Addressing producers at the Cattlemen’s College sessions preceding the 2021 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Convention and Trade Show in Nashville, Tennessee, Steve Higgins, director of animal and environmental compliance at the University of Kentucky (UK), outlined some common problems of many winter feeding operations and how to simplify them.
For example, in feed setups where animals come to a central location to eat, the excessive traffic can generate a lot of mud, making the process difficult and even hazardous for both animals and people. In any feeding scenario, wasting feed is a top concern, especially as hay prices go up and supplies run down. Time and labor are also a key factor. The quicker and easier the feeding process is, the better producers can utilize the short daylight hours in the winter.
Simplifying winter feeding strategies is one of the things exhibited at Eden Shale Farm in Owenton, Kentucky. Eden Shale Farm is a UK research farm-turned learning center and demonstration farm managed through a public-private partnership between UK and the Kentucky Beef Network. The 500 acres of forages grown there are used for demonstrations and research projects and to support Eden Shale’s resident commercial cow herd, which is set up to represent a typical Kentucky cow-calf operation. Eden Shale demonstrates best management practices and environmental stewardship, including centralized watering points and winter feeding, and explores other practices such as water harvesting and wind solar energy that can be feasible for producers to implement on their own farms.
At Eden Shale, Higgins, in his role as efficiency expert, has developed several practices and designs for improving feeding facilities and efficiency by focusing on simplicity and eliminating inefficiencies. While most of his designs are structured for the Southeast and for smaller operations, they are also easy to scale up to a larger operation or adapt to different environmental demands in other regions.
Higgins said outside opinions can be invaluable when looking for ways to improve an existing system. “I operate off this philosophy that 95 percent of what we see every day is invisible to us.” Using a fresh set of eyes to improve efficiency is key to digging in and find the best solution for as specific operation. He defines this as a functional design. “A functional design for me is when I'm going to save time, I'm going to save money and I'm going to create a better environment for the cattle.”
One of these designs are “cubbies” or a series of fenceline feeders. These are arranged alongside a gravel road, and for ease of access, built directly into the fence. These feeders are placed on a pad of concrete that is raised 6 inches above the concrete or gravel base that the cattle stand on to eat (see photo above). This eliminates feed waste, the need to drive into and out of the pasture, and trampling up mud around feeders. If rain or snow is a major concern, building a covered feeder is an option (see photo below).
Using existing infrastructure is a great way to make changes with low input. Take a look at existing buildings and see if it would be possible to repurpose them for feeding. Higgins outlined another feeding option designed for a situation where cattle are fed close to where the hay is stored. To save on fuel and time, instead of taking the hay to the cattle, have them come and get it. The photo below shows hay bales laid out in a central barn alley with a sliding gate that acts as a mobile feedbunk. Create access from wherever the cattle are being kept to the hay and let the cattle feed themselves.
Higgins also warned against giving cattle free choice at their hay, a style he calls “bed and breakfast” feeding. “If you have no feeder, you can range from zero waste to 100 percent. The actual average is 58 percent. Fifty-eight percent of what you give them is wasted.” He said using a feeder reduces waste to around 20%. “What this tells me is that providing some sort of restriction to the feed actually reduces a lot of waste.”
As each operation’s feeding needs and setup are unique, Higgins outlined four key guidelines to help producers look for ways to make their winter feeding routines as simple and efficient:
- Feed should be moved as little as possible from point of production to the cow’s mouth.
- Feed should be moved in bulk.
- Feed should be as self-fed as possible.
- Feed should be consumed with as little waste as possible.
With these principles in mind, consider where hay or other feed is stored and how much time and energy are expended in getting the hay to the cattle. Would it be worth investing in creating a good storage area close to where the cattle are kept and moving the haystack or other feed closer to where you feed? Consider the fuel cost and wear and tear on tractors and trucks. Saving yourself the daily trip to the haystack could quickly pay off in fuel costs and time saved.
Higgins’ hallmarks of an efficient feeding system:
- Reduce travel distances and driving
- Reduce moving materials
- Reduce mud
- Reduce hay waste
- Use existing infrastructure
- Save time and money through simplicity and elimination
Visit the Eden Shale Farm website to find design plans, pictures and videos of existing systems and more.