As sure as winter’s thaw begins to warm temperatures and bring new life to pastures, a phenomenon known as “spring feeding frenzy” occurs when cattle on feed increase dry matter intake (DMI). If corralled correctly by feedyards and their consulting nutritionists, cattle will likely perform better. But if mismanaged, increased DMI can cause reduced gain, poor feed efficiency and a host of health problems that can ruin any possible profit potential.

Nathan Pyatt, PhD, a senior consultant for Elanco Animal Health, says the jump from winter to spring weather spawns the spring feeding frenzy. “The dramatic increase in DMI happens largely because of the increase in the day length,” says Pyatt. “We have data which indicates that as the day length increases, we can see about a 1.5-2% increase in DMI.

“We can also see a great variation in DMI. As a result of the weather fluctuations, we can see a difference in performance in both steers and heifers impacted by the spring feeding frenzy.”

The result can be a higher incidence of subacute and acute ruminal acidosis, liver abscesses and digestive disorders, which lead to related death loss. However, those negative aspects of added DMI can be controlled with better ration management, says Robby Kirkland, manager of Kirkland Feedyard in Vega, TX.

Kirkland starts managing for the increased intake period several months ahead of time – with the aim of maximizing gains and efficiency.

“We try to capitalize on what I like to call the ‘spring surge,’” he says. “It’s a time when you have to be on the ball. You educate your bunk readers, feed truck drivers, cowboys and others to watch closer for digestive disorders. We also use the added DMI to our advantage by making sure rations are formulated to promote a constant, more even intake.”

Feedlot studies conducted through the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station in Stillwater, OK, show that when compared to an average 12-hour day, long-day months showed a 1.5-2% increase in feed intake. Short-day months showed a 1.5-2% decrease in feed intake.

Steer DMI increases jump from just over 18 lbs./day on about March 1 to more than 21 lbs./day in late May, the study shows. For heifers, DMI increases from about 17.25 lbs./day on March 1 to about 18.75 lbs. in late May.

Mismanagement of ration and nutrients during the spring feeding frenzy months can reduce feed efficiency and average daily gain and lead to costly health problems or even death.

“We see an increase in metabolic, or digestive disorders, and acute and subacute ruminal acidosis,” Pyatt says. “We can see a peak in morbidity as a result. With closeouts, we see more liver abscesses, another indicator of digestive disorders.”

Studies show that the number of fed steers with liver abscesses increased from under 12% in February to nearly 16% in May and June. That was over a nine-year period from 1997-2006.

Managed correctly, however, feedyards can increase their performance numbers during the spring by taking full advantage of the higher DMI. Using ration and nutrient formulations that promote a constant intake, steers showed consistently higher gains and better feed efficiency, according to studies at the Clayton Livestock Research Center in Clayton, NM.

In the studies, steers on feed from 0-28 days had virtually the same DMI with constant intake vs. variable intake. However, steers with constant intake had an average daily gain (ADG) of 2.75 lbs., compared to 2.37 lbs., or a 14% decrease for those with variable intake. The feed efficiency rating was 5.89 for the constant intake steers, compared to variable intake steers, which had a 16% higher conversion rate of 6.85.

Similar readings were seen for steers on feed 0-56 days and 0-84 days. Constant and variable intake rates were virtually the same, while ADG was 9% and 7% lower for variable intake steers and feed conversion rates were 10% and 7% higher.

Pyatt emphasizes there are proven methods cattle feeders can use to promote the constant intake of feed during the frenzy months and enhance overall performance. “We want to look at things in the ration that involve formulating our diet around our forage concentrate, feed additives and nutrients,” he says.

“We want to look at a forage-to-concentrate ratio that is fine-tuned to offset the potential damage caused by the increase in DMI during this spring feeding timeframe.”

Kirkland, working with his consulting nutritionist, Gary Holcomb, makes sure his ration and nutrient mix is appropriate to maximize the spring feeding frenzy.

“When you see the chance of greater variable intake situations that can alter performance, you work to correct it and push for more constant intake,” Holcomb says. “Kirkland addresses the issue in mid-winter. We adjust our rations and use the ionophore Rumensin® in our program to reduce variable intake events.”

“We always make sure our rations are as effective as they can be. But we take extra steps during the spring surge to assure that the nutrient intake is aligned with our system. We evaluate consumption levels more tightly during this time of the year. We constantly monitor our feed additive levels.”

Holcomb says micro products are monitored closely. And if needed, they may be increased from 33 grams/ton to 38 grams/ton. “We also spend a lot of time monitoring for ‘true effective fiber’ during the spring to make sure our fiber levels are set properly,” he adds.

Pyatt concludes that managing for spring feeding frenzy can enhance cattle performance and increase profit potential.

“We want to consult with our nutritionist to make sure rations aren’t over-formulated or nutrients or additives aren’t off label to where they could cause environmental or animal problems,” he says. “We need to make sure we optimize our performance and maximize our profitability, especially in this time of high cattle prices.”