“Started Small & Just Got Lucky, is an autobiographical and historical account of consulting nutritionist Kenneth Eng’s 50-year career. The book debuts in September, just in time for the Eng Foundation Symposium, Sept. 18-19, in San Antonio, TX.
Eng is the benefactor of the Dr. Kenneth & Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation, which Eng established in memory and as a legacy to his late wife Caroline. The $2 million foundation funds research cow-calf efficiency research at Texas A&M University (TAMU), the University of Nebraska and Oklahoma State University.
Each year, research funded by the foundation is presented in a public symposium, which this year will be hosted by TAMU on Sept. 18-19 at Embassy Suites – San Antonio Riverwalk, in San Antonio, TX. Order a book or learn more about the symposium that will focus on improvements of beef cow efficiency and profitability by intensive and semi-confined production systems.
Chapter 12: Confinement Barns & Calf-fed Holsteins
I’ve been blessed in my career with good timing, which allowed me to be present when new breakthrough events were occurring. Two of these events began in the late ’60s and early ’70s – calf-fed Holstein programs and confinement slotted floors. The early pioneers in this business were a father and son team from California. Their background was not in the cattle business but in aviation.
Dale Smith was an early barnstorming pilot, and his son, Dale Jr. was a test pilot for Howard Hughes. Dale Jr. was a bit wild and a good friend. In the late ’60s, they built the first slotted feedlot south of Los Angeles. They found their source of calves in the Southern California dairies. Most of the calves cost $5-$10/head and you could select only the best. The calves were placed on feed when they reached approximately 200 lbs. and they sold at a finish weight of 900-1,000 lbs. At that time, Southern California packers discriminated against heavier carcasses and did not particularly want Choice carcasses. The calves were finished on a high-concentrate diet and the conversions were great.
At that time, Californians were the innovators in the commercial feedlot industry because they had an abundant supply of Holstein calves, a mild climate, a demand for lean carcasses and an abundance of available byproducts such as beet pulp, citrus pulp, almond hulls, molasses and fat, among other choices. The Arizona cattle feeding industry developed shortly after the California cattle feeding industry since they had a similar climate to Southern California. Even though Arizona didn’t have the variety of by-products available that California did, Arizona produced a lot of milo, barley, wheat, alfalfa, cottonseed products and the like.
Gene Erwin and I were the first to feed whole cottonseed to cattle in commercial feedlots in Arizona. We brought the cottonseed at a $10 discount to grain. Later, dairies started buying whole cottonseed, driving the price up substantially.
Beginning in the early ’70s, there was a stampede to build slotted floor confinement facilities throughout the U.S. Designs included slotted floor, teardrop floor and flume floor. None of these were wildly successful, and if you travel the back roads, you will still find remnants of old confinement facilities that were closed after a few years.
One of my favorite slotted floor stories involved particular clients of mine in Sikeston, MO, a town located down in the boot heel of the state. This outfit called and asked if I’d consult with them on a new feedyard they were building. I checked the average rainfall for the area, which was somewhere between 40-50 in., and told them I thought the area was too wet for a feedlot facility. They said not to worry because they planned to build on a sandy ridge that hadn’t had mud since the Civil War. My reply was, “It probably hasn’t had a feedlot on it, either.”
Unfortunately, I was correct and mud became a serious problem within a year. They built a confinement facility that was moderately successful. The best news is that we became good friends. Glen Barks was part owner and manager, and I always looked forward to my Sikeston trip even though it was probably my smallest client. I always felt that the lasting relationships you build with consulting clients are more valuable than financial considerations.
The slotted floor design of the Smith Feedlot consisted of concrete pens about 20 ft. deep with floors consisting of about 2 ft. of solid floor in the back and front of the pens, and roughly 16½-ft. concrete slabs with a 2-in. opening between them.
The combination of calf-fed Holsteins and slotted floors worked great, however. Most calf-fed Holsteins do well in Southern California and Arizona. Because of their thin hide and low back fat, Holsteins withstand the heat well; for the same reasons, they don’t do well in cold weather unless well-protected.
Dale, Jr., was never short of new ideas and desire, and he decided to move their feeding program to northwest Iowa where corn was cheaper. It’s good to remember that if you’re in the calf-fed Holstein business, you’re also in the feed business because each animal consumes a total of 2-3 tons of feed in the normal feed cycle. Smith’s new feedlot near Cherokee, IA, had an 8,000-10,000-head capacity, and the local partner was Bob Bryant, an area veterinarian.
