Cost Effective Feedlot Facility Design

by Jeff Pastoor, Senior Cattle Consultant

 Summer is an excellent time for building, remodeling, or fixing up feedlot facilities because of fewer cattle in the yard and dryer conditions.  Proper facility design and maintenance has a very big impact on cattle performance in the upper Midwest, mainly through the control of mud.

This is the time to get the scraper out and groom your lots and mounds to ensure proper drainage.  Any time water has a chance to sit in the yard, a mud hole will be sure to follow.  Be sure to rebuild your mounds so that cattle have a dry place to lie during muddy periods, and that there is a dry path for cattle to get to the mound.  Mounds can also serve as areas for cattle to catch a breeze in the summer and to get out of the wind in the winter by lying below the crest.

Mud control is probably the biggest issue we deal with the in the upper Midwest.  In addition to using the scraper to groom your pens, this is also a good time to consider more permanent additions or enhancement for your feedyard to control the elements and improve cattle comfort & performance.  Through analysis of our annual Feedlot Performance and Cost Monitoring closeouts, we have found how different feedlot design elements impact performance.

The winter months of 2000-2001 were especially hard for cattle feeders in the upper Midwest, with extended periods of extreme snow, cold, and mud.  Looking at our closeout database from the first half of 2001 (cattle fed through this bad winter weather) and comparing them with closeouts from the first 6 months of 2000 (a much milder winter) showed a large difference in performance and costs of gain (see Tables 1 & 2).


Table 1 Performance and Cost Comparison January , June 2000 vs. 2001 Steers


2000 (dry)

2001 (mud)










Death Loss %




Total Cost of Gain



+$8.02/cwt gain


Table 2 Performance and Cost Comparison January , June 2000 vs. 2001 Heifers


2000 (dry)

2001 (mud)










Death Loss %




Total Cost of Gain



+$8.24/cwt gain

 These differences in performance and costs were no surprise, but by putting numbers to it we can begin to study the cost effectiveness of proper facility design. 

We next did a survey of our Beef Production Specialists and Beef Enterprise Consultants, asking them about the facilities used by each of their feedlots in the closeout database, focusing on dirt vs. concrete yards, use of windbreaks or sheds, and use of a managed bedding program.

From the survey we got some expected and some unexpected results.  As expected, concrete and managed bedding led to improved performance and these will be detailed further down.  However, shelter did not always improve performance. 


For both heifers and steers, pens with windbreaks had daily gain reduced by about .2#, and feed to gain increased by .1-.2# of dry matter per pound of gain.  Death loss was higher in each of the groups without windbreaks, so there was clearly stress reduction when windbreaks were used.

As for the shed data, the heifers again had a .2# lower gain and .2# more feed to gain in pens with sheds; death loss was the same with and without sheds for the heifer.  However, the closeouts of steers with sheds showed the expected result with significant improvement over the pens without sheds.  Steers in pens with sheds had .5# better daily gain, 1.66# less feed/gain, and a 1/3rd of the death loss compared to closeouts of steers without sheds.

Why then, did we see a reduction in performance in the steers and heifers with windbreaks, and the heifers with sheds?  We discussed this as a group, and felt that it was probably a management issue.  Cattle with windbreaks or sheds may have found a comfort zone and did not come to the bunk as they should, so reduced dry matter intake could be the cause of the reduced performance.  The reduced death loss in both steers and heifers with windbreaks would tend to confirm this.  Also, as the cattle congregated more in these shelter areas they could become sloppier than normal making cattle uncomfortable.

Based on this, we would not recommend against the use of shelter; instead, manage shelter so that cattle remain comfortable and they have an easy and comfortable route to the feed bunk and the water.


Pens with concrete did show a consistent improvement over dirt pens in this cold wet winter.  Concrete minimizes deep mud and is used to create solid traffic patterns.  Concrete also allows a solid area for bedding the cattle.  The analysis is summarized in Table 3, using some assumptions based on the averages of the group.

Table 3.  Concrete vs Dirt pens

Steer Data (113 pens)

Concrete (72 pens)

Dirt (41 pens)




Days for 525# gain




-15 days


Value @ 45 non-feed cost/day






DM Feed/Gain



Feed for 525# gain




-310 lbs


Value @ $90/ton DM






Death Loss






Value @ 725# & $90/cwt






Total Value of Concrete



Since this difference was documented during a severe winter, we cannot give it full value.  To put a truer value on concrete you need to look at how often it is actually needed.  If pens are in this poor of condition 3 out of 10 years, then one could spend up to $95 per head space on concrete ($28.66 divided by three years, times 10 years for depreciation).  Recommendations for concrete would be 50 ft2 per head for total concrete pens, and 20 foot wide aprons at the bunks and waterers for dirt pens.


Bedding also showed a significant improvement in performance when closeouts were analyzed.  For this survey, managed bedding was defined as regular bedding with the goal of maintaining a natural hair coat.  Pens bedded only during the most severe conditions was considered too little too late for the purpose of this study and these pens were included in the no bedding group.

Table 4.  Managed bedding vs non bedded pens

Steer Data (113 pens)

Bedded (59 pens)

Non Bedded (54 pens)




Days for 525# gain




-20 days


Value @ 45 non-feed cost/day






DM Feed/Gain



Feed for 525# gain




-457 lbs


Value @ $90/ton DM






Death Loss






Value @ 725# & $90/cwt






Total Value of Bedding



Managed bedding actually showed an even greater improvement in performance than concrete.  If bedding can make $37/hd difference in performance, than how much can we afford to spend on bedding?  Many upper Midwest feedlots figure one large round bale of bedding per head per winter, so this could be $10-20/hd.  Labor could be around $5/hd (10 hours/week @ $10/hr x 4 months divided by 300 hd).  Then the cost of fuel and bale handling equipment would have to be considered.  A bale processor is an investment that will reduce bedding use by about 50% and will also reduce or stop cattle from eating their bedding.

For a managed bedding program to work, it is important to have a designated bedding area that will have a solid base and good drainage so that your bedding is most effective.  The guideline on bedding use is really quite simple; use the amount of bedding necessary to maintain a natural haircoat.

There have been controlled research studies at Colorado State and North Dakota State Universities that also show an excellent return on investment from a managed bedding program.  The CSU study showed at $8 per head return over all costs (including bedding priced at $50/ton); remember that Colorado has lighter soils and less rainfall than the upper Midwest, so mud should be less of a problem.   The NDSU trial indicated a $50/hd advantage over the cost of the bedding.  In both trials, improvements were seen not only in performance, but in carcass quality as well.

In summary, facility design will have a significant impact on cattle performance and profitability.  If you are committed to long term cattle feeding, investments in proper amounts of concrete and managed bedding programs will show good returns.  Sheds and windbreaks are also beneficial to cattle performance, if they are managed properly.  The goal is to keep cattle as comfortable as possible while giving them easy access to the feedbunk to optimize dry matter intakes during cold and muddy periods.