Finishing beef cattle

When margins are tight, do not ignore the benefit of a feed additive to your bottom line

At this time of year thoughts turn to bringing cattle in on to finishing diets and, whilst excellent management of finishing cattle cannot guarantee a profit, it is important to focus on nutrition, housing and health to maximise returns.

“What we are looking for when finishing beef cattle is the highest liveweight gain from the least amount of feed – essentially feed efficiency - whilst meeting target weight and carcass specifications,” explains James Ambrose, commercial and technical manager with Phileo Lesaffre Animal Care.

“For finishing cattle to achieve their potential, the target should be a ration with a high energy density,” he says, suggesting that finishing rations should be >12.2 ME/kg DM or 0.97 UFV for most cattle, with starch and sugars contributing more than 33% in the overall diet and coming from a balanced source of starches, e.g. barley, wheat or maize meal, digestible fibre (sugar beet pulp, soya hulls, citrus) and structural fibre sources (i.e. straw). A minimum of 25% NDF (digestible fibre), 7% long fibre and a diet DM ideally at 45% (within a range of 30-60%) is recommended, with crude protein content of the overall diet ranging from 12%-14% depending on the sex, breed and the maturity rate of the cattle and whether it is bulls, steers or 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. It is important to get forage analysed, as 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, as there is a great deal of difference in optimal diets between bulls, steers and heifers and indeed continental and native breeds.”

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.”

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

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, as this requires a change in the microbe population in the rumen from predominantly fibre digesters to predominantly starch digesters, which doesn’t happen overnight.  A further pressure point comes when animals hit peak dry matter intake, typically around 2 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.”

Key management protocols include:

1)    Make diet changes over a 3-week period, as it takes this long for the rumen microbes to adapt. Start at 3kg/head/day of concentrate or cereals and step up by 1 kg every 3 days, as long as cattle are not showing any signs of digestive disturbances, until you have reached the desired maximum feeding level. 

2)    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.

3)    Ensure cattle do not run out of feed when on ad lib rations or TMR, as this can lead to gorging, increasing the risk of rumen upset.

4)    Always ensure there is a clean palatable supply of water available - finishing cattle can require as much as 80 litres of water/head/day 

5)     Ensure there is a supply of roughage available to encourage rumination. Ideally this 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. 

6)    Ensure adequate feed space to allow access for all cattle at all times.

7)    Keep the finishing ration as consistent as possible and, if you have to make changes, implement them gradually over a 3-week period to allow the rumen microbes to adapt.

8)    Clean out rejected feed as often as possible and at least three times a week to maximise intakes

9)    Ensure adequate ventilation, lying space and clean, dry bedding – cattle won’t perform if they don’t have enough space or are uncomfortable. 

10)     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. 

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 returns remain under pressure. Attention to detail through the finishing period, and particularly around the transition to the finishing diet, really does pay dividends,” James concluded. “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.”

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