Summer Management Considerations for Self-Fed Cattle

Posted: July 22, 2019

dairy cattle sitting

Written by Don Cleaver and Daniel Kohls, Form-A-Feed, Inc.

Not unlike TMR-fed cattle, warm-season stressors affect cattle finished on self-feeders as well.  In fact, summertime is when we see the greatest amount of management issues arise in cattle fed with this method, especially in heavyweight cattle.  Issues such as bloat, off-feed and founder seem to become more visible this time of year.  While self-feeders are a convenient option for lowering labor for cattle feeding, it is important to point out that self-feeders are a low labor, not a “no labor”, method of feeding cattle!  Let’s highlight some of the most common management issues that can arise when the weather warms up for managing self-fed finishing cattle. 

Consistency is important  

Even though self-feeders are filled intermittently as needed and not necessarily on a consistent basis, it is imperative to note that the cattle themselves are still creatures of habit that perform best under the most consistent of conditions.  This is especially true of their eating and drinking schedules.  Anything that interferes with their “routine” to access feed, water, bedding and exercise patterns that they establish for themselves is an opportunity to create ruminal upsets.  These ruminal upsets lead to binge-eating, which starts a roller coaster ride of more ruminal upsets and risk of acidosis.  This manifests itself as foundered steers exhibiting laminitis as heavy weights with disappointing gains and feed efficiency performance. 

When we get busy… 

As consultants, we often see our client-feeders change habits when spring planting season begins, which also coincides with warmer weather.  Long days can lead to changes in times we walk through the cattle, change bedding, and check feeders, which can create situations where feeders may sometimes not be managed as tightly as in cooler weather.  Throw in a little heat stress and an extended getaway to the lake or ballgame into our schedule, and suddenly the intake patterns of our cattle change; you now have the recipe for digestive upsets and acidosis.  Below is a list of best management practices for self-feeders for all seasons, but especially for warm-temperatures: 

  • Walk the cattle twice a day – the same time every day!  Observing cattle, feed and water sources is always good, and getting cattle up and moving twice a day (a.m. and p.m.) helps prevent founder by encouraging cattle to go to feed and water consistently.  This is especially important for indoor/outdoor facilities where storm events may discourage cattle from going outside, if that’s where feed and water are located.  The maximum period any animals should be hungry or thirsty is 3-4 hours, remembering this can help prevent a lot of problems. 
  • Bed cattle on a routine schedule, not just only when the cattle are dirty.  Cattle on self-feeder programs not only use bedding as a source of comfort for resting, but they rely on the bedding as the sole source of effective fiber in their diet and require eating some for rumen health on a consistent basis.  Whole corn and pellet programs like Tend-R-Leen are better described as low-roughage, not “no-roughage” when bedding intake is factored in.  It is tempting to not bed cattle as often in the summer time, especially when it’s dry out, but this is major mistake when it comes to the health of your cattle.  Bed self-fed cattle on a consistent schedule regardless of the time of year, it pays big dividends! 
  • If bedding consistently is a challenge, consider adding a consistent fiber source to the grain mix to reduce acid load risk.  It is important to remember that fiber sources added to the grain mix are not effective fiber and can lead to increased fines and other unintended management consequences.  Work with your nutritionist to carefully approach this concept.  Remember consistent bedding is the best management practice and this should only be viewed as stop-gap solution. 
  • Manage self-feeders for optimal feed payout by adjusting gap-space, minimize fines in corn sources and never let feeders run empty.  Cleaning feed pans that can become laden with fines or moldy feed buildup from rain events encourages more consistent intake and complete access to feeder space. 

Managing heat stress in self-fed cattle 

There have been great strides in managing heat stress for all classes of cattle in recent years, with much excellent research improving the performance of cattle and preventing losses due to heat and humidity impacts.  Self-fed cattle are often overlooked when it comes to managing heat stress, and there is much to gain from doing so.  High grain rations are technically at most risk during hot weather due to increased respiration rates increasing the risk of metabolic acidosis. Therefore, mitigating heat stress is just as, if not more important, in cattle on self-feeders as compared to cattle fed with other methods.  In addition to the basics to address during hot weather, here a few items specific to managing cattle on self-feeders that we have learned through experience and research: 

  • Have ample access to clean, quality water available.  A 1,000 pound steer can consume up to 20 gallons a day in 90o weather.  Make sure that your water supply can keep up with the demand of the number of animals in the lot.  Check and clean waterers daily.  
  • Be consistent in your walk-through, bedding and feeding schedules (see above). 
  • Avoid handling or processing cattle if possible on hot days.  If you need to work with your steers, consider doing it before 10 am, before temps start to climb.  
  • Improve air flow in pens. Remove obstructions, consider fans, sprinklers, and getting the outside lot watered down prior to the heat of the day. 
  • If cattle are in outside lots, provide shade to help minimize the heat load and effects of solar radiation.  
  • Control biting flies. 
  • Provide free choice salt at all times 
  • Consider the use of a Form-A-Lic 44-Magnum tub as a free choice mineral supplement to increase saliva production by the cattle, which improves buffering capacity and reduces the risk of acidosis. 
  • Use Hydro-Lac Bovine Hydration Pellets strategically in the grain mix to keep cattle hydrated and on-feed before, during and after heat stress events.  This is a simple practice and easy to implement at 1-2% of the grain mix as needed (20-40# per ton or 50-100# per 100 bushels of complete grain mix). 

Being consistent in managing your self-fed cattle during the summertime will pay huge dividends in improved performance and feed efficiency.  Overall, good management reduces digestive risk and optimizes the health of the cattle.  Don’t let changes and busy-ness of the summer days take away the perceived convenience of self-fed, self-directed cattle – their schedule still depends on yours.