Hidden Costs in the Feedlot

By Dr. John Comerford

The high cost of feed and feeder cattle is making it hard to make a profit feeding cattle. While buying and selling cattle will be an important part of finding a profit, there are some hidden costs at the feedlot. Consider these three features of feeding cattle: shrink, feed waste and animal health.


The cost of shrink for incoming cattle is often forgotten. The weight that is used as the payweight for feeder cattle often will include a "pencil shrink" to account for some of the weight loss before the cattle reach the feedlot. However, that is not the only cost associated with shrink. Before being loaded and shipped, the shrink on cattle increases during any time of fasting. Consider the results from an unpublished study from Kansas State University.

These data indicate the standing time before cattle are loaded will significantly affect the total level of shrink, and the "pencil shrink" may or may not account for these losses. The next period of shrink will be transit. These losses are usually well documented and considered when pricing feeder cattle, but the level of shrink may be surprising to some. The same Kansas State study evaluated shrink for 914-pound steers under differing periods of transit (Table 1 and 2).

These data indicate that for even short hauls common in the mid-Atlantic region, cattle can shrink up to 4 percent fairly easily. The issue is also compounded because the shrink from standing prior to transit and the transit period can be at least partially additive.

Why is shrink important? The reasonable way to describe the performance of cattle in the feedlot is average daily gain or feed efficiency on a pay-to-pay basis. The recovery of shrink in the feedlot is a cost with no return from feed use in regaining lost weight. Self and Gay (1999) conducted a study to determine how long it takes to regain shrink after arrival at the feedlot. The results are shown in Table 3. Using these data it can be shown that reduction in the weight recovery period by 33 percent is worth nearly $1,000 for a load of feeder cattle at current feed prices, and the value can be even more for stressed and comingled calves that may originate from a sale barn.

Feed waste

Feed waste comes in many forms at the feedlot:

Bunk space - In most cases a linear foot of bunk space per animal in the pen should be sufficient when feeding most rations twice daily. The space may need to be doubled when feeding only once daily. The throat height for most feeding facilities should be about 18 inches, the back of the feeder up to 24 inches high, and the depth of the feeder no more than 12 inches. A step in front of the bunk 6 to 8 inches high and 12 inches wide will keep the bunk cleaner (Table 3).

Feed storage - The term "feed shrink" describes the loss of feed between storage at the farm and what gets through the steer. This loss has often been measured at 4 percent or more. In addition to losses at the feed bunk, a significant part of feed shrink is from storage losses. Storage facilities will vary from farm to farm, but improvement of storage management including rodents, birds, spoilage reduction, and mixing and feeding equipment can soon account for considerable savings in feed cost.

Bunk management - Observations in feedlots around the region indicate the typical bunk management is to keep bunks full of feed until just prior to refilling. However, there are a number of studies that have shown this is an inefficient way to manage bunks for two reasons.

First, increased intake of feed does not result in a linear increase in weight gain. Weight gain may actually go down as feed intake increases beyond an optimum amount. In most cases the studies have shown feed intake at 90 to 95 percent of ad libitum (voluntary) intake will result in similar weight gain while improving feed efficiency (Table 4.)

Secondly, inconsistent intake of feed can create digestive issues that will reduce feed intake and gain. Cattle develop eating behaviors that may not be the most effective way for them to eat. Some cattle will eat large amounts of feed for a short period of time and others will eat smaller meals throughout the day. When feed is available throughout the day, some cattle resort to sorting ration ingredients early in the day (usually the most energy-dense portion of the ration), and then eat more roughage later in the day. For high-energy finishing rations this can cause inconsistent intake across the entire pen of cattle.

The "slick bunk" system must be carefully managed to be sure the cattle are getting enough feed to reach performance potential without having excess feed available. There is no single time period the bunk should be slick that will be useful for all situations. Rations, weather, cattle weight and other factors can cause variations in the amount of feed to offer. Horton (1990) suggested that at the time of feeding, 25 percent of the cattle should be lined up ready to eat, 50 percent should be standing and working their way to the bunk, and 25 percent should be getting up and stretching as a method of evaluating the need for feed in the bunk.

The timing of feed delivery also contributes to feed efficiency. The results in Table 5 show how variation in the timing of feed delivery can affect animal performance.

Proper mixing and ration balance - For the totally mixed ration, the feed ingredients must be mixed thoroughly. It is usually recommended that the mixer run for five to 10 minutes after all the ingredients are added. This helps keep intake consistent and sorting to a minimum. If there continues to be excessive sorting of feed ingredients, processing by cracking or coarse grinding may be necessary to make a more consistent mix. Grains should never be ground fine in a feedlot mixture. Proper balancing of feedlot rations will ensure that the feed being presented will allow performance goals to be achieved. For example, a corn/corn silage ration calculated to be .60 megacalorie (Mcal) per pound NEg using soybean meal only as the protein source will reduce expected gain by 3 percent and feed efficiency by 3 percent compared to a ration properly balanced for protein. Inaccurate moisture content of feed such as corn silage will also reduce performance. For example, corn silage included in a ration at 27 percent dry matter that is actually 22 percent dry matter will reduce daily gain by 4 percent and feed efficiency by 1 percent with a subsequent increase on cost of gain from the ratio (Table 5).

Animal health

The cost of treatment, morbidity and mortality from sick cattle in the feedlot represents a significant loss. There are other losses in performance and income from sick cattle even if they get well. Consider the results in Table 6.

The cost of lower performance, feed efficiency, days on feed and quality grade are additive effects of sick cattle in the feedlot. At current carcass prices, a steer that slips down to Select from Choice because he was sick, even if he got well, incurs a cost of over $100.

Dr. John Comerford is associate professor of dairy and animal science at the Pennsylvania State University.