ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. — South Dakotan Robbie Pritchard is used to counseling Scandinavian farmers on how to feed beef cattle during prairie winters known for roaring winds and subzero temperatures.
“This is rope em, drag em, brand em country,” he said.
Pritchard, a feedlot specialist at South Dakota State University, brought his expertise to the Masonic Village Farm Aug. 6 for the Pennsylvania Beef Producers Summit.
Reading a feed bunk is an intuitive task, and the best bunk reader in an operation may not be the person one expects. Pritchard’s A students often struggle with it.
“Engineers are too analytical. They don’t have enough soul,” Pritchard said half-seriously.
Feed mixing can also be a tricky process. The time it takes depends on particle size, density and surface friction. Some mixes, like shelled corn and hay, combine quickly but then start to become less evenly distributed again if they are mixed too long, he said.
If the feed components are similar, they generally take longer to mix. Brome and alfalfa, for example, take about 20 minutes to mix well.
Pritchard puts liquid supplement on corn before mixing it with distillers grains. The liquid increases the surface friction.
The feed expert outlined a simple test to see if feed components are mixing properly.
He puts packing peanuts in his mixer and then sets pans in the feed bunk. The foam pieces are large and light like hay. The workers then count the number of peanuts in each pan. If the numbers are not the same, the mixing procedure needs to be changed.
Red Hots candy also work in place of the foam nuggets, and the crew likes getting the leftover cinnamon snacks, he said.
Choosing the right mixer can make a big difference, he said. Rotomixers work best for flaked grain used in finishing.
Three-auger mixers perform as well as four-auger systems. The four-auger is “a lot faster,” but for the price difference a three-auger may be sufficient for many beef operations, he said.
Auger models work best when they are three-quarters full. Small and brimming loads do not work as well.
“I don’t know if there’s a best kind of mixer,” though certain ones will serve some operations better, he said.
Pritchard rated the proportion of dry matter as the most important factor to check. It is big enough that large feedlots measure flaker output every hour, he said.
Roughage content can change in unexpected ways.
The dry matter content fell from 86 percent to 67 percent in one feed making session Pritchard was running. Fine snow had landed in the feed, and with the South Dakota winter temperature at -10 degrees, the snow was not wet.
Producers should work with their nutritionist to determine how great of a variance in mix composition they can tolerate, Pritchard said. He gets concerned when the diet is off by 5 percent.
When something gets missed in a feed batch, “it’s not the same diet we fed yesterday,” he said.
Farmers usually make too much of a mix rather than not enough, and they need to have a policy for handling the excess. Tossing it back in with the unmixed feed will throw off the proportions in the next mix, he said.
Pritchard said a friend of his bought a feed measurer for around $7,000. The farmer, who raised 2,500-3,000 cattle, found the machine paid for itself in four months because it eliminated a lot of waste and inconsistency.
“Those little details that we tend to miss add up,” he said.
Timing feeding properly is another of those little details.
The massive farms in Pritchard’s region will actually feed the cattle three times a day.
“Part of the reason is that’s really hard to get good help,” and large-scale operations cannot take as much time to tailor their feeding, he said.
The first pass typically gives the cattle 10 percent of what they gave the day before, the second pass rises to 50 percent of the previous day’s amount and the third pass adds the remainder of what the feed for that day was supposed to be.
Once-a-day feeding is best delivered in the afternoon, Pritchard said.
This revelation grew from a suggestion from his students. Initially he figured that his students just wanted to sleep in and that he would quickly show them up.
Instead, after seven trials that showed afternoon feeding increased efficiency up to 8 percent, he had to admit that “cattle don’t have to be fed at seven in the morning,” he said.
Cattle have less opportunity to sort feed if they get their food in the afternoon, he said.
The timing of “afternoon” can vary greatly, though, especially in his state. In the summer, it can go as late as 6 p.m., but in the winter he sets it for 1:30 p.m. Wait until later in the afternoon and “you missed your window” because of the early dusk, he said.
Unlike dairy barns, which frequently use lights at night to increase productivity, beef barns would have to have very bright, sunlight-mimicking light at night to have any effect on production. The electric bill would eat any productivity gains, he said.
Timing the feeding is especially important in the summer. In the morning, “(the cows) didn’t know they were going to be too hot to eat,” he said.
Metabolism generates heat, which peaks around the same time as the heat of the day. The cows struggle to get rid of the heat.
Some operators have tried pushing the feeding ever earlier into the early morning, but that misses the point, he said. Morning-fed cows are more vulnerable to severe heat stress, and bad timing across an operation can lead to catastrophic losses.
When farmers hold the feed until the afternoon, the cattle will already feel the heat and eat less to compensate. In the summer, growers should pay the premium for high-fat distillers grains, which do not generate heat in the rumen or tissue.
In the winter, the more expensive grains are unhelpful because the cows need the heat.
“When it’s that cold, they’ll eat enough anyway,” he said.
Cows need more roughage in winter, and the bitter cold of the Northern Plains will not chill the cows “unless their gut’s screwed up,” he said.
In the summer, roughage reduces the speed of eating “so the cows don’t burn themselves up,” he said.
Farmers also need to recognize that cows “can’t bed til everybody’s eaten,” he said. If bedding is available early, the cows that have not had a chance to eat will follow the herd mentality and bed down without eating.
Ideally cows will eat in three groups. The senior animals get first shot at the food, and the next third get to stand up and get their bowels in order. The remaining cows do nothing until the first cows turn the bunk over to the standing cows.
Once-a-day feeding is not for everyone. Some beef farmers have to do two feedings a day because they do not have the capacity to mix enough feed in the morning. Once-a-day farmers need to make sure they have a big enough bunk for all the feed, Pritchard said.<\c> 1
Photo by Philip Gruber
Feedlot specialist Robbie Pritchard of South Dakota State University discusses bunk management. -- ( Photo)
Photo by Philip Gruber
An Angus at Masonic Village investigates participants in the Pennsylvania Beef Producers Summit who have gathered to watch the feeding process. -- ( Photo)
Photo by Philip Gruber
Cattle at Masonic Village prepare for their evening feeding. -- ( Photo)