Self-feeding options for cattle
By John Dhuyvetter
NDSU Extension Area Livestock Specialist
Most cattle feeding is designed around daily or twice-daily deliveries of feed to meet the expected needs of the cattle being fed.
The preferred method is to provide a mixed ration of feedstuffs that is readily consumed and meets projected nutrient needs for production and health. This allows for efficient use of feed, control of waste, and the ability to include a wide range of feed ingredients and adjust rations according to animal response and changing conditions.
The investment in feeding equipment may be very minimal for small numbers of cattle being hand-fed by placing feed in bunks with a bucket and fork. However, the investment may be too substantial for some producers if large numbers are being fed with the use of mechanization, including loaders and feed-mixing wagons delivering feed to fence-line bunks.
With limitations on available labor, time or buying power, some situations lend themselves to alternatives in which animals self-feed for a portion or all of their ration from a multi-day supply of feed.
Intake-limited, self-fed supplements are popular for grazing and range cattle for the convenience and savings from less delivery costs. Where small quantities of supplemental feed are needed, such as with minerals or protein, commercial products have been developed in the form of liquid feeds, pressed blocks, low-moisture tubs and loose meals, and hardness, flavors, placement and/or restricted access have been used to limit consumption.
Hay also is commonly self-fed. Large-bale packages feed a group of cattle for multiple days. Waste is controlled by placing bales in feeders to restrict trampling and bedding losses. The concept of "grazing" a multi-day supply of bales in the "field" is being looked at by people wanting to limit daily feeding costs and labor.
The amount of hay provided for the number of head for a certain period of days needs to be estimated fairly closely to avoid excessive waste. Feeding a mix of higher- and lower-quality hay also limits waste in fairly low-value forage, and when hay is fed in the field or pasture, it may not require added cleanup expense, and it contributes organic matter and fertility to the land.
Creep feeds also typically are self-fed to nursing calves in feeders with cages to restrict access to cows. In some instances, additives may be used to limit calf consumption and protect against digestive problems caused by overeating. Formulations of creep feed also tend to use feed stuffs high in digestible fiber and minimally processed or pelleted to prevent bloat-causing fines from being prevalent in the ration. The inclusion of medications such as an ionophore further helps modulate intake, modify rumen fermentation and lessen digestive risks.
Creep feeders/self-feeders also can be used to feed growing finishing cattle postweaning and are a convenient option for smaller groups. Generally, daily mixed ration-fed cattle achieve slightly better performance and better conversion with greater control or management of digestive health.
Not all feeds that can be fed safely in a bunk work well when self-fed. Typically, minimal roughage can be incorporated into a self-feeder. Instead, free-choice hay or grazing is provided in addition to the concentrate in the feeder. The use of slower-fermenting grains and high-fiber byproducts buffered with mineral supplements and additives is desirable in formulating a self-fed ration. Some very good commercial products also are available for blending with grain to control intake effectively.
Management of self-feeding includes a number of factors. Generally, 4 to 6 inches of feeder space should be provided per head. Control fines in preparing feed and opt for coarse or whole grains versus a situation of accumulating fines in the feeder troughs.
Starting new cattle on a self-feeder is particularly risky. Formulate for safe feeds, set the slide to restrict feed flow and consider adding a limiter. Once on feed and a good pattern of eating has been established, avoid drastic changes to the ration and monitor the feeder closely following storm events. Never let the self-feeder run empty because that likely will result in overeating, acidosis and bloat when it's refilled.