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.
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.)
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.
“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.