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Don’t let cattle get stuck in mud

Muddy pen conditions can decrease animal performance by increasing energy demands.

January 19, 2023

5 Min Read
Beef heifer standing in mud
MUDDY CONDITIONS: This beef heifer has mud on her hide and is standing in mud at the feed bunk. Both draw energy from the animal. Photo by Kirsten Nickles

by Jerad Jaborek

As temperatures sway between cool and warm this winter, many beef and dairy producers may be dealing with mud on their farms. This is especially true in parts of the U.S. that receive greater levels of precipitation in the form of rain or snowmelt.

In addition, animal stocking density, soil type and ground drainage also influence the severity of mud challenges. Many of us can relate to the struggles of walking through the mud and trying not to lose our rubber boots to the suctioning force that challenges us with each step. What about the cows and calves? What kind of stress does mud have on cattle?

The combination of mud and manure accumulation presents a list of potential problems for cattle producers. Extra energy is required by the animals to walk through mud, whether to the feed bunk, water tank or bedding pack. This extra energy demand can affect cattle behavior and their willingness to move throughout different areas of the pen.

Increased mud and manure affect animal cleanliness and the insulative properties of their hair coat, which then require additional energy to stay warm. For fed cattle being raised for beef, this presents potential food safety concerns from carcass contamination from the hide during slaughter and reduced dressing percentages with increased mud-tag scores. Concerns for cow-calf operations are dirty udders that could spread disease and compromise the health of young nursing calves and cause calf losses.

Some research has been conducted using artificially made mud to determine the impact of mud on cattle growth and feedlot performance. Data collected over a three-year period that was published in a 1970 California Agriculture Bulletin, reported a reduced average daily gain and feed efficiency by cattle in muddy pens compared with concrete pens cleaned weekly.

During one of the years, shelters were offered, and in muddy treatment pens, the shelter floor was either wood or mud. It was observed that cattle in muddy pens chose to stand on the wooden floor under the shelter 73% of the time observed compared with only 3% for pens with mud under the shelters. During this experiment, muddy pens reduced ADG by 35.5% compared with concrete pens, but only 12% in muddy pens where cattle could escape the mud and stand on the wooden floor.

The frequency of pen cleaning can also have an effect on the amount of mud or manure that accumulates. A study published in Livestock Science journal compared the feedlot performance of steers in open dirt pens that were cleaned with different frequency over the course of 195 days (October to May). All pens were provided with fresh straw bedding weekly.

Pens were either not cleaned, the concrete aprons were cleaned twice, or the entire pen was cleaned twice throughout the entire feeding period. Interestingly, while pens and animal hide cleanliness scores were better for the pens of cattle that were cleaned twice, no differences were observed for feedlot performance.

These results may indicate that cleaning of pens didn’t occur frequently enough, pens were not designed to drain appropriately, soil type may have been conducive to producing mud, or the straw bedding mitigated treatment differences.

Woodchip study

Another cattle feeding study conducted in Australia was published in Meat & Livestock Australia Limited to determine the impacts of woodchip bedding in wet feedlot conditions. Yearling beef steers were placed in pens either without woodchips, 11 pounds per square foot of woodchips per day, or 22 pounds per square foot of woodchips per day.

Sprinklers were used to provide additional rainfall to create wet feedlot pens. Irrigated and natural precipitation averaged 0.17 inches over the 62 days when precipitation was applied during the 109-day study. Average pen mud depth scores increased over time for the unbedded steers (up to 23.6 inches for some), while mud scores for pens with steers receiving 11-pounds-per-square-foot-per-day woodchips only began to increase slightly the last three weeks of the study.

Steers bedded with 11 or 22 pounds-per-square-foot-per-day woodchips had greater ADG than steers with no bedding and resulted in greater final body weights and greater feed efficiency, since dry matter intake did not differ. Steer behavior was different between the treatments and changed over time as well.

After the initial five weeks of the study, steers without bedding increased their frequency of lying down at the front of the pen as opposed to the middle or back compared with steers in bedded treatments. This is interesting as cattle shifted their lying location to compensate for the muddy conditions. This may also be an indication these cattle became reluctant to move further away from the feed bunk in their muddy pen.

Effects on calving

Unfortunately for many cattle producers, the timing of the muddy season overlaps calving season. Researchers from Ohio State University presented some work published in the Journal of Animal Science investigating the effects of a muddy pen environment on the energy requirements of cows and first calf heifers during gestation.

Cows and heifers were housed individually in pens that were either unbedded (9.3 inches of mud) or bedded with woodchips or sawdust during the last trimester of gestation. Cows and heifers were matched up across treatments so feed delivery was similar and designed to meet the animal’s maintenance requirements. After the study, cows in unbedded pens were 82 pounds lighter and heifers in unbedded pens were 96 pounds lighter than bedded cows and heifers.

This loss in body weight for cows and heifers that were housed in muddy unbedded pens corresponds to an increased energy demand of 3.9 and 4.3 megacalories per day, respectively. While the energy demands of a pregnant cow increases 6.5 megacalories per day from the initiation of gestation to calving, mud may increase the energy demands of the cow even further if subjected to muddy pen conditions.

Managing mud can be a challenge. Michigan State University Extension recommends producers consider management practices for your operation that allow your cattle a place to escape from muddy conditions and lie down in a cleaner and drier environment. Cattle forced to deal with mud have increased net energy demands to maintain and increase their body weight.

The energy demands are likely to increase with the increasing severity of muddy conditions, as well as other weather-related factors such as low temperatures, rain, snow and wind. If cattle are unable to escape muddy conditions on your operation, consider supplying additional energy in the diet to compensate for the increased energy demands from mud.

Source: MSU Extension

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