Scoring For Better Bunk Management

Consistent growth and sustainable performance are two of the pieces of the puzzle to a successful pen of cattle. Keeping your thumb on the intake of a pen can help determine the overall outcome, days on feed and conversion.

Although the scientific aspects of finishing cattle tend to get the most attention, Warren Rusche, South Dakota Extension Beef specialist, says feeding cattle successfully is as much art and judgement.

“Judgement is required to balance between over and under feeding,” he says in an article published on Under feeding a pen of cattle can lead to longer days on feed and a hit in quality grade, where feeding too much can trigger acidosis, poor performance and death loss. That’s where the value of a good bunk scoring system comes and a consistent bunk reader come into play.

A systematic bunk management plan was popularized in the early 1990s by Dr. Robbie Pritchard of South Dakota State, and some version of his system is often utilized to make feed calls each day. Pri­tchard’s research showed that cattle fed all they would eat compared to those fed just enough so that all the feed was consumed in a 24-hour period had similar average daily gain, but improved feed efficiency.

The scoring system allows a bunk reader to estimate actual consumption, appetite and feed deliveries. Monitoring the records of the previous four to seven days offers the chance to watch feed intake trends. Monitoring increase intake, steady intake or decreasing intake can show a delayed response in cattle behavior. The scoring system is most effective if feed calls are made by the same person, at the same time, each day.
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According to Rusche, a successful slick bunk feeding program matches dry matter intake (DMI) to the cattle’s appetite as closely as possible and keeps DMI consistent from day-to-day. For maximum intake, cattle should have access to feed at all times. However there can be considerable waste. An Iowa Beef Center brochure states a “slick bunk” or clean bunk approach reduces waste and may improve conversion.

The best bunk managers strive to strike a balance between high feed intake for performance and minimal waste, while maintaining consistent intake, according to the brochure. Ideally, cattle will maintain a near maximum intake for days or even weeks, and at that point there is little need to adjust the amount fed.

“Over a period of 7 to 10 days, seeing bunk score of ½ for two or three days with scores of zero for the balance of the period would indicate a good balance between high intake to support performance with minimal DMI variation.”

Various software is available to monitor bunk calls. The Iowa Beef Center offers Feedlot Monitoring Software that makes a three day history available. The software is available from the Iowa Beef Center and works on Windows- based systems.

Charting dry matter intake allows for visual assessment of feed intake patterns as well as identification of potential health issues prior to noticeable signs of illness. Many programs offer charting as a means to observe patterns.

Intake can change with weather, especially with temperature swings or precipitation. Moisture can reduce feed palatability and consumption, while approaching storms tend to create an uptick in consumption.

Rusche offers these tips to managing bunks for feed efficiency, reduced waste and maximum intake:

• Feed calls should be made at the same time every day.

• Feed should be delivered at the same time every day, ideally within a 15-minute window.

• Do not increase feed offered by more than 3/4 pound of dry matter.

• In adapted cattle, feed should not be increased more frequently than every third day.

• Remove stale feed; watch for sorting

• Maintain consistence of feed quality and quantity throughout the entire length of the bunk.

Cattle behavior and aggressiveness in coming to the feed bunk can tell a great deal about whether or not feed deliveries should be increased.

Although no system is foolproof and feedlots often adapt their own style of feed bunk management, consistency and accurate record keeping are vital in order to watch for trends and make appropriate decisions for amounts fed in order to maximize gain and efficiency while minimizing waste. Information and graphics courtesy of South Dakota State University and the Iowa Beef Center.