Feedbunk Management: Key to Animal Health and Performance

By: Steve Boyles, OSU Extension Beef Specialist (originally published in The Ohio Farmer)

A properly managed bunk impacts profitability of the feedyard!

Feedbunk management plays an important role in both animal performance and preventing acidosis in the feedyard.

A part of feedbunk management is estimating how much feed cattle will eat. Factors such as cattle size, weight, breed, ration-type, weather and health must be taken into account. Previous history of feed intake for a pen of cattle can help in estimations.

How much work do you want to put into gaining an estimate of how your steer or a group of cattle are eating? Estimates can be made prior to a morning feeding, if you are providing a morning feeding, with two additional observations made during the day. A common method is making one observation during consumption of the first feed, and a second one in the afternoon prior to a feeding. Feed should not be increased by more than 10% from one feeding to the next. Decreases of more than 10% may be justified too for cattle to clean the bunks. Generally feed calls should not be decreased in the afternoon.

Consider developing a sheet for monitoring/tracking your feeding. A bunk sheet could contain the following information.

  1. Pen Number
  2. Head count
  3. In weight
  4. Current weight
  5. Days on feed
  6. Days on the ration
  7. Indication of slick bunks
  8. Indication of when bunks last cleaned
  9. Pen condition (dry, muddy, etc.)

The following table allows the feeder to estimate actual feed consumption and track trends in intake. By keeping at least 4 days of records available one can account for the delayed response in cattle behavior to a feed change.

4-Point Bunk Scoring System (Derived from South Dakota State University)
Score Description
0 No feed remaining in bunk
½ Scattered feed present. Most of bottom of bunk exposed
1 Thin uniform layer of feed across bottom of bunk. Typically about 1 kernel deep
2 25-50% of previous feed remaining
3 Crown of feed is toughly disturbed. >50% of feed remaining.
4 Feed is virtually untouched.  Crown of feed still noticeable

Feed intake estimates or feed calls are made prior to feeding using information on consumption and bunk scores from previous days.  The next table shows an example for 4 pens that give a feel for how feed calls (pounds of feed per pen), used in conjunction with bunk scores, might be interpreted.

Pen A – Intake erratic; Pen B – Intake Consistent; Pen C – Intake Consistent to steady increase; Pen D –  Intake on steady increase

Some of the factors that affect feed call decisions include cattle aggressiveness and weather.  At the time of feeding, 25% of the cattle should be lined up ready to eat, 50% should be standing and working their way to the bunk and 25% should be getting up and stretching.  There may be time when the bunk is empty (slick), but because the cattle are not aggressive, you wait to increase them.

Situation at bunk after feeding (notice not all cattle are at the bunk)

Weather can affect feed intake.  Heat reduces appetite.  This may cause you to reduce the amount fed or alter when cattle get most of their feed (afternoon versus morning feeding).  Rain can affect feed palatability, especially in warm weather. Cattle should not be forced to consume stale feed it should be removed from the bunks and discarded.  Rain and mud, by restricting cattle movement, can increase the difficulty for the cattle to access feed and water.  Cattle seem to have the ability to sense the coming of cold fronts.  They increase intake generally during cold weather and may become more aggressive as cold front approaches.  Because of this some feeders supply “storm rations” consisting of additional roughage or higher levels of a lower energy ration.   This concept did not improve performance however in a Nebraska study.

Rations should be fresh and uniform. Mixing and ingredient selection processing are important.  Fine particles that separate in the bunk should be avoided.  These may contain concentrations of minerals for feed additives or highly fermentable grains.  The use of high moisture feedstuffs like silage can help hold fine particles in suspension.  Feedbunk management can reduce the incidence of acidosis, improve feed efficiency and reduce the cost of production.

EDITOR’s NOTE: In the YouTube video embedded below, Dr. Boyles further explains the concepts of effective bunk management:

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