Trough Management of Feedlots

Stress and health
An intensive production system such as a feedlot puts more stress on animals than a more ideal extensive grazing system. This stress is the result of routine management procedures such as weaning, transport, regrouping, processing, weighing, castration, feed changes, external weather conditions, etcetera. Handling of animals should therefore be limited to the absolute minimum, since it causes decreased immunity and interferes with the normal eating patterns of the animals, which in turn results in lower production. Certain breeds, Bos Indicus more so than Bos Taurus, are more temperamental and inclined to suffer from stress. The handling of animals, which includes trough management and which is part of the daily routine, has a direct impact on the stress of animals.

Maximum feed intake
Animals have a very stable, typical and therefore predictable dry material intake per day as percentage of the live mass (±2.5%). Maximum/normal feed intake is a prerequisite for maximum/normal growth according to the genetic potential of the animal. The objective of a feedlot is to manage conditions which ensure maximum energy-intake of the animal, but not at the cost of the health of the animal. The less the feed composition varies and the better the feed is balanced or formulated, the better digestion and feed-intake will be. High feed-intake ensures high energy-intake, which results in the best production results for the genetic potential of the animal concerned. Daily availability of cool, fresh and good quality drinking water is a core prerequisite for good production in the feedlot.

Trough management refers to the daily management practices which will create conditions for voluntary feed intake throughout the total feeding process.

Growth phases, adjustment and market-readiness
In order to apply the correct management, it must be possible to categorise animals into different phases of growth and class.

The phases refer to the growth stage in the pen, e.g. starting phase, growth phase and finishing-off phase. The phases relate to the adjustment of animals to an increasingly higher energy content of the feed to ensure maximum energy-intake. The feed in each phase differs in nutrient composition and adjustment to this feed has to be monitored on a daily basis. The feed-intake and physical dung composition are important indications of how satisfied and adjusted the animal is.
The classes refer to, for instance, sex, type (breed) and starting live mass. Should the number of animals and number of pens allow it, it is beneficial to keep the different classes of animals as homogeneous as possible, since each class has its own behaviour and/or growth rate. One problem which does occur is riding amongst male animals, where one animal in a typical pen is targeted. Such an animal can be injured and can divert the attention of the animals from feed-intake.
Feed formulation, blending and processing
An important part of trough management is to ensure that the right feed is fed to the right animal, since the formulation is different for every phase. Whether animals are adjusting to this feed has to be evaluated daily and feed has to be adjusted timeously.

The homogenous blending of a nutrient-balanced feed and the requirement that this feed should remain in the trough in its blended form throughout the day, are very important. Feed consists of both fine and even dusty and rough fibrous ingredients. If there is too much fibre in the feed or if the fibre is too long, it is inclined to separate from the fine material in the trough. This results in unbalanced feed-intake and metabolic disturbances. Hard and soft dung are then typically found in one pen.

The correct moisture content of feed is between 25% and 30%. It contributes to better blending and prevents dusty feed, which can result in lung infection.
Availability of feed and feed routine
A feedlot assumes that feed will be brought to the animals. Fresh feed must therefore be blended every day and provided to the animals in the pen.
Animals are quickly conditioned into a routine and any activity which does not fit into the habit or routine creates stress. Animals develop an eating pattern, which involves a specific time per day when they eat and which gives the next animal a chance to eat at a different time. For this reason, animals have to be fed at the same time every day.

Should a typical 07:00 to 18:00 working day be followed for a pen, the period between the feeds would be 7 and 17 hours respectively. The daily feed mass must also represent these feeding times and 30% of the daily feed is provided in the morning and 70% in the afternoon.

Stimulation and determination of feed-intake
The maximum feed-intake is necessary to obtain the best production performance in the feedlot. As soon as a lower than expected feed-intake is observed, irrespective of genetic potential, it is a prelude to poor meat production. Lower feed-intake is the first sign of stress, caused by a health problem such as metabolic disturbance (acidosis, infection) or the environment (wind, rain, atmospheric pressure, social pressure). It provides important information on the welfare and behaviour of animals, in respect of which adjustments have to be made.

The feeding process where fresh feed is provided at a certain time of the day, with sounds, display, smell, etcetera, stimulates animals to move to the trough to eat - the more times the better. In practice feeding takes place two to three times a day. It is not a good idea to keep the troughs filled all the time, the reasons being that it will then not be possible to accurately determine daily intake and in summer, feed with a moisture content of up to 30% could become mouldy, which would inhibit intake if not discovered in time. It is therefore important for every trough to be cleaned out once a day and to remove all feed, particularly mouldy and unappetising feed and even stones.

With the right trough space, there is enough time for each animal to take in the maximum feed over a 24-hour space. A decrease in expected feed-intake is an accurate indication of stress. A handy management tool is to do an evaluation of every trough every day. It could be a simple 3 or 4-point scale, from clean to very little eaten, to indicate whether the previous day's feed was insufficient and whether there are tension/other problems in the pen.

The taste and smell of feed also has an impact on feed-intake initially. Acceptable smells can be stimulating and animals get used to the taste within a few days. Raw materials such as silage, molasses and citrus pulp have a significant and strong smell which can be applied in a positive manner. Other smells such as ammonia, a burn smell or mouldy feed will inhibit feed-intake.

Design of feeding and watering troughs
In order to apply effective trough management, a well designed feeding trough is essential. Firstly, you need adequate trough space of ±250mm per animal. All the animals cannot eat at the same time and there is a specific ranking order which will be determined within a few days. The eating behaviour and eating patterns in a pen will also be determined within a few days. Cattle will eat for 15 to 30 minutes per time, four to five times a day, which means that this trough space will be more than adequate for all the animals. Secondly, do not overfill the trough, since feed will be wasted this way. The trough must be able to hold at least 70% of the daily ration (second feed) of the heaviest animals without feed being wasted. Over weekends, with limited manpower and working hours, this arrangement could pose challenges.

Poor drainage and hygiene around the trough could also result in poor intake. Trampling occurs around the feeding trough and this could result in a muddy mess for long periods of time. Drainage should therefore lead away from the trough and the area around the trough should have a cement floor of at least 2,5 to 3 metres, which can be dried easily.

A water shortage has been the limiting factor for feedlots numerous times in South Africa. Fresh water has to be available on a daily basis. The watering trough must be away from the feeding trough, in the last third of the pen, to ensure that animals move away from the feeding trough when they are thirsty. Watering troughs often leak, which is a breeding ground for parasites - this should be avoided. Animals also mess feed in the watering trough, which makes for enough organic material to form green algae. This must be cleaned regularly.

Aspects which influence daily trough management are pen design and hygiene. There should be adequate space for every animal (10 – 15m2, average 12.5 m2). Space issues cause unnecessary social stress.  Dung build-up in the pen has to be removed once and even twice a year. In wet conditions the dung will become soft and uncomfortably deep for the animals, which will decrease intake and impact eating behaviour significantly. Cattle do not like standing in wet dung/mud. Wet and muddy pens will inhibit feed-intake significantly.
Identification of sick animals
Part of trough management is to identify sick animals or animals which will not adjust to the specific pen on a daily basis. General diseases which occur are usually foot related or feed related (acidosis, bloating, watery dung), infection related (pneumonia, foot-rot, ulcers) or physical injury. Other diseases which are not as common and which have to be identified timeously, can also occur. The quicker an animal is identified, the quicker treatment can commence and the animal can recover. Experience plays an important role in this regard.
An important part of trough management is keeping a record of daily observations of feed-intake and the welfare of animals. These figures can provide important trends, which could improve the productivity and profitability of the feedlot.