As one might expect, the findings and corresponding recommendations for mediating the adverse effects of weather differ; not only between cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry, but even further, within species by specific breeds.

Some results have proven to be both interesting and insightful, while others have been met with skepticism; most notably, reaction to studies analyzing how different types of feedlot facilities — open, monoslope containment and hoop buildings — affect overall beef cattle health and weight gain.

As one might expect, the importance of the results to feedlot operators differs by geography, as the impact of different weather and exposure-related extremes varies dramatically.

Taking cover
Most beef producers know intuitively that when the weather gets colder, cattle need more energy to maintain condition and productivity. With winter upon us, especially in the upper Midwest where temps often plunge well below zero, and various forms of frozen precipitation cling to critters’ coats like a moist tongue to a frozen steel fence post, conventional wisdom would suggest that exposure to the elements increases the exposure to many adverse effects.

And, as experienced by nearly every feedlot operation in the country this past summer, exposure to extreme heat is not only as detrimental as severe cold and wind chills, but more life threatening.


Although often overlooked, a lack of dry feeding and loafing (bedding) areas can be significant contributors to cold stress. Providing dry feeding and loafing areas has proven to decrease energy needs, and feed intake, because shelter allows cattle to utilize feed nutrients for basic metabolic demands — i.e. nutrition, maintaining body temperature and weight gain — instead of battling cold stress.

During summer months — as evidenced nationwide in 2012 — the extreme heat takes an opposite toll, as fat cattle struggle to find relief from sizzling sunshine and more humid conditions. The inability to sweat effectively forces cattle to rely on respiration for lowering body temperature; a condition that becomes more threatening when temperatures reach 90°F and above, particularly when humidity is high or wind-speed is low.

In the early 1970s, animal health scientists observed that cattle fed in the Midwest with access to adequate shelter gained appreciably more weight, more consistently — in both summer and winter — compared to cattle in open, unsheltered lots.

More recently, a two-year study conducted by J.W. Pastoor, D.D. Loy, A. Trenkle and K.D. Lawrence comparing fed cattle performance in open lot and bedded confinement facilities, also in the Upper Midwest, showed that feeding cattle in bedded confinement buildings improved performance when compared to open lots.

Study conclusions theorized that metabolic requirements are reduced and cattle comfort improved as deep bedded housing provides reduced cold stress in the winter, as well as a shade benefit in the summer. During frigid winter months, operators can lower fabric sides and building ends to shelter critters from subzero temperatures, fierce winds and a variety of wet, freezing forms of precipitation.

The study went on to suggest there is a positive economic return from feeding cattle in confined facilities; although individual feedlot operators needed to analyze for themselves if the advantage is sufficient to pay for the covered facility.

Improved manure value is also a consideration, but likely more important, are environmental advantages realized from hoop covered facilities, as manure runoff is all but eliminated since cattle are protected under a curved roof that deflects rain.

The ability to create airflow and increased circulation while providing shade from scorching sun was another notable advantage during summer months, while protecting cattle from the often brutal wrath of Old Man Winter.

Making the case for hoops
After learning more about the advantages of covered hoop buildings while attending the Iowa Beef Expo, Jerome Kuyper, a feedlot owner from West Bend, Iowa, became the first beef cattle operator to install a steel beam fabric building, manufactured by Accu-Steel, headquartered in Templeton, Iowa, designed specifically for feedlot operations.

Jerome kuyper 2

Kuyper’s initial motivation was to address runoff from his open feed yard into a protected creek located nearby. But it wasn’t long after the building was completed and occupied that Kuyper was realizing what previous observations and university studies had suggested.

“Fabric-covered buildings are considered zero runoff facilities, which made my decision easy,” Kuyper says.

“But beyond the environmental advantages, I was delighted with the appreciable weight gains we realized. I have a very consistent rate of gain and days on feed, which as a custom feeder makes my business more predictable.

"I’m bringing finished steers and heifers to market quicker — on average 30 days faster — which means reduced feed costs and greater return on investment. I’ve also seen a noticeable difference in the cleanliness and overall health of my herds.”

Shane Schechinger, vice president of agriculture sales at Accu-Steel says there are multiple considerations that producers should make when looking at installing a fabric-covered structure on their operation, among which are air flow and ventilation. A building design which provides ventilation will move excess heat and moisture through the building, while allowing protection from exterior elements like rain or snow, providing drier bedding and healthier livestock.

Environmentally friendly and low maintenance
While open feedlots may be the least expensive type of concentrated animal feeding operation, they also come with many inherent drawbacks when compared to sheltered facilities. As noted earlier, void of protection from rain, the susceptibility of manure runoff into neighboring water bodies is obviously greater with an open feedlot.

In addition, open feedlots do not maximize nutrient availability in manure. When scraped from an open feedlot, it’s next to impossible to extract manure in a pure form void of even small amounts of dirt and soil. Consequently, only a portion of the manure content is delivered to cropland as nutrient.

After installing the first fabric-covered cattle building on his operation, Kuyper contacted the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to assess his original open lot runoff problems. After completing several environmental tests and visual inspections to the site, Kuyper’s property received a clean bill of health from the IDNR, thanks in large part to the installation of his fabric-covered building.

Kuyper says, “The environmental engineer’s official stamp of approval saved me roughly $10,000. The installation of a fabric-covered building controlled the runoff, and has allowed me to practice my animal husbandry business better than ever before.”  end mark

—Randy Happel is a freelance writer who specializes in agriculture. He is based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Photos courtesy of Accu-Steel