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The Art of Bunk Management

"Scouring, the bane of the stock feeder, should be carefully avoided, since a single day's laxness may cut off a week's gain. This trouble is generally brought on by overfeeding, by unwholesome feed, or by faulty ration. Overfeeding comes from a desire of the attendant to push his cattle to better gains or from carelessness or irregularity in measuring out the feed supply. The ideal stockman has a quick discernment . . . which guides the hand in dealing out feed ample for the wants off all, but not a pound in excess."

Bunk management has been a challenging task for many years - probably more years than you think. The quote above is taken from Feeds and Feeding written in 1928 and bunk management continues to be a challenge.

Dr. Robbi Pritchard said in 1998, "Bunk management means matching the amount of feed delivered to the amount of feed cattle can handle. For many if not most good bunk managers, this is a gut feeling system. The gut feeling comes with experience. It is a lot like golf. To the novice, the concept of using clubs to knock the ball into that little cup 450 yards away seems impossible. With practice, you do it in 4 strokes. Good bunk management like golf takes practice, but with a good explanation of what is happening, you can reduce the time needed to learn."

Quite often, when people talk about bunk management you hear terms like, "it's a gut feeling," "It takes practice," or "it's an art." And although I think we would all agree with those statements, I would like to propose that using a computer program to track and evaluate results will significantly reduce and simplify the experience needed and the art of bunk management.

A Systematic Approach

So how can a systematic approach improve a challenge that has literarily existed for hundreds of years? Here is what you are going to do:

  1. Previous Intake. The best predictor of what a pen of animals will eat today is what they actually ate yesterday or what they ate on previous days.
  2. Desired Intake. Next, make small adjustments to the previous intakes to systematically improve the desired intake.
  3. Suggested Changes. Finally, systematically make small adjustments to the desired intake to come up the suggested changes.

What does this look like on a daily basis?

Pen Adjustments

The pen adjustment is the first of two small appetite adjustments. The goal is to add the adjustment to the previous intake to come up with a desired intake. The key with this adjustment is that it needs to be done on a per pen basis.

These adjustments are made by observing the animals. If there is a lot of feed left and only a few cows left with their heads in the stanchions, this is a possible decrease in the appetite adjustment. However, if most of the cows are hungry and waiting expectantly as the feed truck returns, you may increase the appetite adjustment.

Take the time to think about what you should be observing. When should those observations be made? How do we interpret those observations into small adjustments?

Record Global Adjustments

Typically a weather related event will impact the appetite of the whole herd. These kind of events are recorded as global or whole herd adjustments and are the second of the two small appetite adjustments. These adjustments are still a gut feeling kind of adjustment, but could be made, for example, if the weather forecast indicates an extreme temperature increase.

Record Refusal

As a very important part of having accurate intakes and good bunk management, all refusal has to be recorded. Refusal is typically thought of as the feed that wasn't eaten and then pushed away in a pile for later re-use in another part of the operation. Refusal is made up of three possible small adjustments to the amount of feed each day to create a new suggested feed target.

Refusal Left
If the bunks aren't cleaned every day, refusal left is going to be recorded (this is the estimated amount of refusal left in the feed bunk that is not removed).

Target Refusal
Target refusal is the desired amount of refusal remaining in the bunks each day. Sometimes this is used to make sure that the bunks are never left empty - so that a milking cow always has access to feed.

Target/Actual Difference
The actual difference between the target amount to be fed and what was actually fed is recorded - usually to account of loading and unloading deviations. For example, a certain pen might be the last pen to be fed on a load. This typically results in not enough feed remaining in the load to meet the target amount to be fed. The deviation can be recorded to offset this consistent shortage so that the desired intake will still be achieved.

Bring It All Together

At this point, you have the data you need to calculate the changes to your desired intake, and this is where the computer program comes in to play. Just like most things in life, good knowledge and small changes carried out on a consistent basis will yield great results.

Armed with knowledge of what you need to feed you cattle and the ability to track the results on a daily basis, allows you to evaluate and make small changes. Those small changes carried out on a consistent basis will enable you to see the results over time so you can make good decisions. Good decisions yield great results.

A good computer program will help you track all of these small decisions and show you the results over time. A good computer program will help you see where large changes are being made so that they don't skew the results. A good computer program will also show you who is making the changes or deviating from the target feed amounts - which creates opportunities for good communication and training. By keeping the changes small and transparent, you will easily be able to evaluate the changes and compare that to production . . . and that's feed management!