Low-stress pen design increases well-being and efficiency
By Sheyna Strommen for American Red Angus Magazine
Working and feeding facilities are critical components of any livestock operation, whether it’s home to 20 head of livestock in the southeast, 300 head in the northwest or 10,000 feeder calves in the Midwest. This winter may be a good time to begin thinking about your operation and how modifications or changes in maintenance can improve its environmental compliance or reduce stress for livestock.
Large-scale operators, like JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, have invested heavily in environmental systems. “It’s the right thing to do for the environment and it’s the right thing to do from an animal-care and wellbeing standpoint,” said Tom McDonald, vice president of environmental affairs for Five Rivers, which has a combined feeing capacity of more than 980,000 head of cattle across six states.

McDonald said a challenge in any feedyard, regardless of size, is managing pen moisture. “When there is too much moisture, cattle waste energy just moving around the pen,” he explained. “If there is too little moisture, dust is an issue.”

In McDonald’s view, pen maintenance should take a high priority in any operation. “Priorities should be to remove excess manure, fill holes and keep the pen surface groomed to allow excess moisture to leave the pen,” he explained. McDonald also suggested that water trough overflows be plumbed outside of the pen to reduce mud inside the pen.

Ben Weinheimer, vice president of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA), agreed that pen maintenance goes a long way to improving environmental compliance and reducing stress for livestock. TCFA members collectively feed more than 6 million head of cattle every year, which amounts to nearly one-third of the U.S. fed beef supply.

“Our members focus on providing cattle with a place that is comfortable year-round to produce beef in the most efficient manner possible,” he said. According to Weinheimer, proper pen maintenance should promote drainage during rain events to minimize wet and muddy conditions.

Scott Ressler, environmental services director for the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association has helped more than 200 medium-to-small-scale feed yards across the state assess and enhance their environmental compliance over the past 12 years. He said many of the improvements that enhance the environment also benefit livestock by reducing their stress in a feeding system.

“Ranchers who are looking to improve the design of their facilities should consider the current slope of their pens, available windbreak as well as the water and gate placement of their system,” he explained. “If you are building a feeding or working system from scratch, these items are easier to negotiate, but improvements can be made to existing facilities as well.

According to Ressler, a 3 to 4 percent slope in a feeding pen helps it drain and therefore stay dry – a definite plus for the environment and for cattle alike. Moving around in a wet pen requires more energy for the animals – energy that would otherwise be put into feed conversion. “Keeping cattle dry helps them focus on their primary job – converting pounds of forage and feed into pounds of beef,” he said.

In addition to helping the pen dry quickly, adequate slope also minimizes odor production, according to McDonald.

It’s difficult at best to improve slope in an existing pen, but according to Ressler, improvements can be made simply by moving wooden or tire feeders into a bunkline along one side of the pen. When feeders are in line, he explained, you have an opportunity to develop a slope from that point to the back of the pen.

“Depending on how much slope exists in the pens, some feedyards will construct mounds in the middle of the pen to help provide a dry place for cattle to lie down,” said Weinheimer. The mounds also produce some natural heat through passive composting and the mounds also help to promote drainage from the pen. (Runoff from the pen surfaces is captured in retention ponds that are approved by the permitting agencies.)

Windbreak, bedding and shade
Particularly in northern climates, windbreak and bedding play an important role in reducing cattle stress during the winter. Whether manmade or natural, protection from the wind is beneficial for livestock and bedding helps them maintain body temperatures.
In Weinheimer’s area, which includes portions of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, a prevailing southwest wind in summer offers comfort for cattle by cooling them, especially in the overnight hours. “In areas of south Texas, where humidity is higher, many feedyards maintain shades over parts of their pens to help mitigate heat on cattle,” he said.
Ressler also recommends planning for adequate pen space – approximately 200 to 300 square feet per animal, depending on the size and class of cattle. “Smaller feeder calves will do fine with 200 square feet, while adult cows or bulls do better with 300 square feet or more per animal,” he explained and added that it is also important to plan for adequate bunk space – about 18 inches per head of bunk space. This amount of space gives both the timid animals and their more assertive counterparts adequate room at the table.
“There are few things more frustrating than attempting to move a fresh set of feeder calves out of a 90-degree gate that they can’t see,” Ressler said and added that angling the gate at 45 degrees helps calves see the opening a lot better.

Some of the systems Resssler has helped design place gates near the feedline, while others have gates toward the back. Either way is fine, it’s simply a matter of preference for the producer.

There are also two schools of thought about water placement in small feedyards – either near the front of the pen so the cattle don’t have to expend extra energy to travel to water or, toward the back of the pen so their mouths are cleaner when they take a drink. “My experience is that their habits aren’t very good, no matter where the waterer is located,” Ressler noted.
Heavy-use pads
Heavy-use pads are also beneficial particularly in the spring of the year when the snow melts. The pads tend to keep the cattle up on the dry portions of the pen, which also helps facilitate drainage.
Larger feedyards tend to have more heavy equipment on-site to manage manure and pen surfaces. According to Weinheimer, those pieces of equipment are important all year-long, as they are used to prepare pens for winter or groom and maintain pen surfaces in the spring in preparation for thunderstorms.
While moisture and mud can be a significant challenge, at the other end of the spectrum is dust. Loose, uncompact manure can be stirred by active cattle hooves as cool evening temperatures give cattle relief from a hot summer day. According to McDonald, “Dust can be minimized by keeping the loose, uncompact manure to less than a 1-inch depth and adding supplemental moisture to the pen surface.” He recommended that pen surface moisture should be about 25 percent moisture to minimize dust production. Loose manure can be collected with a small tractor and box scraper and piled either inside or outside of the pen. “Removing manure from the pen is best, but it is not always possible. Supplemental moisture can be added to the pens with solid-set irrigation systems or water trucks,” noted McDonald.

“Pens that prevent the cattle from exerting extra energy benefit cattle performance,” Ressler said and added that this is why some ranchers opt to place their watering systems close to the bunkline – so cattle can easily access water without expending extra energy needed to walk to the back of the pen.

Although a majority of the feedyards Ressler has developed are for back grounding or finishing purposes, he said the same principles are also important for seedstock producers who are looking to upgrade their facilities. “With high feed costs, we want cattle to be as efficient as possible and to develop at a reduced cost.

That’s money in the bank, no matter what stage of production you’re in,” he said.


North Dakota Stockmen's Association * 407 S. 2nd St. * Bismarck, ND 58504 * 701-223-2522 * ndsa@ndstockmen.org