This article was originally published in Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Cattle Trails Newsletter
When grain prices are high, there is usually an increase in inquiries from cattle feeders looking for ways to cut production costs. The ration is typically the first place many feeders look for change. Assessing current bunk management practices for adherence to protocol, or implementing changes to improve feed efficiency and reduce waste is another area for consideration.
Some producers may have opportunities to implement low-cost management changes to their bunk management and improve returns. Two common bunk management approaches are ad libitum (free choice), where the cattle always have feed in the bunk and programmed intake management (often called slick bunk management). Slick Bunk Management is where the bunks are “read” before preparing and delivering the current feeding to determine the amount of feed consumed since the last feeding. Bunks should be “slicked up,” meaning only a small amount of feed remains. The goal is to deliver the amount of feed that closely matches the animal’s intake for each feeding period. This management practice is a balance between maximum and consistent intake and minimizing waste. Feed Bunk Management provides a thorough description of reading and managing feed bunks when feeding cattle.
The only additional equipment needed between the two feeding approaches when using a Total Mixed Ration (TMR) mixer to feed in a bunk is a notebook and pencil to record bunk scores for determining adjustments in feed delivered for the slick bunk program. Several feeding trials comparing free-choice feeding to slick bunk management have shown: little difference in the rate of gain and carcass traits; an improvement in feed-to-gain efficiency from the slick bunk feeding program; and free choice bunk management had greater variability in daily intakes. Increased intake variability can lead to digestive problems such as acidosis, reducing further performance. Table 1 contains the results of one trial with yearling beef steers to show how gain and intakes differ between free choice and slick bunk feeding management.
Table 1. Effect of feed bunk management method on feedlot performance (Bierman and Pritchard)
|Free choice||Slick Bunk Management|
|Initial wt., lbs.||865||864|
|Final wt., lbs.||1331||1328|
|Average daily gain, lbs.||3.85||3.84|
|Dry matter intake lbs./hd/day||26.39||23.57|
|Feed to gain lbs.||6.9||6.15|
Using a feed price of $232/ton dry matter basis (calculated from late summer projected fall 2021 feed prices), costs would be $80.04/ cwt of gain for ad libitum bunk management compared to $71.34/ cwt of gain for slick bunk management. The real difference per head would be $41.96 per head over the 121 days of this feed trial and approximately 465 pounds of gain. We would expect to see a similar intake differential response in Holstein steers. For example, feeding Holstein steers from 400 pounds to 1400 pounds could improve feed costs between $80 to $90 per head using $232/ dry matter ton feed cost.
In addition, the cattle fed free choice tend to have a greater range in daily gain than the cattle in the slick bunk-managed groups. The greater range in daily gains can result in greater difficulty in putting consistent quality loads of market-ready cattle together, leading to increased price discounts at sale time or more trips to the sale barn with less head per load.
To optimize cattle growth and feed efficiency, the goal should be to deliver the same feed, with the same quality, in a quantity that closely matches their intake at the same time every day. Also, beware that weather changes will impact day-to-day feed intake. Top managers learn to anticipate these changes and manage accordingly. These practices will help minimize the risk of inconsistent intakes or going off feed, resulting in reductions in gain and performance and more days on feed.
Bierman, S. J. and Pritchard, R. H., “Effect of Feed Delivery Management on Yearling Steer Performance” (1996). South Dakota Beef Report, 1996. Paper 6. http://openprairie.sdstate.edu/sd_beefreport_1996/6
Lundy, E.L., Loy, D., Dahlke, G., “Feed Bunk Management” IBCR 201A (2015), https://store.extension.iastate.edu/product/Feed-Bunk-Management
Reviewed by: Amanda Cauffman, Carolyn Ihde, and Ryan Sterry, UW-Madison Division of Extension Educators in Grant, Crawford/ Richland, and Agent in St. Croix Counties respectively.