Limit Feeding: Back in Vogue?

By : Jill J. Dunkel & Miranda Reiman


From labor to health, limit feeding in the growing phase has benefits


Starting cattle on feed, the idea is to get them eating as quickly as possible. For some, that means having feed available throughout the day so when the “mood strikes,” feed is available.

But Dr. Dale Blasi, extension beef specialist with Kansas State University says it might be time to take a page from the history books and look at limit feeding in the growing phase. Consider feed efficiency, the cost of manure removal, the benefits of health detection and other logistics – like reducing the number of days to ramp up calves to full feed – there are definite benefits to limit feeding.

Limit feeding by definition is increasing net energy in order to meet the feed required for maintenance and a specific rate of gain. Blasi compares the concept to a Las Vegas buffet or a Camp Pendleton “boot camp” diet. One is all you can eat, and it’s available whenever you want it. Or at Camp Pendleton they send you to the mess hall and you eat all you can for 15 minutes.

The objectives of limit feeding include a restricted diet, yet at the same time being able to predict animal performance, minimize the fleshiness on calves, and decrease the total cost and production, Blasi says. “For us in the stocker unit at Kansas State) it decreases feed waste, uses less labor and is easier on equipment.”

Increased dietary energy diets typically include more digestible ingredients like by-products, cereal grains, etc. The economic basis behind limit feeding high net energy rations to light weight cattle is grain or by-products are cheaper per unit of energy than roughage, he says.

“This is a really good concept in a drought situation when you have to purchase roughage at elevated prices,” Blasi says.

The idea is not without risk, and it has to be properly managed. Increased dietary energy often increases performance but can also result in slight increases of morbidity. However in the right situation, Blasi says the benefits are clear.

Cattle eat less, and gain the same

Studies show going from an “All-you-can-eat Vegas buffet” to a “Camp Pendleton diet” didn’t significantly impact average daily gain, but improved feed efficiency by 27%.

Less input equals less output

When cattle consume less, waste decreases, too. A 45% reduction in fecal output, from 8. 28 lb. per animal to 4.59 lb., equates to saving a nickel each day for manure removal. “Over 100 days, that’s $5 per animal savings at the stocker unit,” he said. He suggests producers figure that cost for their own operation.

Denser rations equals less feed

Early research points to shaving off truckloads in feed delivery because of higher density rations, Blasi says. “You save your truck driver, you save your equipment wear and tear… you have to take that type of stuff into  consideration.”

Better health detection

Perhaps one of the best reasons to limit feed include better health detection on newly arrived cattle. “From a health detection perspective, that driver can do an incredible service looking for the cattle that are not very interested in wanting to eat. On a restricted diet, all calves should be hungry. It allows us to do a better job detecting calves that don’t want to eat because of some issue we are not seeing directly.” There is no way to put a dollar value on that, but it’s an important benefit, he says.

Increasing energy in the form of starchy ingredients, such as grain, “gives us some caution” said Blasi, noting increased health challenges and death losses as concerns. That’s where limiting the amount comes in.

At K-State’s stocker unit, cattle are offered long-stem grass hay on arrival. The next day they receive a total mixed ration of 40% byproducts (wet distillers grain or wet corn gluten feed) and 38% corn fed at 1% of bodyweight. It’s stepped up by .25% of bodyweight until day five. That cuts the time to full ration (2.25% of bodyweight) by more than half the normal warm up period.

But Blasi cautions limit feeding is not something just anyone can step out and do with success. “You have to be dedicated to the process, and you have to have adequate bunk space,” he says. At the stocker unit, they allow between 18 to 20 inches of bunk space per head. Reduced bunk space of 9 to 12 inches per head will not work in this situation.

“Our bunks can be slick within four hours, and they are clean for the next 20 hours. So adequate bunk space for all cattle to have the opportunity to eat when they are fed is important.”

Another key factor is having a good idea of what the calves weigh.

“You need to know exactly what you’ve got,” Blasi said, especially since most producers won’t weigh cattle every two weeks like they do in research studies. “As long as you have a good, accurate starting weight, and a uniform set of calves, you can calculate gains as you bump your ration amounts up.”

He also suggests staying on top of the head count of what is in each pen. “Your outs, your hospital pens, you’ve got to account for those not being in the home pen.”

Done right, limit feeding stocker cattle can have a significant economic impact. For 100 head during a three-month growing phase, better efficiency translates to a $1,600 feed savings. There’s another $500 savings in manure removal reduction. All of that adds up to $21 per head.

Other benefits that are hard to quantify include health detection, fewer machine hours and reduced days to a finishing stage.

“If I were to hire a student feeding once per day as opposed to two times per day, that adds another  2,700 over that 90-day turn,” Blasi said.

In past studies, “there’s no indication of limit feeding [in the growing phase] having a negative impact on the finish feeding performance.”

His team is following the cattle all the way through harvest to study impact on carcass quality, and Blasi reiterates limit feeding is for the growing phase only.

“I don’t want to confuse anybody. I’m not talking about limit feeding during a finish phase. There are a lot of reasons that is not being actively pursued today,” Blasi says. But for the growing phase, something that was once popular decades ago is something to reconsider.

“It’s kind of like something that’s been in vogue for so long, loses its coolness, and then along the way you say, why haven’t we been staying with that?”

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