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Cattle feeding at night and its life-giving effects

Do you like to help cows at bedtime? Late nights and early mornings are just an accepted part of life for farmers and ranchers. Of many things that can be done to help the betterment of the cattle and the farmer’s lifestyle, adjusting the cattle’s feed towards the evening or at night may do just that, especially in the months leading up to the calving period. 

Cow-calf operations nowadays can get quite extensive. Two areas that reflect the success of a farm or ranch are optimization and efficiency. They often go hand in hand as better optimization often creates better efficiency and vice versa. Feeding cows at night will act upon these components while improving opportunities for a full night’s rest because calving episodes are more likely to occur during the daylight hours due to the time of feeding adjustments.

Operations have shifted from numerous small ranches to a more efficient outlook with larger being better in most cases. With the number of beef cattle dropping since the late 1970s, the efficiency aspect continues to grow in importance. Not to shock anyone, but farmers and ranchers are always looking for ways to improve financially, such as with their feeding programs, breeding programs, and labor management as well as the environment, price cycles, and community programs.

For example, these last three items deal mostly with external sources like unpredictability of weather events and also the cattle prices. Community programs can help build personal connections down the line like in 4-H and FFA that can positively affect one’s operation. 

Feeding cattle at night opens up opportunities to improve efficiency via reduction in cow and calf mortality due to improved supervision, as shown by recent research. Cows being fed at night in the months leading up to the calving season showed a great increase in calves being born during the day rather than at night. This is called the Konefal Calving Method, after the first researcher to report this effect in the 1970’s. A study done in Iowa of over 1,300 fed cows once daily near dusk and started multiple weeks before the calving season began. They found that 85 percent of the cows calved between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. when fed near dusk compared to  49 percent of the cattle calving during the day when fed in the morning.

Another study by John Jaeger, of the Agricultural Research Center-Hays of Kansas State University, and co-workers involved two experiments, morning fed and evening fed cattle groups. Morning fed cattle were held at the University of Idaho and evening fed were held at the Agricultural Research Center.

The day for calving was broken down into six segments of four hours each. The morning-fed cattle were nearly evenly spread out among all six segments, but the evening-fed cattle had far more calve during the day rather than night. Breaking down into percentages, 52 percent of morning-fed calved between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. compared to 85.4 percent for evening fed. Several other studies have been done showing similar results throughout the years. 

Jaeger’s study also looked at calving time heritability between a dam and her daughter. He found that ‘heifers appear to model their pattern of parturition to that of their dam.’ One can use this to further select for cattle that will calve during the day outside of the feeding time adjustment.

The exact cause of the apparent increase in day-time calving from evening feeding is not known as of now. A hormonal effect may be involved, said Rick Rasby with University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Studies have shown feeding at night may cause intraruminal pressures, which need to be low for calving, to rise at night. Day-time calving will likely increase survival rates of calves as it might reduce deaths by dystocia, or difficult births, since ranchers or farmers can be around for assistance. In addition, for early spring calvers, calving in the heat of the day and not in the cold of night helps survival. 

Feeding at night is by no means a perfect system. Some negative aspects go along with the positives. Feeding all the cattle in the evening may not be possible, so feeding earlier in the day must be done. First-calf heifers would be the first priority for evening feeding if this were the case.

In addition, stress on equipment and land can be much more impactful during the evening hours than morning hours, especially if the winter was wet. Frozen ground will not cause as much of issues as the slush that occurs if the temperature rises to above freezing during the day. 

In the larger picture, whether to institute evening or morning feedings depends how one weighs the risks or rewards of each. There is a pretty good correlation of evening or night time feedings to cows calving during the daylight hours along with the benefits involved from it. Becoming more informed on the topic at hand is the first thing to do as one goes forward towards making a change in the operation.

Patrick Kepka, a 2016 Thomas More-Prep Marian High School graduate, is a junior majoring in general agriculture at Fort Hays State University. He is the son of Michael and Linda Kepka, Dorrance.