Winter bedding management

As experienced cattle producers in the Upper Midwest know, winter can be rough. Subzero temps, wind, snow and ice can wreak havoc on feedlot cattle, but the practice of bedding can help cattle “weather” winter in more ways than just keeping them comfortable. Research conducted by NDSU Carrington Research Extension Center has shown that bedding feedlot pens through winter and early spring can greatly increase the percentage of cattle grading Choice. At the end of the research trial in 2003, generously bedded calves averaged 75% Choice; moderately bedded calves went 50% Choice, while unbedded calves averaged only 25% Choice.

In addition to the higher percentage of choice cattle, the trial also showed that there were significant advantages in average daily gain. Despite unusually mild winter weather with little snow and only a few days of subzero temperatures, differences in average daily gain (ADG) were significant as well between the unbedded and bedded cattle. Steers with no bedding gained 3.16 lb./head/day, while steers with modest bedding and extra bedding gained 3.63 and 3.60 lb./head/day respectively. (See Table 3) With more severe winter weather in the second year of the study, differences in ADG have been more dramatic. At the end of February 2003 bedded calves were gaining 3.52 lb./head/day, while unbedded calves were gaining only 2.27 lb./head/day.

Study results calculated returns above feed and bedding costs two ways: Assuming a flat bid of $1.12/lb., carcasses produced a return of $48.15/head for the unbedded group, $91.05 for the moderately bedded cattle and $84.79 for the cattle receiving extra bedding. Assuming carcasses were sold grade and yield at $1.15 for Choice or better and $1.10 for Select, the unbedded cattle earned $43.42/head; the moderately bedded cattle, $92.97; and $95.69 for the cattle receiving extra bedding.

Other studies in South Dakota and Colorado also showed advantages to bedding feedlot pens, but the benefits were less dramatic. The Colorado study compared the performance of unbedded cattle with that of cattle bedded from late January through late May. Nearly 85% of the bedded cattle graded Choice as compared to a little more than 77% of the unbedded cattle. (See Table 2)

In the Colorado study the economic advantage to bedding feedlot pens was $8/head, much less than the doubled economic advantage suggested by the North Dakota study. Climatic differences between the two states most likely account for the differences in economic advantage. Cold weather, of course, impacts the physiological processes accounting for the fact bedded cattle tend to grade higher. In cold weather the energy-maintenance requirement of the unbedded calves was greater. Bedded cattle, on the other hand, stayed warmer and were able to divert more energy into marbling.

Still, mud may play an even bigger role than cold weather in determining the benefits of bedding. In the North Dakota study the ADG of unbedded steers dropped dramatically--to 1.50 lb./day--during the fifth period of the study, from March through April, when melting snow and rain caused muddy conditions in pens. Average daily gains for the unbedded cattle during the previous four periods were 3.94, 3.19, 3.76 and 2.97. (See Table 3) In the North Dakota study, moderately bedded pens required a little more than 200 lb. of straw per head, and the heavily bedded pens required about 400 lb./head. Heavily bedded pens used twice the amount of straw per head used in the moderately bedded pens. With straw readily accessible in North Dakota , its value amounted to $30/ton in the Carrington study. Per-head bedding costs came to $3.11 for moderate bedding and $6.22 for extra bedding.

Producers feeding cattle on the Tend-R-Leen program should follow a few guidelines for successful bedding management during the winter. The main key is to be consistent. If bedding is irregular, cattle may fill up on bedding when it is added to the lot, which can lead to bloating. If bedding is done on a regular and consistent basis, this will help reduce the chance of bloat. Also be sure to walk lots daily and chase up all cattle.

Table 1:Effects of Mud on Performance of Holstein Steers, New York

Mud Depth, in.ADFI, lb.ADG, lb.F/G
0.015.13.025.02
1.612.82.385.41
3.111.72.055.73
4.710.61.706.22


Research Results Demonstrate the Advantages of Bedding in Winter

Table 2:Effect of Adding Bedding to Feedlot Pen Surfaces During Winter

South Dakota

Dry matter intake, lb.

18.2

18.5

Daily gain, lb.

2.88

3.12

Feed/Gain

6.33

5.93

Colorado

Dry matter intake, lb.

18.8

18.7

Daily gain, lb.

3.32

3.50

Feed/Gain

5.71

5.36

Mean

Dry matter intake, lb.

18.5

18.6

Daily gain, lb.

3.10

3.31

Feed/Gain

6.02

5.65


Table 3:Effect of bedding on feed intake, gain and feed efficiency for steers finished in North Dakota during the winter.

Item

No bedding

Modest bedding

Generous bedding

Std. Err

P Value

Number of head

34

35

35

Initial wt., lb.

725

726

727

12.2

.85

Dry matter intake lb/hd/d

Period 1

20.50

19.91

20.74

1.41

.92

Period 2

22.84

21.59

21.64

1.86

.87

Period 3

22.51

21.86

22.88

1.45

.89

Period 4*

22.11

23.43

23.41

1.23

.72

Overall

21.99

21.96

22.16

1.56

.99

Average daily gain lb. **


Sources: NDSU Carrington Research Extension Center , and Raylene Nickel, Beef Quality Connection