What is it?
The feedlot is the last point of cattle feeding and raising. It is the most intensive component of the beef production chain where a significant portion of value is added. Cattle are fattened up or “finished” at this phase and are done so with the target of adding more muscle and intramuscular fat in a short period of time. The primary objective of feedlots is to feed cattle to grow and gain a lot of condition or body fat and muscle over a period of approximately 4 months or 120 days.
Feedlots are usually located in close proximity to the country’s largest meat packers and processors. Alberta is home to 347 feedlots with over 1,000 head with capacity to collectively finish 2.5 million head of cattle. Most of these feedlots are actually considered “Mom-and-Pop” operations because it actually doesn’t take many personnel to finish 1,000 to 5,000 head per few months. A few large feedlots will hold to capacity over 30,000 to 100,000 head, but these are fewer in number in Canada (and the United States) than these smaller operations.
What cattle are raised?
A wide mix of breeds and genders are finished in the feedlot, from heifers to bulls and some cows. Dairy cattle can be found in these operations, however beef cattle are most dominant, with steers being the most common gender used and raised in this confined feeding operation.
As with backgrounding, the main beef breeds that can be found are Angus, Red Angus, Simmental, Charolais, Gelbvieh, Maine Anjou, Shorthorn, Hereford, and Limousin. It should not be surprising, as mentioned, that Holstein and Jersey steers are also found at some of these operations. Though some dairy bull calves are raised as veal, much of them also go into beef production and get backgrounded and finished much the same way as beef cattle do.
How are cattle raised?
Cattle are confined to a dry lot that often holds around 70 to 80 head of cattle at a time. They stay within this corral for anywhere from three to five months. Livestock in these pens have plenty of room to move around, with an allocation of around 250 to 300 square feet per head. A dry-bedded (meaning just with a dirt bed, no straw or sawdust added) mound is allocated to animals so that they have a high and dry place to rest during times when it is wet and muddy.
Cattle are fed a grain-based ration twice a day on a limit-fed basis. They are not fed free-choice because of risk of acidosis; instead they are allocated only enough feed to fill themselves in one feeding, with some feed left over. Main feeding times are in the late morning and evening. Fresh, clean water and salt is available to all animals free-choice.
Care is taken on a daily basis to check for sick animals. Feedlots cannot make any income off of sick, distressed animals, so health and welfare is important for not only meat quality, but business as well.
Monitoring weight gain and feed intake is important in determining readiness for slaughter. Once a group of animals have reached target weight and size, they are moved out of the corral and loaded onto cattle liners on their final trip to the slaughter plant.
Pens are cleaned out after a group of cattle are moved out and ready for the next shipment to arrive. Managing a feedlot is almost like managing a hotel; money cannot be made with not only sick animals, but empty corrals too.
Remember how backgrounded cattle had been sold and shipped to the feedlot? This is where these same group of cattle come in. Usually a backgrounder is in a co-operative partnership with a feedlot owner in which an agreement to find cattle to background then sell to that feedlot is established, thus cattle that come off the truck are from one of these backgrounding operations (a feedlot would have several of these partnerships). Cattle come in to the feedlot yard and weighed on a large truck-scale en masse to get an average weight of the cattle that entered the feedlot. Price to sell is based on weight, which is the price they are purchased at by the feedlot owner. Many times, though, this buy-sell agreement isn’t necessary if the cattle brought in are the feedlot owners’ own animals, or another producer’s animals that are being backgrounded and finished under a custom-feeding agreement, where feedlots are actually hired by various producers to feed out and finish their cattle.
Cattle that enter the feedlot aren’t just thrown out into a pen and started on a grain-based diet. They have to be processed first before they can begin the finishing phase. These steers that come off the truck are weighed, vaccinated, implanted with a growth-hormone stimulant in the ear, then moved into respective corrals according to their weight and body condition. There they join other like-cattle that have also come in to begin the finishing process.
The finishing diet consists of a very precise grain-based ration to cattle to ensure a balance of health, growth, and meat quality. This diet is an 85% grain diet, with 20% comprising of forages. In Alberta, the main type of grain used is barley, however corn is also gaining ground and being produced more in southern Alberta as well as for feedlots in Ontario. Forages consist of silage and some hay. However, cattle that enter the feedlot are not immediately put on such a concentrated diet. They are gradually shifted to this ration over a matter of a couple weeks. The diet they are started on is around 70% forage and 30% grain, then shifted over to the aforementioned ration percentage over the next two weeks. If cattle are put on a high-energy diet as soon as they come from somewhere where their previous ration was 90% to 100% roughage or forage, they will get quite ill and significant death losses may result from acute acidosis and bloat. A gradual shift from one type of diet to another allows the rumen microflora time to shift from the fibre-digesting bacteria to the starch-digesting bacteria, and reduces the risk and subsequent occurrence of these disorders.
