Facing historically high feed prices, cattle feeders and nutritionists are focusing on efficiency, requiring a precise, scientific approach to developing and delivering rations. That was a key message in a presentation by nutritionist Ki Fanning, PhD, to the Academy of Veterinary Consultants last week in Denver. Fanning is the founder of Great Plains Livestock Consulting, a group of five nutritionists who consult with feedyards and cow-calf operators.

Fanning discussed the importance of dry-matter intake, saying even with high feed prices, more intake generally is better. A one-pound per day improvement in feed intake translates to about $10 more profit per head. With that in mind, he stresses cleaning water tanks weekly and keeping plenty of clean water available to cattle, as limiting water intake also limits dry-matter intake.

Corn processing improves starch digestibility, Fanning says, and most feedlots process corn either by dry-rolling or steam-flaking. Quality control in the feedmill is critical with corn prices at such high levels. With $7 corn, a 10 percent improvement in starch digestibility is worth $0.70 per bushel.

Fat is beneficial in feedyard rations, with 2.5 times the energy value of starch, but if fat exceeds 6 to 7 percent of dry matter in the ration, it can interfere with rumen microbes, reducing digestibility of the ration.

Acidosis in feedyard cattle – a reduction in rumen pH – results in lower intake and slower gains. A rumen pH of 5.6 to 6.2 is ideal, below 5.6 brings sub-acute acidosis and 5.0 or lower results in acute acidosis. Several factors influence acidosis and its impact on cattle, including intake levels, composition of the ration, rumen bacteria and the individual animal’s ability to withstand low rumen pH. Fluctuation in rumen pH is normal, with levels dropping at feeding and rising between meals. The time spent below the ideal pH level is critical to the impact of acidosis. To minimize problems with acidosis, Fanning says his clients use a 14- to 21-day period to adapt feedyard cattle to higher energy diets, minimize intake variation and feed at the same times every day.

In response to high feed prices, Fanning says his clients have made several adjustments, particularly making the most possible use of technologies that improve efficiency and productivity. These include:

  • Using ionophores such as Bovatec and Rumensin to improve feed efficiency. These products also reduce methane production, Fanning notes.
  • Using aggressive implant programs to optimize growth and reduce days on feed.
  • In some cases using limit-feeding systems.
  • Using beta agonists such as Optaflexx or Zilmax to improve gains and lean-meat yield late in the feeding period.
  • For now, Fanning says, clients are feeding fewer cattle for natural-beef programs. These programs require a significant price premium to account for the efficiencies sacrificed by not using implants and other products. High feed prices tend to widen that production-cost gap between conventional and natural feeding programs.