"Cattle might possess the greatest genetics for growth and carcass merit and be fed the most finely-tuned ration science can design, but if the feeding environment is too stressful they will not perform as well as expected," Rusche said.
There's been a great deal of interest in the last several years in confinement systems , such as monoslopes, hoop buildings, etc., which are designed to minimize the impact of the South Dakota environment. "Those systems have proven to be very effective, however the reality is that the majority of cattle will spend at least some time in an outside yard," he said.
Considering both the value and cost of gain we're seeing in the beef industry today, Rusche said there is an opportunity to improve the bottom line of cattle backgrounders and finishers by paying some extra attention to open lot maintenance. "For a lot of cattle feeders in South Dakota, especially backgrounders, the summer months represent a great time to address and correct any problems that might be present in open lots. There is usually some time during the summer when the pens are drier and empty, providing the opportunity to do some prep work before fall," he said.
Keep upstream water out
If there are any serious issues with drainage in the yard, these should be addressed first. "The key principle is to keep upstream water prevented from flowing into the feedyard," Rusche said. "Water that never makes it into the pen can't cause any additional mud problems."
Recent flooding and additional moisture events this spring and summer make this an ideal time to examine the upstream water flow and see if any of the diversion structures need some additional maintenance.
Dirt mounds in an open yard also need to be maintained to keep them working as designed. The cattle should be able to walk from the concrete apron to the mound without having to walk through any potholes or muddy areas.
Compacted soil should be used to build back up mounds or fill in low spots rather than using manure scraped from the pen. Cattle should have about 25 square feet of mound space per head with a 1:5 slope, or steeper, on the sides.
Equipment such as box scrapers do an excellent job of creating a smooth surface that helps prevent water from standing in depressions like hoof prints, etc. "It's important not to completely scrape all the way to the soil; leaving a thin layer, approximately ½-foot, of manure helps form an impermeable soil/manure interface that minimizes the amount of water leaching into groundwater," he said.
Rusche reminds producers to prevent manure from accumulating under fences and feedbunks. "These areas are often overlooked and can be significant breeding areas for flies, and can sometimes contribute to holding runoff in the pen instead of allowing the water to continue to flow into the containment structure," he said.