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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 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 the total cost of producing beef by 10%. 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. 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-per-head to $40-per-head advantage for using implants in the feedlot today,” says Loy.

Stop the waste

It is sobering how much feed can be lost to shrink and waste on a typical farm feedlot, notes Loy. While difficult to measure precisely, estimates of feed waste paint an ugly picture. Corn coproducts such as dried distillers’ grains (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 is 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 final step 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 ( The goal is to find and to 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 20 researchers from universities, government agencies, and private industry are tackling this project.

Efficiency evolves 

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. 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. 

Cattle Feeders Cut Costs 

To keep feed costs low, three Iowa cattle feeders discuss what they’re doing to trim the fat from feed costs.

Bill Couser, Couser Cattle Company of Nevada, Iowa

Today, says Bill Couser, reducing cost of gain is all about inclusion rates in feedlot rations of coproducts from feed or food processing. 

In his 5,000-head feedlot, Couser has been able to include wheat midds from a nearby pasta plant, soybean hulls, corn gluten, and cellulosic products. Depending on time of year and several other pricing variables, these coproducts help Couser reduce the whole corn in the ration. The coproducts are sometimes priced at about 80% of whole corn. In some cases, the savings is magnified beyond that because the coproducts also have a high protein value.

The price and nutrient value of corn and the coproducts can be plugged into a computer program, which will then spit out the least-cost ration. 

“Ten years ago, it took about 75 bushels of whole corn to finish a steer from 600 to 1,200 pounds,” says Couser. “Today, that number is about 15 to 30 bushels of corn; the difference is in the coproducts. Those four stomachs they have let them eat just about anything,” he marvels.

Greg Williams of Lytton, Iowa

Greg Williams is betting on the quality of feeder cattle going into his feedlot as the ticket to improved feed efficiency. “I’ve been finding really high-quality and good-doing cattle from some producers in Nebraska and South Dakota,” he says. “I’m getting outstanding performance in gains and feed efficiency.” 

Some of these cattle have had feed efficiencies of less than 5 pounds of feed per pound of gain, says Williams. 

He also feeds dried distillers’ grains (corn ethanol coproducts) to replace corn. The DDGs typically have a protein content of 25% to 30%, which means they replace not only corn but also some of the protein supplement for additional cost savings. Still, Williams says, it’s very tough making profits in the business. Last summer, he paid $8.30 a bushel for corn at the peak of the drought market.

Alan Albright of Lytton, Iowa

Alan Albright is feeding rations that are 30% wet DDGs, 30% corn, and the remainder in roughage sources, including cornstalks. “There’s not much energy in stalks,” the feedlot operator says, “but they do provide a bulk ingredient.” 

DDGs used to be priced at about 80% of corn, he adds, but lately it’s been about 95%, so the savings aren’t as great. Still, DDGs have 25% protein, compared to whole corn at 9%. 

“Something I’ve done to prevent feed waste is to provide a little more bunk space in my lots and to not fill the bunks as full as I used to. With corn at $8 a bushel, I hate to see the cattle pushing it out on the ground,” says Albright. 

Learn More

Iowa Beef Center

National Program for the Genetic Improvement of Feed Efficiency in Beef Cattle

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