Using Bedding As A Cost-Saving Measure

Fish eye photo of a curious Calf

Never have I heard someone tell me enthusiastically, “I can’t wait to go bed those cattle!” No, it’s not a fun job and the process of spreading bedding costs money, in addition to paying for the bedding itself. But a recent study by South Dakota State shows how bedding cattle in inclement weather saves a cattle feeder money by decreasing the number of days to finishing the cattle.

The experiment utilized cattle on feed from January to July 2019. In one group, the cattle received fresh bedding daily, which consisted of four pounds of wheat straw. The control group did not receive any bedding. All cattle were in concrete pens. The argument could be made that most cattle are fed in dirt lots and not concrete lots; however, during the winter in South Dakota the dirt freezes as hard as concrete and would have roughly similar thermodynamic properties.

The difference between groups was stark. At 36 days on feed, bedded cattle had a feed to gain ratio of 5.41:1, compared to 8.06:1 for unbedded cattle. However, the key influence for many cattle feeders was not the feed to gain, but the effect on time to finish seen later in the year. The bedded cattle stayed ahead of the unbedded cattle, so much that they finished 35 days sooner than the unbedded cattle (143 days on feed versus 178 days on feed). If you would like to see all the data, visit SDSU extension page and look for the study authors Dr. Zachary Smith and Dathan Smerchek.

The reason I feel time to finish was the key factor is due to the ability to turn cattle quicker. Sure, holding cattle incurs more yardage. The study authors included this in their calculations when they penciled the bedded cattle to have a $62 per head advantage over the unbedded cattle.

But turning cattle quicker has a bigger incentive—the sooner we make turns the more potential we have for profit. Another month on feed may not seem like much when viewed on its own, but when viewed over the course of multiple pens and multiple years equates to a significant lost opportunity to produce income. In business jargon, what we’re increasing by shortening days on feed is our throughput.

For folks that will only feed one turn of cattle per year regardless of circumstances, then this may not be quite as important. But if that pen will immediately house another group of cattle, then this throughput factor is immensely important. We can’t afford for cattle to stall.

Now before we jump to too many conclusions, bedding alone will not cause cattle to automatically finish a month sooner. SDSU repeated the study in the fall of 2019 with incoming feeder cattle. That fall as many of us remember was much milder than the previous winter/spring. While the bedded calves had a benefit in their feed to gain ratio over the unbedded calves, the difference was not as stark. Bedded calves had a feed to gain of 5.05:1 compared to 4.78:1 for their counterparts without bedding. While still effective, this smaller difference would not put those unbedded calves on the path to add another month to the feeding period.

So when is it worth bedding the cattle? The simple answer is if you think they need bedded, bed them. Likely it is rough enough outside the extra comfort that straw or chopped cornstalks provides will be a welcome addition to the pen. And considering the increased feed to gain coupled with decreased days of feed, how can you afford not to?

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