Ten tips to improve feedyard efficiency

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Cattle feeders are traditionally a fairly optimistic group. But with nearly every closeout the past two years printed in red ink, maintaining a positive attitude and a competitive business environment can be challenging. As you strive to cope with tight margins, experts encourage you to look for gains in performance and efficiency in every aspect of your business. The following is a list of efficiency tips offered by industry professionals.

Manage cattle environments
University of Nebraska Extension veterinarian Dee Griffin encourages feedlot managers to be aware of how cattle environment affects cattle performance.

 “Heat stress has an adverse effect on feed intake and subsequent feed efficiency. Air flow and water availability during times of heat stress are important to mitigate the adverse effects of heat stress,” Griffin says.

Reduce winter stress
Iowa State University beef specialist Dan Loy encourages feedlot operators to improve cattle comfort during winter months. Managing that stress, he says, can pay dividends with improved feedlot performance. Suggestions include:

Provide wind protection: Reduce the effects of wind with a windbreak fence, shelterbelt or a shelter.

Offer appropriate shelter: Give animals adequate space (more than 20 square feet per head) and make sure that the building is well ventilated. Poor ventilation increases stress on the respiratory system and traps moisture in the building. That moisture accelerates heat losses.

Provide bedding: Cattle can lose heat due to direct conduction when lying down. In conditions where moisture may build up in the areas where cattle bed down, bedding can provide a layer of insulation between the animal and the ground.

Remove snow: Loy says feedlots should be cleared of snow to reduce the potential for muddy conditions when temperatures thaw. Mud may be more stressful than cold in feedlots because it reduces the insulation value of the hair coat and requires more energy for the animal to travel from feed to water to resting areas.

Control mud
“Mud is very expensive,” Griffin says. “About 4 inches of mud decreases feed efficiency about 14 percent. That’s a huge chunk of what we get from all the improvements we purchase — implants, feed additives, etc.”

Griffin says feedlot pens need a proper slope — greater than 4 percent — with tall, tight, hard soil compaction mounds. Regular removal of the “sponge” (a Texas term for the loose layer on the pen surface) can go a long way to helping control mud.

“Mud in March is best controlled by hard work the previous summer, not by work after it gets muddy,” Griffin says.

Manage waterers
“Cleaning waterers weekly will promote more water intake,” says Ki C Fanning, a ruminant nutritionist with Great Plains Livestock Consulting, Eagle, Neb. “Water intake and feed intake are positively correlated. Water is a major cooling mechanism for cattle and muscle is made up of over 70 percent water.”

Manage implants
Implant cattle properly — missed or abscessed implants sacrifice performance potential.

“Manage implant windows more tightly,” Fanning says. “Lots of cattle are not reimplanted at the correct time. Make a schedule and stick to it.”

Manage vaccines
“Handle vaccines properly and avoid waste,” says Chris Reinhardt, Kansas State University. “Losing two doses out of 50 can add up to $2,000 of annual waste in a 20,000-head feedyard.”

Bunk management
“Review bunk management, including protocols for stepping-up cattle on feed, and monitor dry-matter intake daily,” says Jeremy Martin, ruminant nutritionist also with Great Plains Livestock Consulting. “Feed cattle within 15 minutes of the same time each day. Track dry-matter intake and compare to expected intake.”

Fanning also says to be sure cattle are not “sorting” feed. “This is a common problem and the most aggressive animals eat too much of the grain, causing bloats, and the timid animals are left with a diet higher in roughage than is expected, so they underperform based on their projection.”

Ration
“Feed a balanced ration,” Fanning says. “Use byproducts if they are economically advantageous and at the rate that benefits the bottom line the most.”

He also encourages feeders to grow cattle using a limit-feeding program, and finish cattle using a slick-bunk program.

“Have a nutritionist calculate a cost-of-gain projection prior to buying cattle.”

Dan Larson, also a ruminant nutritionist with Great Plains Livestock Consulting, says feeders should, “Step cattle up on feed in a timely fashion. Moving cattle to a finishing ration at the appropriate weight will limit time in the lot.”

Identify strengths and weaknesses
“Do what you are good at,” Martin says. “I work with many yards that are good at feeding yearlings and not good at feeding calves, and vice versa. Identify your strengths and use them in your favor.”

Communicate
Labor is a valuable resource. Keep everyone informed and many conflicts will be avoided. “Unhappy employees tend to accomplish less at the same price as happy employees,” Martin says.

John Lawrence, Iowa State University agricultural economist and director of the Iowa Beef Center, an arm of ISU’s agricultural Extension service, encourages feedlot managers to conduct a detailed assessment of their operation.

“Every operation is different and has different strengths and weaknesses,” Lawrence says. “The assessment is a method to objectively evaluate variables that impact the operation. The assessment is something that should be done periodically  —  say twice a year  —  to not only identify problems but to also measure progress. Often, the bigger challenge is implementing change once an opportunity is identified.”

Lawrence says six steps are important in the assessment.

Step 1: Goal identification and/or policy statement.

Define the scope of the problem/opportunity and clarify what you are trying to accomplish early in the process.

Step 2: Assess the operation within the scope of the issue defined.

Several assessment tools exist for specific issues. For example, EMS, Farm*A*Syst, and PQA/BQA checklists can serve as assessment tools.

Step 3: Prioritize based on the goal(s) in Step 1 and assessment in Step 2. 

From this, identify one to three priorities to address. Once achieved, other priorities will surface.

Step 4: Write an objective and action plan for each priority.

  • Write an objective for each priority that is simple to understand, measurable and achievable.
  • Identify the steps or actions needed to achieve the objective.  

Step 5: Communicate plan with staff.

Step 6: Review, revise and repeat.

  • When will progress be reviewed and with whom?
  • Does the objective or action plan need to be changed?
  • Is it still a priority? Should it be replaced with a new priority? 


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