Managing moisture in the feedlot
By Chris Reinhardt
K-State Extension Feedlot Specialist
Mud kills. It kills performance, it kills profitability, and it can kill cattle. That seems like an ironic way to begin an article when most places in the High Plains are thirsting for moisture. But even in the dry West, we sometimes have more moisture than pen conditions can handle.
All cattle feeders should commit to memory that 4" to 8" of mud reduces gain by about 14 percent, and 12" to 24" of mud reduces gain by about 25 percent. So for every four days cattle have to slog through hock-deep mud, add another day and 20 pounds of dry matter feed to reach finish. And add an additional day for every seven days of slogging through mud over their pasterns. Conceivably, after a typical Kansas winter storm, if pens get and stay muddy, we could extend the feeding period dramatically.
Wait--it get's worse. In severely muddy conditions, cattle simply choose not to fight the mud and make fewer trips to the feedbunk, reducing their feed consumption. Consider that roughly half of a 900-pound steer's daily intake goes to maintenance--simply keeping the lights on and the internal furnace burning. It's the level of intake above maintenance that leads to gain. We expect to increase the cost of maintenance by about 10 percent due to cold, wet, conditions and increase maintenance an additional 10 percent due to increased energy expended just to get to the bunk. That increase eats into the amount of energy left over for gain. Then, if poor pen conditions discourage consumption, the available energy pool for gain decreases further.
Many of us have horror stories about zero gaining cattle after a winter storm. Divide 20 pounds of feed consumption by zero.
We cannot prevent winter from coming to the Plains, but we can prepare for it. Make sure all pens have good drainage to prevent water from standing and creating permanently muddy pens. Also, have a plan for snow removal. A wet snow has about 1" of moisture in each 8" to 10" of snow. If that snow is removed from the pen immediately after the storm and before it can melt, that can prevent a great deal of moisture from sucking the bottom out of the pen.
Finally, if muddy conditions do occur, have a plan in place to remove at least a portion of the mud. After several days of fighting severely muddy pens, you can actually watch cattle follow the box scraper and lay down in the firm, dry area the scraper leaves behind. That should say a lot.