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Raising Freezer Beef: Management Considerations

Several red angus cattle feeding at a feed bunk.
Courtesy: Tyler Olson, Canva

A trend that has become more prominent in recent years is for ranchers to finish a few animals and sell beef direct to the consumer. Consumers have a desire to know where their beef comes from, value the story and are seeking ranchers to purchase beef from. At the same time, ranchers have been seeking opportunities to add value to their cattle and reduce their exposure to market swings.

However, feeding and managing a grain-finished animal is different than managing a cowherd or backgrounding calves. Proper feeding and management is key to capturing extra value and in meeting customer expectations. This is part two of a four-part series for ranchers who have a small group of cattle with limited equipment who are planning to finish a few head of cattle each year. This article will address management considerations for finishing out beef cattle.

Finishing Diet

Finishing cattle on a concentrate diet doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does take additional management to ensure the health and performance of the cattle are maintained. There are some key management factors that can help ensure a successful outcome with feeding cattle. This article will address ration options, acidosis, step-up rations, feeding times and pen management for cattle fed concentrate diets to reach a finished end point.

Many variations of concentrate diets can be used to finish cattle. The ratio of concentrate to forage will impact days on feed to finish. Slaughter dates need to be considered for determining the appropriate level of concentrate to include when planning rations to ensure that projected performance coincides with projected end points and slaughter dates. No matter which locker plant you work with, most are six months to a year or more out for scheduling animals, so planning is crucial.

Environment

Maintaining a comfortable environment can make a major difference in how cattle perform. Muddy pens can be particularly a problem as even a few inches of mud reduce gains and feed efficiency. Selecting well-drained locations with wind protection reduce risk. Removing snow before it melts and providing bedding also will improve pen conditions and cattle comfort.

Acidosis Management

Management steps need to be taken to prevent acidosis. The risk for acidosis can follow a rapid increase in highly fermentable feeds in the ration, which increases rumen acidity and can ultimately result in rumen and intestinal wall damage. Depending on acidosis severity, there could be long-term negative effects on performance. A tool to help manage against acidosis is to include a feed additive that inhibits lactate-producing microbes, stimulates lactate-using bacteria or starch-engulfing protozoa. Other management strategies to prevent acidosis are to modify the ratio of forage to concentrate in the ration by increasing forage and decreasing concentrate. Additionally, processing grain less thoroughly, such as just cracking it versus grinding finer can reduce the risk of acidosis by slowing down the release of starch into the rumen environment.

Step-up rations need to be utilized to adapt cattle to increased concentrate levels in the feed. Once a plan is made for projected time on feed and the plan for the final ratio of concentrate to forage, step-up rations can be determined to acclimate the rumen microbes to the increase in starch content and change in rumen pH to help prevent acidosis that can result if the transition is too rapid. When starting cattle on concentrate, begin with a ration that is 40% concentrate and increase the concentrate by 10% each week until the desired level is reached. For instance, in week 2 the diet would be approximately 50% concentrate and 50% roughage. It will take approximately a month to get cattle to full feed.

Feeding Frequency

Finally, feeding cattle more frequent, smaller meals can also mitigate risk. Feeding cattle multiple times per day can help stimulate intake by putting fresh feed in front of the animals which can result in improved animal performance. Depending on bunk capacity, this may be a necessity in order to get enough feed in front of the cattle for a 24-hour period. It is important to observe the bunks to determine how well cattle are cleaning up the feed and whether or not additional feed needs to be provided or needs to be decreased. Ideally you would want to have a few crumbles left, which indicates they are eating as much as they want, but not starving by the time you feed them again. If they bunk is slick every time they are fed, you probably need to increase their feed slightly. Don’t increase feed offered by more than one pound of dry matter at a time and don’t increase more often than about every three days.