Providing bedding for feedlot cattle in the winter

Farm Forum

“To bed or not to bed?” With apologies to William Shakespeare, that is the question on the minds of many feedlot managers as we head into the winter months. Will providing bedding result in enough extra performance to outweigh the additional expenses in both material and labor?

There have been several research trials conducted showing advantages to providing bedding during extreme winter weather conditions. In a study conducted in North Dakota at the Carrington Research Extension Center, cattle that were provided bedding gained at a greater rate (0.86 pounds increase in ADG) and did so more-efficiently than their non-bedded counterparts. These cattle also had increased carcass weights and a greater percentage reaching the USDA Choice quality grade. Considering the much higher costs of gain the industry is faced with today and the increased value for carcasses with higher-quality grades, it’s not hard to make the case for providing bedding during very cold or snowy conditions. In fact, the North Dakota researchers showed an economic benefit of $60-to-$80 per head if the Choice-Select spread was $10/cwt.

In some locations and environmental conditions, the benefits to providing bedding are less clear. In a study conducted during the winter of 2005 in Northeast Nebraska, bedding provided a performance boost during the first 70 days. However, by the end of the four-month trial, those advantages in gain and efficiency were largely gone.

It’s also important to remember that there are costs associated with providing bedding. Additional labor will be required, not only to put the bedding out in the pen, but also to haul material and spread it out when the pen is cleaned. Another consideration is the availability of straw or corn stalk bales to be used for bedding. This year, due to drought conditions, there has been increased usage of crop residues in cattle rations. For some operations, managers may have to consider whether their best option is to utilize their crop residues as feed or as bedding.

The crop residue used for bedding can also play a role in cattle performance. North Dakota researchers reported that there was a tendency for calves bedded with corn stalks to consume less dry matter from the ration placed in the bunk compared to cattle bedded with wheat straw. That difference in intake led to differences in gain and performance. The palatability of corn stover is well-known. It’s likely that the calves ate more of the corn stover at the expense of the bunk ration. If cattle producers have both straw and corn stover available, there may be an economic benefit to dedicating straw supplies to bedding usages and using the corn stover as a possible roughage source.

Depending on conditions, the ability to provide bedding to feedlot pens is certainly a valuable tool to increase cattle comfort and performance during extreme weather conditions in the Northern Plains. Cattle producers should begin making plans and preparations now if they are considering implementing a bedding program.

Reach Warren at 605-882-5140 or