Occasional feedlotting of beef cattle

by Wiehan Visagie

Many livestock farmers in Zambia take the opportunity seasonally to feed cattle in feedlots. Most of these feeding units operate with a one-time capacity of anywhere from 15 to 350 cattle.

Feeding cattle can be tricky as farmers need to be able to source quality raw materials, mix rations well and provide adequate feeding space.

It is, however, possible to make money. Budgeting is a crucial part of the planning process and it is essential to complete this costing procedure before any animals are purchased or fed. If the budget fails to indicate an acceptable profit, alternative options must be considered.

To secure a decent prof t from a feedlot, the farmer must get a good price for his cattle, to cover the input cost.

These are the steps he must take when calculating an effective feedlot budget:

  • Determine the value of the cattle before the start of the feedlot.
  • Project the value of the cattle at the end of the feedlot.
  • Determine the formulation cost of the feed during the feedlot.
  • Determine the health cost (vaccines, deworming drugs and buffers).
  • Determine the labour cost (including equipment and depreciation).

Feedlot setup

A feedlot must be constructed so that the animals can move in and out with ease and access their daily feed without difficulty. The design should ensure that it stops prevailing winds, drains well after heavy rains and, if possible, incorporates shade.

Feedlot pens should be closed off with proper fencing and the feed troughs must be positioned outside the enclosure. Cattle must be able to feed outside the fence and to roam in 400 to 600 mm of trough space per animal.

Feeding cattle is expensive, so the farmer needs to check regularly to make sure that the animals are gaining weight. Liveweight scales are essential for measuring weight changes and diverting animals to different weight groups when needed.

He also needs to ensure that he has the right equipment on the farm, to chop roughage, roll grain and thoroughly mix all the ingredients together before feeding it to the cattle. Several machines on the market can do almost all of the work at the same time.

Feedlot ration

All feedlot rations should contain roughage (hay or silage), grain and minerals. Common practice is for farmers to start cattle off with only roughage for a day or two before adding grain. The proportion of grain is then increased gradually over a number of days, as a rule of thumb at a rate of five percent every two days. Most farmers will increase the grain to 50 percent of the ration and hold that level for a few weeks, although, during the finishing phase, they can raise it as high as 80 percent of the mix.

Animals that are fed a lot of grain can suffer digestive problems and it is important that farmers can spot these. If cattle show signs of subclinical acidosis or bloating, the grain should be decreased or held constant. Affected cattle should be kept separately and fed only roughage.

Zambia’s best grain and grain byproducts for use in feedlots are maize, maize bran, wheat, wheat bran and number three meal. However, wheat should be limited to 50 percent of the grain in finishing rations.

Hay and silage can both be used as roughage, though silage is better as it improves the palatability of the ration. Water also helps to improve the palatability of the mix, and it should be added when hay and grain are used together, to make the feed less dusty. While straw is an option, it is always of poor quality and can only be used to make up half of the roughage component of the ration.

Ideally, farmers aim for 80 percent dry matter content in the ration, although most of the time they have to add 5 percent water to achieve this.

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