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Coping with sky-high feed

The hits just keep coming to the cattle feeding industry, the most recent being last summer’s drought. There are some things you can do to gain a few more cents in feedlot efficiencies to cope with sky-high feed, says Dan Loy, beef nutrition specialist at Iowa State University.

Use efficiency technology

Loy says implant technology may be the most important tool you have for improving bottom line profitability in a feedlot. The various estrogen, androgen, and combination implants can improve daily gains up to 20%, and feed efficiency by 15%. They can reduce total cost of producing beef by 10%. And the advantage to implants is magnified when feed costs are as high as today.

Loy analyzed a University of Minnesota summary of 50 feedlot research trials involving implants, with an average improvement of 17% in average daily gain, and near 10% in feed efficiency. When corn was about $3 a bushel, those performance improvements reduced the feed cost of gain by about 5¢ a pound. But with corn at or above $7 a bushel, the improved efficiency from implants shaves the feed cost by 11¢ a pound, from about 95¢ to 84¢ per pound of animal gain. “Even accounting for the reduction in carcass quality to implants, there is a $20- to $40-per-head advantage for using implants in the feedlot today,” says Loy.

Stop the waste

Loy says it is sobering how much feed can be lost to shrink and waste on a typical farm feedlot. While difficult to measure precisely, estimates of feed waste paint an ugly picture. Corn co-products such as DDGs stored outside in open and uncovered piles can lose 15% to 30% before getting to the feed bunk. If you are handling soybean meal on a windy day, 8% to 9% of it can disappear to the countryside. Corn silage stored in a bunker silo will have losses to waste and spoilage that start at about 5% and go as high as 50% if it is harvested at the wrong time and packed improperly.

Loy says commodity feed storage sheds can help. In one estimate he made, a 750-head feedlot could build a right-size shed for $10,000 to $12,000. If it cut feed losses by just 5%, it might pay for itself in as little as one year.

As for proper silage handling, Loy says it should be harvested and stored at 60% to 70% moisture, then packed by a single-track tractor in layers of only about 10 inches or less at a time. Proper packing and covering with an oxygen barrier can cut silage losses in half, maybe from 20% down to 10%. You can save more silage by using proper face management (the front wall of the pile) when you feed it out. As you feed daily, strip off a layer from the pile face of just what you need that day, about 1 foot at a time, and you’ll have less spoilage as you work through the pile.

Do all you can to control birds and rodents that have access to feed sheds and feed bunks, Loy adds. An individual starling can eat 2 pounds of feed a month, and they travel in flocks of thousands.

Select quality cattle

One of the final steps to more feed-efficient cattle is a relatively new round of evaluation being conducted by the beef industry. It’s called the National Program for the Genetic Improvement of Feed Efficiency in Beef Cattle (, and the goal is to find and breed cattle that are more efficient in converting feed to meat. Feedlot feed efficiency is not a trait that has been heavily studied or targeted in the cattle industry, but a group of 20 researchers at universities, government agencies, and private industry is tackling this project.

Loy has looked at limited feedlot efficiency records over the last 40 years. In a span of about 30 years from the 1970s to the early 2000s, he estimates that the beef industry improved feedlot efficiency about 1 pound of feed per pound of gain, going from about 8 pounds of feed down to about 7 pounds in the early 2000s. “In the last 10 years, it seems to have leveled off at that point,” says Loy. “Maybe it’s because we have increased carcass size, and we’re still making some progress, but we don’t see it on the heavier cattle. But even if we are making progress, I think little of that is due to genetics.”

The feed efficiency team is in the process of measuring performance traits on 8,000 animals of eight breeds. “We want to be able to identify feeder cattle that are genetically more efficient, then develop nutrition and management practices for those that are more efficient, and those that are less efficient. We might feed them differently,” says Loy.

Eventually, the feed efficiency team members hope to have tools to allow a producer to do a genetic test for feed efficiency at a ranch or feedlot. “There’s a lot of untapped potential in selecting cattle for this trait,” Loy says.

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