Justin Sexten: Less Is More

A recent paper offers an interesting look at an alternative model for growing cattle health and performance where efficiency was achieved using less. ( FJ )

Justin Sexten is Vice President of Strategy for Performance Livestock Analytics

Fair to say we live in a time of more. Larger equipment, increased stocking rates, bigger cattle just to name a few. Most increases in size or scale are made in the name of efficiency. Cover more acres in less time, spread risk across more cattle or dilute cost with greater weight gain.

A recent paper by Tyler Spore and co-workers offers an interesting look at an alternative model where efficiency was achieved using less. Over the years the K-State Beef Stocker Unit has explored a number of ways to improve growing cattle health and performance. In this experiment they revisited a concept first explored in the 1970’s, feeding high-energy diets to receiving calves.

This approach is based on the greatest challenge of starting high-risk calves: low energy intake due to stress. Our first goal should be to reduce stress, after that there are only two ways to increase energy intake: consume more feed or increase the feed’s energy density.

This experiment used four diets with a range of energy concentrations achieved by replacing hay with rolled corn. The highest energy diet was 39% rolled corn and 13% forage while the lowest energy diet was 45% hay and 8.5% corn. All diets contained 40% sweet bran. The group then limited feed intake to target a 2.2 ADG.

Limit feeding or in this case, program feeding is where less was more. There were no differences in ADG, (as expected based on programmed feeding for 2.2 ADG) yet feed efficiency was improved by 22% by using the high-energy diet. Over the 55 day experiment the high-energy fed calves consumed 120 lbs less feed than the low energy diet.

This improvement in feed efficiency could be attributed to improved dry matter digestibility and more favorable rumen fermentation products for gain. I realize few readers get as excited about rumen dynamics as the author but you can do the math on the feed savings it caused above.

What should not go unnoticed in this efficiency discussion is the labor savings offered by program feeding. With improved diet digestibility and lower dietary forage total manure output is reduced in this system. While a valuable fertilizer, few will argue with the labor and machinery savings of handling less manure, especially those of you who recall the bedding challenges of the most recent long, wet winter.

Another labor efficiency you might find in this model is an improved ability to find calves breaking with respiratory disease. While the authors didn’t report on such data, if we think through the behavior of a limit-fed calf who gets fed once daily it’s not hard to see how this could work to your advantage. With adequate bunk space you expect all cattle to come to the truck when limit or program fed.

Feed truck drivers with a keen eye can then make some of the best cowboys, whether feeding yearlings or starting calves in confinement. Once you start supplementing calves they come to the truck and those who don’t you start looking for, because something is not normal. In a program-fed system you can feed and check calves at the same time taking advantage of this natural behavior.

There are two drawbacks to program or limit feeding most feeders cite and both are related to knowing how to limit or program feed the cattle. In the ‘70’s and 80’s program feeding was challenging because acidosis was more common in higher energy diets. Now with co-product feeds like sweet bran (in this experiment) or distillers grains this risk of acidosis can be reduced.

The challenge of developing a programmed feeding plan can be overcome by consulting with your nutritionist. Work to develop an energy dense diet but perhaps more importantly discuss a feeding and bunk management plan. With cloud-based feeding technologies like Performance Beef, both nutritionist and feeders can communicate in real time as feed intake changes over the feeding period.

Making a plan to do more with less makes sense in a normal year yet this year appears anything but normal. For some high-energy corn diets may give way to an abundance of prevent plant cover-crop feed options. In those areas where a corn crop is made, consider feeding systems that offer feed and labor efficiencies.

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