Feeder design makes a difference
What’s big and round and used on cattle farms? That would be a round bale feeder—and the design of that feeder can make you money. Take one part animal husbandry, one part industrial design material considerations and one part form-follows-function thinking, and you’ve got a recipe for feeding livestock with as little as 6% loss of total bale weight, according to Oklahoma State University (OSU) research.
The quality and cost of feed have always been serious considerations for cattle producers, but the seriousness is amplified by this year’s drought. Quality hay costs as much as $100 for a 1,200-lb. bale this year, and the cost is actually higher if you figure in the waste. OSU found that the popular open bottom feeders can waste as much as 21% of the original bale weight. A $100 bale becomes a $121 bale if you are using an open bottom feeder—that’s $202 a ton before delivery costs are added.
"The opportunity to minimize waste is valuable," says Justin Sexten, Univer-sity of Missouri (MU) Extension beef specialist. With feed cost at 40% to 60% of the annual budget of a typical cow–calf operation, it can be a profit breaker. Bring on the design engineers.
Sexten says that design additions such as cone-shaped central bale supports, solid skirting and diagonally welded bars that separate cows at the feeder are modifications that are aimed at preventing feed waste as well as influencing feed intake, which can determine performance.
Round versus square. In competitive feeding situations, dominant behavior can sometimes be present. This leads to restless feeding, which in turn reduces feed intake. Cattle have a near 360° sweep of vision, with only a narrow blind spot directly behind them. A Michigan State University (MSU) study found that round feeder geometry (as opposed to square feeders) might allow cattle to feel as though they have a larger flight zone, reducing the surprise they experience when an aggressive cow tries to assert its position at the feeder.
Top rail or top solid skirting. Feed losses occur when cows pull hay and toss it over their back or along their side, eventually trampling the feed. MSU research showed that "an animal’s ability to throw its head and toss feed is limited when their head is beneath a rail, such as a top rail."
Diagonal manger separators. MSU research shows that slanted, as opposed to straight, manger bars serve as a light animal restraint, depending on the bar angle and spacing. They might force the cows to rotate their heads when entering or leaving the feeder, thereby reducing backouts which, contribute to fewer feeding transitions and more feed intake.
Central cone or chain bale supports. This physical means of keeping the hay off the ground prevented as much as 50% waste compared with open bottom feeders in the MSU study.
MU Extension’s Sexten says one benefit might be that the bale is eaten from the bottom to the top for more efficient intake and less waste. Cattle might also have to reach further for the hay, which would discourage them from backing away from the feeder while eating and dropping hay to the ground in the process.
Bottom solid skirting. MU research shows that when solid skirting is included around the open feeder bottom, cows can’t push hay out the sides, saving 10% of waste from trampling and manure contamination. A similar study at OSU shows 13% savings when compared with an open feeder.
Concave manger bars. No feeder design research would be worth its weight in total digestible nutrients without looking at the interaction between the cow and the feeder.
British research from the 1990s suggests that hay use can increase when cattle are encouraged to reach for forage, such as with the cone feeder design or inwardly bent manger bars.
In reaching for forage, the cows appeared to be inherently discouraged from backing out of the feeder and in the process dropping mouthfuls of hay on the ground to be trampled and wasted. The research suggested that this might encourage more intake, which might not always be desirable, depending on herd management goals and hay cost.
Intake considerations. The MSU study found that the amount of hay ingested by cows among the various hay feeder designs did not vary. Therefore, animal performance was not compromised.
At the same time, limiting forage intake can stretch hay dollars at a time when forage supplies are critical. Controlling how much a cow eats gives it more time to digest, which should decrease hay waste.
Minnesota and Illinois researchers found that cows with restricted access gained weight, though not as much as cows with free-choice access. When cows were allowed access to hay for
six hours, hay intake was reduced by 22%. Producers using this method need to pay particular attention to initial body condition and hay quality.
Sexton says that stocking rate also needs to be considered. "The cowherd needs to be matched to the bale and how that bale is fed. Otherwise, it’s possible to feed out 30% more than necessary," he says. One thing is certain: "The high cost of hay will change the way we need to feed our cows."