Don’t ignore feed additives when margins are tight

Farmers are focusing on bringing their cattle in on to finishing diets and while excellent management at finishing cannot guarantee a profit, it is important to focus on nutrition, housing and health to maximise returns.

According to James Ambrose, Commercial and Technical Manager with Phileo Lesaffre, farmers are looking for the highest amount of gain from the least amount of feed.

This is essential feed efficiency, he said, while finishers also need to meet target weigh and carcass specifications.

“For finishing cattle to achieve their potential, the target should be a ration with a high energy density,” he said.

The ideal finishing ration

Finishing rations should be >12.2 ME/kg of Dry Matter or 0.97 UFV for most cattle, with starch and sugars contributing to more than 33% in the overall diet, Ambrose said.

And, this starch and sugar should come from balanced sources such as barley, wheat or maize meal, while it should also include digestible fibre (sugar beet pulp, soya hulls or citrus) and structural fibre sources such as straw.

A minimum of 25% NDF (digestible fibre), 7% long fibre and a diet Dry Matter ideally at 45% (within a range of 30-60%) is recommended.

“The crude protein content of the overall diet should range from 12-14% depending on the sex, breed and the maturity rate of the cattle and whether it is bulls, steers of heifers that are being finished.

“There are, of course, a huge range of rations fed to beef finishers and much will depend on the animals being fed and the feeds available on your own farm, as well as the economics of feed price year-to-year.

“Generally speaking, however, to achieve a suitable diet requires exceptional quality forage supplemented with concentrates or, where such forage is not available, ad-lib concentrate diets such as cereals fed alongside a protein balancer or purchased feed may be fed,” Ambrose said.

Top tips on meal feeding during the finishing period

  • Make dietery changes over a three-week period, as it takes this long for the rumen microbes to adapt
  • Start by feeding 3kg/head/day of concentrate or cereals and step up by 1kg every three days
  • This feeding method can be used until you have reached the desired maximum feeding level, as long as cattle are not showing and signs of digestive disturbances
  • Once you reach over 4kg/head/day of concentrate feeding, split feeds between morning and evening to avoid slug feeding, which increases the risk of SARA
  • Ensure cattle do not run out of feed when on ad-lib rations or Total Mixed Ration (TMR), as this can lead to gorging, which increases the risk of rumen upset

He also said that it is important to get forage analysed.

“This will form the basis of ration formulation, and you should tailor your beef ration to the forages/feeds available to you and the type of animal you are feeding.

“There is a great deal of difference in optimal diets between bulls, steers and heifers and indeed between continental and native breeds,” he added.

R3 heifer price

Difficulties associated with finishing rations

One of the difficulties associated with finishing rations is dietary upset, specifically in the form of a challenge to rumen function most often seen as sub-acute rumen acidosis (SARA) or even clinical acidosis.

“Sub-acute acidosis is not always obvious within a herd but can have serious consequences in terms of performance,” James explains.

“It reduces fibre digestion and feed intake, reducing energy output from the rumen, which results in reduced weight gain.

“It can also cause damage to the rumen papillae [finger-like projections in the rumen that absorb nutrients] leading to poorer feed utilisation and ‘thrive’, which can be very difficult to reverse,” he said.

Common signs that rumen function might be compromised:

  • Loose or variable dung
  • Soft, grey, foamy dung
  • Gas bubbles in dung
  • Reduced intakes and weight gain
  • Excess grains and fibre in dung
  • Poor rumination/cudding rates
  • Abdominal kicking
  • Rapid breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Tail swishing in the absence of flies

Transitioning from grazing to finishing diets

A particular pinch point for SARA problems is the transition from grazing or high forage diets on to a finishing diet high in starch and sugars.

The change in diets require a change in the microbe population in the rumen from predominantly fibre digestors to predominantly starch digests, which doesn’t happen overnight.

The importance of forage in finishing diets

  • Ensure there is a supply of roughage available to encourage rumination
  • Ideally forage should be in the form of straw, preferably wheaten, as hay or haylage is more likely to substitute concentrate intake and reduce performance.
  • It is critical that straw is chopped to between 2-4 inches (muzzle width of the animal) to minimise sorting and that the diet is not too dry as this will encourage sorting. If it is too wet, it may limit DMI.

A further pressure point comes when animals hit peak dry matter intake, typically around two months prior to slaughter.

Many people see cattle stop gaining weight or even going backwards when they are first transitioned on to a finishing diet and this is clearly undesirable from a financial point of view.

“But there are simple feed management protocols you can follow that will help prevent this occurring,” he said.

Organic beef factories

Increased performance from Actisaf live yeast additive

As well as following feed management protocols, research has shown that adding Actisaf live yeast to the finishing ration can help rumen microbes to adapt to diet changes.

Actisaf live yeast also supports the growth of fibre-digesting bacteria and lactate-utilising bacteria, stabilising rumen pH and helping to improve feed digestibility and utilisation.

This results in increased daily liveweight gains by up to 9% as well as improvements in feed efficiency and carcass classification.

Crucially, feeding Actisaf through the transition on to a finishing diet reduces stalling, resulting in faster finishing, improved feed conversion efficiency and significantly reduced threat of SARA and acidosis.

Beef price in the Republic of Ireland has fallen significantly in recent weeks and returns remain under pressure.

“Attention to detail through the finishing period, and particularly around the transition to the finishing diet, really does pay dividends.

“Adding a live yeast such as Actisaf has been shown to have a return on investment of as much as 5:1, so shouldn’t be discounted,” he concluded.

Key management protocols include:

  • Always ensure there is a clean palatable supply of water available – finishing cattle can require as much as 80L of water per head per day
  • Ensure adequate feed space to allow access for all cattle at all times.
  • Keep the finishing ration as consistent as possible and, if you have to make changes, implement them gradually over a three-week period to allow the rumen microbes to adapt.
  • Clean out rejected feed as often as possible and at least three times a week to maximise intakes
  • Ensure adequate ventilation, lying space and clean, dry bedding – cattle won’t perform if they don’t have enough space or are uncomfortable.
  • Monitor cattle health – particularly respiratory disease, parasites and lameness – all of which will impact performance and feed efficiency. Ideally you should have an animal health plan in place in conjunction with your farm vet.

A farmer’s prespective

Colm Dunphy farms with his father Michael in Co. Laois and the run a 100 cow dairy herd and finish 200 Friesian cattle on an annual basis.

Colm focuses on delivering a high quality diet to optimize growth and daily gain throughout the animal’s lives.

Cattle typically come into sheds in late October – early November depending on grass supply and grazing conditions.

We try to get the feeding routine as consistent as possible for the cattle throughout the finishing period.

“We feed at the same time every day, the same person does the feeding – exactly the same way – so that there is as little variation as possible,” he said.

Cattle are typically finished at around two years of age and reach O= and O+ grades.

Since introducing Actisaf live yeast to the diet, Colm said the overall health of his animals during the finishing period has improved.

“Not only do we see no grain in the dung, but dung consistency is good, cudding rates are good, and we have no sick animals nor lameness problems.

“We get the best of both worlds – a ration with a high inclusion of home grown ingredients like barley and fodder beet, great performance, and good rumen function thanks to Actisaf – we wouldn’t be without it,” he said.

To find out more about Actisaf live yeast or to read more about Colm Dunphy’s finishing system click here.