Another unique part of their slotted-floor design was scrapers under the floors that pulled the manure into trenches, which then fed into lagoons. The Iowa operation was fairly successful, but soon discovered that the scrapers froze in cold weather, and manure accumulated on top of the slots and froze. Plus, the concrete was very cold.
The facility was completed just in time for the 1974 market wreck, which resulted in the big increase in corn prices in 1975 and 1976. A Holstein calf suddenly was worthless because of high corn prices and the low fat cattle market. In fact, stories abound of people bringing small Holstein calves to the auction with a sign offering “free calves,” only to return later and find the original number still there, with more Holstein calves added to the group.
Yes, these were tough times for everyone – especially Holstein calf feeders. One humorous event involved a calf operation Smith had bought about 300 miles northeast of Cherokee, IA. They equipped a barn to raise about 1,200, day-old Holstein calves. The person hired to operate the facility hadn’t been heard from for several weeks, so they decided to make a visit to the operation and we flew up in my plane.
What we found was mindboggling. There were no people around and, fortunately, the facility was empty. However, several other interesting developments had taken place in their absence. A creek had been diverted so that it ran through the dining and living rooms of the main house. There were iron grates over the running stream that then went out into a concrete pond behind the house. The concrete pond was filled with large rainbow trout, and next to it was a trout hatchery.
I was told that the man in charge was selling limited partnerships in a trout-breeding program. There was also a new road leading to the top of a mountain behind the calf barn. On the other side of that hill, they had started building a restaurant and a ski slope. Needless to say, economic circumstances precluded the completion of these projects, and I’ve always wondered what happened to the facility.
Holsteins are still the most popular feedlot animal in Southern California and Arizona for obvious reasons. There are large dairy herds close to this area, therefore, a source of Holstein calves. Plus, Holsteins tolerate the hot weather very well. However, large dairies since have moved to other areas, like Idaho, Texas, New Mexico, Illinois, Indiana, etc., and so has calf-fed Holstein feeding.
Holsteins differ from beef cattle, but there are several reasons that they are popular and have an advantage in certain feedlot areas. Here’s my summation:
How are Holsteins different? Let me count the ways
- Holstein steers are playful and have a gentle temperament, but are unpredictable and dangerous if accidentally left as bulls.
- Holsteins are easily bored; therefore, they “sort” their feed, which can lead to metabolic problems. Thus, there are more bloats and “metabolics.”
- More bullers.
- More running and playing, which means more dust in the pens.
- Feedlot cowboys may not like them because it’s hard to chase an animal that insists on following you.
- Heat tolerant, but cold intolerant.
- At risk for liver abscesses and acidosis, but seldom founder.
- Holsteins drink more water than beef cattle so their pens may get muddier.
- Suicidal tendencies
In the past several years, sexed semen technology, in conjunction with artificial insemination, has become more popular, and there has been an over-production of dairy heifers. Perhaps we could use sexed semen technology in reverse by selecting desirable semen from beef sires to produce Holstein cross-feedlot steers. They’ve not only got good performance characteristics but also excellent carcass quality. One might assume that future dairy expansion may move to areas with the greatest feed availability that would potentially match where the cattle are fed.
If the expansion of Holstein feeding occurs in the Midwest, it most likely will be in confinement. The confinement feeding concept became popular for a short period in the early ’70s. Whenever anyone would contact me, I would point out that not only were they costly, but they had some shortcomings in cold climates. Nonetheless, people tired of mud were willing to try anything and the designs were modified in various ways but not necessarily improved.
There were teardrop designs, flume floor designs, increased solid concrete areas and steeper sloped pens. What each of these designs had in commons were more concrete and less slots and that is exactly what one didn’t want. The greater the concrete surface, the colder the cattle were in the winter.
Probably the worst design feature was the flume floor, which consisted of solid concrete slabs of about 4 ft. that were placed on angles. In the low place in the middle, a flume for drainage was constructed. With this concept the cattle were always standing on an angle and almost always on solid concrete. This design was a performance killer.
There are potential advantages to close confinement when you can keep cattle out of the mud and minimize the cold stress. There are new designs such as hoop barns and monoslope buildings that apparently work well. Consultants David McClellan in Nebraska and Tom Peters In Illinois have done a lot of work on new confinement designs. Also, with higher fertilizer prices, there is a real advantage to collecting and conserving the manure and spreading it on adjacent farm ground. In some instances, we’ve estimated that the manure saved may contain as much as 30¢-50¢/head/day in fertilizer value if properly handled.
In the long term, feed follows water and cattle follow the feed. If feed production favors the Midwest, cattle will move to that area. Furthermore, Midwest weather may favor more confinement developments.
Next week: Nevada – It’s more than just bright lights
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