The performance and cost of gain of backgrounding or finishing cattle depends in large part on the quality of their feeding environment. Cattle might possess the greatest genetics for growth and carcass merit and be fed the most finely tuned ration science can design, but if the feeding environment is too stressful those cattle simply will not perform as well as expected. As little as 4 to 8 inches of mud can reduce performance and feed efficiency by about 13%.
There has been a great deal of interest in the last several years in confinement systems (monoslopes, hoop buildings, etc.) that are designed to minimize the impact of the South Dakota environment. Those systems have proven to be very effective, however the reality is that the majority of cattle will spend at least some time in an outside yard. Paying extra attention to upcoming maintenance needs is an opportunity to improve the bottom line of cattle feeders.
Summer maintenance considerations
For many cattle feeders in South Dakota, especially backgrounders, the summer months represent a great time to address and correct any problems that might be present in open lots. There is usually some time during the summer when the pens are drier and empty, providing the opportunity to do some prep work before fall.
Solving serious drainage issues needs to be the first order of business. The key principle is to keep upstream water from flowing into the feedyard. Water that never makes it into the pen cannot cause any additional mud problems. This would be an ideal time to examine the upstream water flow and see if any of the diversion structures need some additional maintenance.
Dirt mound maintenance
Dirt mounds in an open yard also need to be maintained to keep them working as designed. The cattle should be able to walk from the concrete apron to the mound without having to having to walk through any potholes or muddy area. Compacted soil should be used to build back up mounds or fill in low spots rather than using manure scraped from the pen. Cattle should have 30 to 50 square feet of mound space per head with a 4:1 to 5:1 slope on the sides.
Summer is an ideal time to install or expand concrete aprons. At a minimum, these need to be wide enough so that cattle can pass behind their pen mates while they are eating. Wider aprons mean that more of the manure ends up on the concrete rather than on the pen surface. Almost no one regrets pouring concrete aprons that are too wide.
Surface scraping and manure management
Equipment such as a box scrapers do an excellent job of creating a smooth surface that helps prevent water from standing in depressions like hoof prints, etc. It is important not to completely scrape all the way to the soil; leaving a thin layer (≈ ½”) of manure helps form an impermeable soil/manure interface that minimizes the amount of water leaching into the groundwater.
The manure that accumulates under fences and feedbunks is often overlooked. These areas can be significant breeding areas for flies, and can sometimes contribute to holding runoff in the pen instead of allowing the water to continue to flow into the containment structure.