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Management is imperative in any enterprise, including the feedlot industry. With a small profit margin, it is important to meticulously manage all aspects that influence input costs to prevent overspending. This is where the challenge lies for the students competing in the UP-Agric Feedlot Challenge. The teams could choose their cattle, but the diet is the same for everyone. The team who has the best management should have the healthiest cattle that gain the most weight over the 80-day challenge period.

The initial investment into properly designed handling facilities and pens, as well as overall feedlot layout will make the entire feedlotting operation smoother, saving on costs in the long run.

Aspects that require meticulous management

There are many aspects that need to be managed. First is buying the right calves as they are the feedlot’s biggest expense. A calf that stands in a feedlot for 120 days will consume approximately 1,4 tons of feed. As much of that feed as possible needs to be converted into muscle, thus calves that show good growth potential (put on the most muscle) need to be bought. These calves will have broad heads, broad chests, pin bones that are far apart, and have good depth. In addition, they need strong legs so they can walk with ease.

Feed is a feedlot’s second largest expense and feed wastage therefore needs to be minimal. To prevent spoilage from mould growth, feed and feed raw materials need to be stored in a cool, dry place with minimal wind exposure. Different raw materials have different shelf lives and cannot stand in a storeroom for an extended period. Raw materials and mixed feed must always be checked for mould growth before feeding it to the cattle. This is a crucial step in terms of planning when to buy new raw materials.

There is a specific order in which raw materials need to be mixed. This will ensure an even distribution of nutrients which, in turn, ensures a homogenous nutrient intake with every bite and prevents selective feeding. Mixing duration is also important as it is easy to under- or overmix.

feedlot management voerkraalbestuur
Management is imperative in any enterprise, including the feedlot industry. Feedlots have a small profit margin.

The right feed at the right time

Cattle are routine animals and following a feeding routine will increase feed intake and subsequently improve growth. Feeding should be done two to three times a day. This way, cattle are regularly fed fresh feed. Feeding at the same time every day will create a ‘Pavlov’s dog’ scenario.

Moreover, feed needs to be given ad libitum. The feed trough should not be empty for more than two hours. If cattle do not have access to feed, the rumen pH starts to drop. This drop in pH stimulates the proliferation of lactic acid producing microbes which is a poorer source of energy, and which could lead to metabolic disturbances. The pH needs to be kept in the range of 5,8 to 6 to create an environment in which propionic acid producing microbes can flourish. Propionate is the main energy source for ruminant animals as it is easily converted to glucose.

A rule of thumb is that cattle consume 3% of their bodyweight. If a feed trough is cleaned out, the amount of feed fed to the cattle needs to be increased. Larger feedlots will typically increase the amount of feed provided every three days. It is important to keep record of feed intake as this will be used to calculate feed conversion ratio. Cattle must always have access to fresh, clean, cold water. Make sure the water trough mechanism is in proper working order. Feed intake will decrease if cattle do not drink enough water.

Check on the health of your animals

Cattle need to be observed daily – twice daily if possible. Animals that start to get sick will have a drooping head, will be less alert, will not groom and have a supressed appetite. Cattle also play and ride each other which can lead to hip, knee or hock injuries that can cause lameness. The sooner sick animals are detected, pulled and treated, the quicker they recover and resume normal feed intake.

One can tell a lot about the health of an animal by looking at its faeces. Daily manure scoring must be done. The manure needs to hold its pat-like shape, thus not too dry and not too loose. Dry manure can indicate that the ration is too high in roughage, while loose manure can indicate that the ration is too low in roughage, that the ration is not properly mixed and the cattle are selecting, or that the animal is ill. Loose, bubbly, grey manure is an indication that cattle have acidosis.

There are many other aspects in a feedlot requiring carefully managed that has not been mentioned here. Speak to other feedlot managers, ruminant nutrition animal scientists or livestock production veterinarians for more guidance.– Amelia du Preez, technical advisor, Devenish

Read other articles in this series:

Buying calves for a feedlot: What to look for

The ins and outs of processing feedlot cattle