Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Look again at feeding practices to avoid animals going 'stale'

Off-the-shelf mixes also need examination

Weanlings being fed on brassicas
Weanlings being fed on brassicas

Gerry Giggins

A common worry for beef farmers at this time of year is of cattle that are still housed 'going stale'. Some are tempted to put it down to some inherent inability of the animal to thrive indoors during the summer. However, the real reason for poor thrive is more likely to be related to:

* Poor pit face management and forage quality deterioration;

* Other on-farm activities receiving priority over feeding and management;

* Animals on feed reaching their finish point (particularly steers and heifers);

* Cattle that have been on slats for too long suffering from a build-up of foot complaints;

* Incorrect feeding strategy being employed.

In certain circumstances, particularly where forage is a big part of the diet, it may be best to move away from forage feeding to the ad-lib feeding of concentrates. This switch will help address the issues of labour, deteriorating forage quality and will give the animals an energy boost to enhance performance and kill out.

As cereals make up the vast majority of an ad-lib ration and are currently very good value for money, there is merit in adopting this system of feeding. However, attention should be paid to the introductory phase to allow the animal to get used to an unlimited amount of meal.

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Ideally, this should be mixed with straw or other fibre, but this can also be offered separately. Plan on allowing two to three weeks to gradually work up to full ad-lib for those on lower rates of concentrates, so as to avoid digestive upsets.

Cattle that are currently housed and being fed high levels of concentrate can very quickly adapt to an ad-lib system.

There can be problems with feed selection when concentrate and straw are fed separately. If feeding straw and concentrate separately, barley straw is the best option as other straw types are less palatable.

However, I place barley straw at the bottom of the list if I am looking for a fibre to be included in a total mixed ration. Hay is also down the list because it is a poor source of effective fibre and is therefore less effective when used in ad-lib diets.

The role of fibre is to avoid a situation where animals ingest large quantities of concentrate and the pH drops in the rumen. This acid-load effectively switches off normal rumen function and generally results in sub-clinical acidosis. If this takes place continually, acute rumen acidosis will become an issue.

Symptoms of acidosis include loose dung, undigested feed in the dung and tender feet (laminitis), which all lead to poor performance. A strong smell of ammonia gas (similar to that in pig units) can be prevalent when ad-lib feeding and should be an alert to the possible onset of acidosis. When cud chewing is reduced, feed is poorly utilised. This occurs because the feed passes through the digestive system too quickly to be properly utilised.

My greatest concern and criticism of current off-the-shelf mixes is that they all exceed the protein requirement level, especially when feeding animals that are fully grown and are simply on their finishing stage. This not only increases the cost of the concentrate, but it also invariably reduces the energy level in the mix.

The focus should be on the total grams of protein rather than the percentage of protein within the mix. A bull consuming 12-13kg of concentrate at 14pc protein will be exceeding its protein requirement by 15pc.

In this case, it would be recommended to reduce the overall protein content to 12pc and even lower in a heifer or steer diet. This can result in the saving of approximately €30/t.

Specially-designed rations containing straw or hay are available and may be a good option, provided the price reflects the fact that there may be up to 10pc straw included in the mix.

These mixes should also contain high levels of maize grain to offset the lowering of the energy levels when including straw.

The preferred system is to add the long fibre and concentrate together in a total ration. This will ensure that there is no chance of the animals selecting feeds which can lead to health problems. Research and on-farm experience throughout the world shows greater performance and an increased profit margin following this system.

Mineral inclusion rates do not need to exceed 1pc in the meal mix. In fact the permitted mineral intake will be exceeded if the standard 2pc inclusion rate is used. Including a proven yeast and suitable buffer is also strongly advisable.

  • Gerry Giggins is an independent nutritionist based in Co Louth

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