Achieving optimal feed intake with bunks

By : Pete Anderson, former Extension beef cattle specialist and Dan O’Connor, former graduate student, Courtesy of University of Minnesota Extension

Quick facts

  • Maintain adequate bunk space and use the entire bunk.

  • Feed at the same time each day, matching feed offered to feed consumed.

  • Don’t increase and change the diet on the same day. Always make gradual changes.

  • Keep and use accurate records.

  • Mix feed completely but do not overmix.

  • Clean bunks and waterers often.

Managing feed intake is key to successful cattle feeding. Cattle feeders should work to attain maximum, consistent intake. Good feed intake leads to good performance.

Feed intakes above maintenance will increase energy for growth and maximize gain. Increasing feed intake by 1/2 pound of dry matter daily can reduce a feeding period by as much as 10 days.


Lower day-to-day changes in feed intake will reduce changes in rumen pH. Thus, consistency improves long-term rumen health and reduces problems such as:

  • Acidosis

  • Sudden death

  • Bloat

  • Liver abscess

  • Founder

Cattle feeders must balance reducing rumen disorders and maximizing performance.  Thus consistent and maximum intake must be met for best performance and health.

Inconsistent ionophore intake can worsen inconsistent feed intake.

High energy diets

Rumen microbes ferment starch and sugar to volatile fatty acids (VFA). Cattle use VFA for energy after they enter the bloodstream. Too many VFA from high energy diets can lead to harmfully low pH levels in the rumen and blood.

Allow cattle the chance to adjust to VFA amounts from high energy diets. This will help keep the rumen healthy.

  • Keep intakes well-spaced throughout the day.

  • Keep intakes the same from day to day.

Changing intakes while feeding high energy diets can harm cattle. While changes in acid levels and rumen pH is certain, you can train cattle to handle changes and reduce their extent.

Managing feedbunks

Managing feedbunks means managing feed intake. Each day is important because intakes often reflect intakes from the day before.

For example, if a steer reduces his feed intake by 50 percent one day, he’ll likely be hungry and overeat the next day. Overeating can lead to increased acid production, which can cause the steer to feel sick and reduce intake on the third day.

Inconsistent feed intake can easily start, but is hard to change. The key is prevention. To prevent inconsistent intakes, properly start cattle on feed and keep them on it. Oklahoma State University looked at closeouts and feed sheets describing the performance of 38,614 cattle in 331 pens in a commercial feedyard. They found that feed intakes during days 8 to 28 helped predict performance for the whole feeding period.

Offer feed such that the cattle are hungry and approach the bunk aggressively during the next feeding. This requires a few feedings throughout the day, but will improve rumen health, performance and efficiency over the whole feeding period.

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