poor performance. It is estimated that poor bunk management can reduce dry matter intake and average daily gain by up to 10-15%. Astute feedlot operators will pay attention to what cattle are telling them through the feed bunk by adjusting rations daily and responding to potential health or performance issues. Researchers from South Dakota State University have developed a 4-point bunk scoring system that assists feedlot operators in consistently and objectively monitoring intake (Table 1).
Table 1. 4-point bunk scoring system
|No feed remaining|
|Scattered feed remaining; most of the bottom of the bunk is exposed|
|Thin uniform layer of feed remaining (~ 1 corn kernel deep)|
|25-50% of feed remaining|
|Greater than 50% of feed remaining with crown thoroughly disturbed.|
|Feed is generally untouched. Crown of feed from previous feed still noticeable.|
Adapted from Pritchard, R. South Dakota State University.
This scoring system helps operators estimate actual DMI rather than rely solely on feed delivery records. Recording and graphing this data allows the operator to visually see trends in dry matter intake over a feeding period. While bunk management varies from operator to operator (e.g. slick bunk vs ad libitum), the success in bunk management is anchored in consistency and diligence in monitoring. This consistency is important in:
- Timing of feeding (for best results, within 15 minutes of scheduled feeding time daily)
- Timing of feed calls before first feeding
- Personnel making the feed call
- Feed mixing order and mixing time
Since ruminal pH is influenced by rate of feed digestion, bunk management must consider factors that influence ruminal pH such as forage to concentrate ratio, grain source and processing methods, and feeding frequency.
Testing on the back end is another means of evaluating your feeding program. Monitoring starch digestion in feedlot cattle is an important aspect of assessing feed utilization efficiency, managing input costs, and gaining a better understanding of cattle performance and health. A fecal starch analysis is an effective tool for monitoring starch digestion. It provides a measure of the concentration of undigested starch and this unutilized starch represents a direct cost to the feedlot operator. Researchers have found that an increase in 1% fecal starch results in a 0.162 Mcal reduction in net energy for maintenance (NEm) in cereal grains. Thus, a fecal starch analysis provides important insight into feed utilization efficiency and high values should prompt a review of areas where feed utilization efficiency could be improved.
A fecal starch evaluation can be used as an indicator of the impact of grain processing on total tract starch digestion when grain is the primary or only source of starch in the ration. Most commercial labs offer fecal starch analysis, either by NIRS or wet chemistry. Ideally, fecal starch levels should be as low as possible but a fecal starch value of greater than 13% suggest that changes need to be made to increase feed utilization efficiency.
Reducing environmental stress
Exposure to environmental elements can reduce performance and increase energy requirements and dry matter demand. Keeping pens and scrape alleys clean help minimize energy losses associated with cattle walking through deep manure (or mud in open lots). Furthermore, reducing barriers to get to the bunk (e.g. deep manure or mud) helps to encourage intake.
Lastly, it cannot be overstated, record keeping is an important monitoring tool to understand where inefficiencies lie and where there’s opportunity to increase profitability. This is true of any business for both production and financial variables. Record keeping is the backbone of any certification program but is also critical to sound planning, benchmarking, and decision making for the feedlot.
Although each feed has a unique set of conditions, there are several practices that can help improve feed margins on-farm, and these practices can be adopted by any feedlot. Reducing waste, testing feed and fecal samples for improved ration balancing, bunk management, reducing environmental stress, and sound record keeping are a selection of factors that should be considered to improve feed margins.
Clark, Holmes, and Musk. 2008. Feedout Losses from Forage Storage Systems. Focus on Forage. Vol 4: No.7
Lundy, E., Loy, D., and Dahlke, G. 2015. Iowa Beef Center: Feed Bunk Management. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
Stanford, K., Swift, M., McAllister, T., Gibb, D. 2015. Fine tuning fecal starch can cut your feed bill. Beef Cattle Research Council. Retrieved April 27, 2020.
Megan Van Schaik, Beef Cattle Specialist OMAFRA
Dr. Katie Wood, Associate Professor, University of Guelph