At one point or another, we have all fed cattle on a self-feeder – whether it’s to creep feed some calves; finish out a few fat steers for locker; or if it’s the only way we can successfully manage space, time and labor, it might be the only way we finish cattle. Regardless of why you utilize them, there are right and wrong ways to manage a self-feeder that can impact the overall health and performance of cattle. Compiling a list of things to consider will help you effectively utilize a self-feeder to reach your end goals.

Cleaver don
Product Manager / Form-A-Feed
Doering resch heidi
Director of Beef Technical Services / Form-A-Feed

A self-feeder, also known as a steer stuffer, is a box that holds the feed mixture and keeps it protected from weather while offering cattle a chance to come up and eat from it at their leisure. Self-feeders can be made from wood, metal or plastic. One of its benefits is that you can fill it with a volume of feed that can feed a group of steers for an extended period, reducing the day-to-day time and labor needed to feed a group of cattle.

Ration dynamics matter

In most instances, the feed used in a self-feeder will have a larger particle size to reduce feeding fines and reduce the chance to induce ruminal metabolic upset, which can lead to an increase in liver abscesses and/or bloat. Whole corn, while still a product that carries starch/energy, has a slower rate of digestibility than when it is rolled or ground, and it is also less expensive to handle as you negate the cost to process the corn. If you take into consideration that whole-shelled corn may then function as a type of “scratch factor” to the rumen, you start to see the benefit of leaving corn whole in self-feeding situations versus grinding that corn. This is especially true when you have less than 20% of diet dry matter coming in as forage, which is often the case in self-feeding scenarios. Moisture content of the corn also matters. Corn that is fed at greater than 18% moisture can negatively impact the pelleted supplement with which it’s being fed. If pellet swelling occurs due to additional moisture in the feed, the pellet can break down, causing fines and blockage of the feeder. Additionally, corn that is dryer than 10% has a greater potential to carry fines into the mixture.

Location and space matter

The first consideration about locating a feeder is the ability to fill it with an on-farm mixer or by a local feed supplier’s truck. Feeders should be located where the truck does not need to drive into a pen to fill them. Secondly, feeders should be located about 10 to 30 feet from the water source to ensure optimal water and feed consumption. We are all aware that water intake drives feed intake, so these two resources must be easily accessible and clean.

Self-feeders mean low labor, not no labor

As with any type of feeding system, water, wind, snow and fines can all do their part to reduce feed consumption if not managed. This means having feeders that have adequate wind, snow and rain protection. If there are no overhanging shelters on the feeder, one must put the feeder inside a shelter. If feeders become plugged, intake – and therefore gains – is reduced. Walking pens at least once, if not twice, a day is recommended to help check for fines that may be plugging the feed from coming into the trough. Cleaning fines out of the feeder is equivalent to a feed truck driving down the alleyway. It freshens feed and entices cattle to come back up to the feeder. Any time you can further drive intake is a boost for your cattle’s performance.


Proper trough space makes all the difference

If feeding cattle under 600 pounds, 3 to 4 inches per head should be adequate to keep cattle from fighting for bunk space. Once cattle get over 600 pounds, that value goes up to 4 to 5 inches per head. It is also highly recommended that instead of just using one large feeder, having numerous feeding stations allows cattle to comfortably gain access to the self-feeder without fighting other cattle for space. Likewise, it is important to know how to set your feeder’s flow rate. Maximizing flow without producing fines or blockage is the goal. Typically, setting openings at 3/4 inch in the summer allows for feed to stay fresh while still flowing to entice cattle to eat. Winter openings can be up to 1 inch, but again, stay aware of keeping snow, ice and water out of the trough to ensure flow is not reduced or plugged.

Just like feedbunks, self-feeders require maintenance

You should be going through your feeders annually to ensure all leaks, cracks or loose bolts are sealed and fixed. It is a great idea to clean out feeders, power washing and checking for any damage that could hinder flow of feed or allow unwanted moisture into the feeder. This yearly maintenance will help ensure cattle can perform to the best of their abilities.

Figuring your cost of gain is still important

Regardless of how you feed your cattle, understanding your cost of gain is what will make you money. Understanding the inputs associated with a self-feeder and appreciating those costs can help you make financial decisions on a group of cattle or adjust for the next group of cattle.

Feeding cattle doesn’t always have to be done with a bunk system. Self-feeders allow you the ability to finish out cattle, whether it be on a large scale or just for locker beef. Knowing how to manage your self-feeders will help keep your cattle healthy and your profits in the black.