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Automation makes cattle feeding more efficient

A Nebraska farm family installs a Lely Vector automated feeding system into a feeding and finishing barn.

Curt Arens

November 11, 2022

7 Slides
Lely Vector mixing and feeding robots traveling the feeding line of cattle

Just over a year ago, Adam Pieper and his family became one of the earliest adopters in Nebraska of an automated Lely Vector feeding system in their 960-head enclosed beef cattle feeding and finishing barn near Richland.

For the Pieper farm family, which includes Adam’s wife, Pam, daughter, Maeghan, and sons Stan and Courtland, the installation of the Lely “kitchen” and feeding system into their new monoslope, deep-pit barn saves labor and time, and improves cattle efficiency.

Cattle producers from around the region got a close-up look at the barn — which includes six pens able to hold 160-head each — along with this Lely robotic feeding system during a Platte Valley Cattlemen summer tour to the farm this past June. Family members and representatives from Lely led the tour and answered questions from guests. During the tour, the robotic system mixed the rations and distributed them around the entire perimeter feeding line, with guests observing the process.

Making a plan

Earlier in 2021, the family built their new barn on top of a hill near Richland and equipped the facility with the Lely Vector system.

“The condition of our outdoor feedlot pens was not great at the time,” Maeghan Pieper says, “so our two options were to put money toward restructuring those pens or build a confinement barn.”

The original decision was to build a monoslope barn, but they didn’t initially plan to install the Lely Vector. “The idea was presented to us, and after lots of discussion and brainstorming, we decided we would try it,” Maeghan says.

That meant that their initial plans for the barn had to be modified. “We started off by adding the kitchen in a way that made loading the kitchen with feed very simple because the silage and high-moisture corn bunker is nearby,” she explains. “After the kitchen was designed and we knew where the mixing and feeding robots (MFRs) would be loaded, we ensured that they could travel throughout the barn with ease.”

In October 2021, the first cattle entered the new barn. “Being the first Vector system to run in a beef cattle operation, there were lots of kinks to work out,” Maeghan says. “The first five months required an immense amount of attention to keep the system running, and today, we are still learning and working through some occasional troubles, but overall the system is performing very well.”

How it works

The recipe for each ration being fed is produced by a beef nutritionist. The Lely Vector intelligent software calculates how much of each ingredient is needed. In the Lely “kitchen” on one end of the barn, the “grabber” accumulates the feedstuffs needed, weighing ingredients of that ration to keep it all precise. The entire system includes the grabber, bulk bins and commodity box.

Two Lely Vector MFRs do the work, following a precalculated path along the feeding floor and depositing the silage-based mixed ration along the bunk line where necessary. The family’s red and black Angus and Angus cross cattle get accustomed to the MFRs and follow right along, eating from the feeding area as the robot goes along the line.

“Our main goal with the Vector system was to make cattle more efficient on feed,” Maeghan says. “Feeding cattle the traditional way can have a lot of variability, so we knew one of the benefits of the Vector system would be feeding accuracy.”

Speaking with their nutritionist helped them understand that more feedings for the cattle each day would improve daily gains. “We feed upward of six to seven times a day,” Maeghan says, “rather than one or two times a day in a traditional lot.” The cattle are protected from harsh weather conditions, and they are shaded with ample airflow through the barn at all times.

“What we’ve found is that new feeding strategy has led to a more consistent intake of feed that the animals are consuming,” Adam says, “as well as better overall health for the entire barn, because they are given that fresh feed 24 hours a day.”

Most farmers and ranchers have other things to do during the day, so they would not be able to feed that often in a traditional feeding setting. “The Vector allows multiple accurate feedings per day and still allows us to accomplish other tasks that need to be done,” Maeghan adds.

The logistics

The brains of the system is the feed kitchen. That’s also where the computer is, so the Piepers can input any health information or data on the cattle when they enter or leave the barn.

The ingredients and rations haven’t changed. “Hay, silage, high-moisture corn, dry-rolled corn, modified distillers grains, supplement and MGA for the heifers,” Maeghan says. “The only ingredient we added was zinc in the supplement for the cattle fed in the barn to help with their joints, along with the thick rubber mats we installed on their slats to make the cattle more comfortable in the barn. Every head of cattle in the barn gets the same opportunity for high-quality feed, all day, every day.”

“We also have a micro-feeding system that will incorporate MGA for feeding heifers, and then two large, outside bulk bins, one of which contains supplement for the cattle and also dry-rolled corn,” Adam adds. “Anything coming from the bulk or hopper system comes by auger directly into the feeding robot. Otherwise, the Vector system utilizes the grabber, kind of like a claw, in order to grab the silage, modified DDGs, as well as high-moisture corn to get into that ration. We have a roughage box which conveys our roughage base containing stover, rye, straw and ground alfalfa hay directly into the MFRs.”

Learn more about the Lely Vector system at lely.com.

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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