Back to the Basics of Bunk Management

USDA photo by Brian Prechtel.

Despite today’s new technologies and advancements, the basic principle of sound bunk management continues to resurface as a successful strategy to enhance profitability.

Through his article in Progressive Cattleman, Chad Howlett describes feeding cattle as not just a science, but also an art. With record-high feed costs, feeders cannot afford to “learn the hard way” when their errors result in wasted feed, time, and fuel. Howlett presents several factors to help feeders master this art and science to avoid the potential consequences of “trial and error.”

The Science  

As cattle are ruminant animals, feeding consistency is key. Substantial variation in any of these areas can result in serious problems:

  1. Ration fed – diet should be consistent.
  2. Amount fed – prescribed increases should be at consistent times.
  3. Time fed – variances of just 15 minutes can be detrimental.
Across the United States, clean/slick bunk management is considered “the norm.” In this strategy intakes are controlled but not necessarily reduced as with “limit feeding.” The amount fed matches the amount that the cattle can handle.
Studies of clean bunk management systems have indicated enhanced performance after implementing the strategy. According to Howlett, this type of response is most likely two-fold. First, the strategy may result in a decreased rate of acidosis, meaning cattle feel better and intake levels are more consistent throughout the feeding period. Second, cattle seem to eat more when there is some competition among them for feed. However, it is essential that all cattle have access to their share throughout the day.
Plus, sound bunk management reduces wasted and spoiled feed, nearly eliminating the need to manually shovel or clean bunks — saving producers feed, time, and labor.
The Art
Factors such as cattle type, available feed, formulation strategies, etc. vary widely among cattle operations. These variances make it impossible to develop one set of clean bunk management guidelines suitable for every feeder across the board. This is where the science of feeding takes the backseat to “the art.”
These points can assist the feeder in making an accurate feed call:
  1. Keep track and be aware of cattle weight, age, & consumption history. *South Dakota State University’s 4-point Bunk Scoring System is a helpful tool for measuring how much of a delivered ration is consumed.
  2. Visually evaluate cattle behavior.
  3. Evaluate manure for consistency and color.
    – Flat, brown stools: good.
    – Flat, gray stools: cattle are being pushed too hard.
    – Predominantly brown with a few grays smattered about: indicates progress towards optimized performance.
  4. Factor extremes in weather patterns into the equation. Ration presentation should always be palatable, fresh and thoroughly mixed.
TIP: Johnny Horton of Nutrition Services Associates suggests that you are at the right level of intake when:
  • 25% of cattle are lined up at the bunk.
  • 50% are making their way toward the bunk.
  • 25% are getting up/stretching as the mixer approaches.
Keeping all of these points and tips in mind, work with your consultant to help you determine the best bunk management system for your operation.
Source: “Consistency defines success in your bunk management” article by Chad Howlett. Progressive Cattleman website, Friday, March 25, 2011.

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