As mentioned, cattle are fed this diet twice a day on a limit-fed basis. A feed truck is used that has an auger attached to the box on the truck which evenly deposits feed into feed bunks located along one edge of the corral. Each ration is formulated for each particular corral, which means not all ~1,000 head in the feedlot at one time get the exact same diet. Some will get more forage than grain, others more grain than forage (or a higher percentage of grain than the average 85%), some with a non-animal-based protein-supplement mixed in, others may get a diet that has a higher calcium-to-phosphorus ratio.
Cattle are checked at least daily for signs if illness, distress and injury. People hired for this job are usually called “pen checkers,” (in the United States they may be referred to as the “cowboy crew”) where they ride in each corral on horseback checking for any signs of distress. This can be anything from a bloated or sunken-in left side (where the rumen is situated), coughing or runny noses, laying down but not chewing cud, listless behaviour (or, not looking alert and bright when looking at the position of the head, the ears, and how eyes appear dull versus bright), abnormal fecal discharge (such as grey foamy diarrhea, sign of acute acidosis), to lameness and finding death losses. These animals are immediately separated and diagnosed then treated by a veterinarian or by the yard manager if they know what they are looking at. The most common ailments of feedlot cattle are respiratory diseases and acidosis, particularly for young cattle coming through that have not been vaccinated for various respiratory diseases prior to weaning, and cattle on a grain-based diet, respectively. Dead animals, which obviously cannot be treated, are removed immediately and buried.
Livestock that are deemed ready to “harvest” are usually at a target weight of around 1400 pounds (635 kilograms). This is determined by putting them through the handling facility again to get their weights prior to being loaded on a cattle liner again. Once on the truck, they are shipped out to the slaughter plant where they are slaughtered and processed for meat.
What else is there to know?
There are various concerns surrounding the feedlot that many people all to commonly associate with cattle raised in feedlots. These include the use of antibiotics/antimicrobials and the use of growth hormones.
There are two types of antibiotics used in feedlots: The first is commercially-supplied therapeutic antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections that are mainly respiratory. The second is an ionophore which is used to increase feed efficiency, reduce acidosis and act as a coccidiostat.
The therapeutic antibiotics used are not something special or specifically made for feedlots. Drugs like Draxxin, Baytril, Nuflor, Resflor, Banamine and Excede can be found in the fridge of the doctoring area. Long-acting broad-spectrum antibiotics like LA200 or Oxymycine are also used. All of these antibiotics are fluorophenicol-, tetracycline-based medicines to treat various forms of bacterial BRD (Bovine Respiratory Disease) common in all types of cattle.
Cattle are not given antibiotics as a preventative measure for illnesses like BRD. They are only treated when they are showing obvious signs of illness. Cattle are also not treated then immediately sent to the slaughter plant since that is highly counter-productive. Rather, treated sick cattle must be kept back for the recommended withdrawal period period. All antibiotics state a withdrawal period of around 20 to 30 days prior to slaughter to reduce the level of antibiotic residue in the meat. Health records are kept at the feedlot to note what drug, how much to what animal and when administered. This information is used to determine when this animal can be shipped to slaughter. Slaughtering facilities also have testing equipment to determine level of residue in animal tissues and organs, and use this information to determine if that carcass is safe for human consumption. They will also use this information to coincide with the health records kept at the feedlot.
Ionophores make up a large part of antibiotic usage during finishing period. These are not therapeutic antibiotics, but rather an antimicrobial that selects against specifically Gram positive bacteria and encourages the growth of other bacteria, i.e. propionate-producing bacteria that create an environment that makes it easier for a steer to digest, produce less methane, reduce acidosis incidence, and prevents digestive parasitic infection called Coccidiosis that afflicts young cattle (1 month to 1 year of age). Ionophores are fed at very low levels because of their high affinity and target of only rumen microflora, and do not require a withdrawal period.
Almost all hormones in cattle come from implants that are injected into the ear. These implants last 90 to 100 days and are implanted only once during the animal’s stay at the feedlot. These implants do not need to be implanted again if the animal stays longer than 100 days.
The main hormones used are mainly estradiol benzoate, testosterone propionate, progesterone and trenbolone acetate. These are steroid hormones which stimulate growth hormone production and protein synthesis that promote muscle growth. These hormones cannot act alone to increase promotion of feed efficiency and weight gain; they act in co-operation with quality feed and a good herd health program.
Other hormones used include melengestrol acetate (MGA), Lutalyse or Estrumate and Oxytocin. MGA is a progestin that is fed daily in small amounts: only 0.5 mg per head per day. It is fed only to heifers as a means to prevent them from going into heat or estrus. Feedlots are not set up as a breeding operation, and nor do those who work at feedlots want to deal with antsy, estrogen-hyped females looking for a mate to copulate with. They are also not suited for calving or pregnant females, and will use Lutylase or Estrumate to encourage a heifer or cow to abort her calf. Oxytocin is used for cows with retained placentas or to ease calving. It’s a big animal welfare issue for cows and heifers to calve out in a feedlot, and the people who work there try to avoid it as much as possible.