Feed cattle in the same pens long enough and you might overlook opportunities to fine-tune performance by reducing environmental stress.

Farmer feeders preoccupied with other enterprises may find the most opportunity in auditing their pens for profit-robbing stressors, Terry Mader says. He's a beef cattle specialist at the University of Nebraska Northeast Research Extension Center in Concord.

'Commercial yards, in particular, because of their sheer volume, have a unique opportunity to learn about the relationships between environmental parameters and feeding patterns,' he says.

For instance, just reducing the time cattle spend in the mud can pay handsomely. Mader explains for every 3-4 in. of the goo, feed efficiency plummets 6-8%.

'Let's say you have 10,000 head in 10 inches of mud, on average. You decrease efficiency 10 percent. You went from a feed efficiency of six pounds of feed per pound of gain to 6.6 pounds of feed. That costs you approximately two more pounds of feed per head per day to get the same gain. Over a 125-day feeding period, that's 250 pounds of feed at 5 cents per pound. That's $12.50 per head, or $125,000 for 10,000 head.'

Worse, mud that is freezing at night and thawing during the day creates rough surfaces cattle find difficult to cross in order to eat more feed. 'Anytime you have a barrier between cattle and the feed bunk, they will go to eat fewer times,' says Mader. 'But when they do go to eat, they'll eat more, which increases digestive problems like bloat and acidosis.'

Bunk Space Is Important Cattle themselves can be barriers to the bunk in crowded pens. On average, cattle receiving a high-energy feedlot ration twice each day should have access to at least 9 in. of bunk space and 150-250 sq. ft. of pen space. He's also a believer in placing waterers on a concrete apron in the center of the pen, then connecting that apron to the feed bunk so cattle have a clear path to feed and water.

Obviously, no one can change the weather. But feeders can design and manage facilities that combat Mother Nature more effectively. When it comes to mud, Mader says adequate mound space, drainage and surface stability are the most powerful tools.

'You build the slope and drainage to get any runoff out of the pens and in the settlement basin where it ought to be,' says Mader. He recommends a slope of 3-6%, sloping away from feed bunks.

Mader says the ideal surface is a mixture of clay, manure and sand particles, packed every 4-6 in. Finally he points out that mounds -- 20-50 sq. ft. per animal -- add to drainage, as well as offering cattle a windbreak, dry ground and a spot for more evaporative cooling in the summer.

Of course, mound design itself pays dividends. When the Heine brothers at Fordyce, NE, expanded their Heine Farm Feedyard capacity by 2,500 head four years ago, they chose a lazy-W mound design rather than the center mound they had always used.

In basic terms, the lazy-W includes a mound as high as the fence line, running through the center of the pen. Shallower mounds wing off each side. Moisture is carried into the valleys between them and out of the pen. Ron Heine says, 'You can see it in the cost of gain and performance of the cattle. On average, it seems to be better in our new lots.'

Likewise, windbreaks and shelter belts can help reduce stress. The problem is most are constructed in good weather when the sun is shining. That means windbreaks built for winter protection can reduce airflow during the summer, and shade built for summer can add to winter mud problems.

Mader believes straight, east-to-west windbreaks on the north side of a feedlot, extending past the end of the lot, can be more beneficial than the traditional L-design because they eliminate dead air space that contributes to summer stress.

'If you're going to put a windbreak in a fence line, keep in mind if you protect the cattle, you must also protect the feed bunk. I'd like to see the wind barrier outside the pen so you don't dump snow in the pen, and you'll allow for some air movement for drying,' says Mader.

Geography can be a hedge against the weather, Mader explains, with an operation going two or three years without any problems. 'But generally we have two to four years out of every decade with significant mud problems. We also have two to four years out of every decade with significant heat or cold stress.'

Add that up and the probability is about 50% that at least one of these extremes will impact you every year. That's why Mader is an advocate of weather monitoring stations in the feedlot. 'In the summer, it's not just knowing how hot it is during the day, but also how cool at night. That's important to maintaining intake. In the winter, it's not only temperature, but windchill.'

Simple weather monitoring equipment costing $500-1,000 can offer valuable feeding management information, including temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and solar radiation. At the Concord research center one of the most valuable tools they have is a thermometer that sits inside an 8-in. black globe.

'It's one of the better indicators of what the animal is exposed to,' says Mader. 'It takes into account the combined effects of solar radiation, wind temperature and humidity.'

Wet Weather's The Worst But nothing can account for a wet hide. 'In the winter, if you have a wet coat, you have cut your insulation significantly,' says Mader. Cattle are tough. At windchill indices of -30 degreesF to -40 degreesF below zero, cattle with a high energy diet and a good degree of body condition aren't in jeopardy of drops in body temperature.

'After -40 degreesF, they start to be compromised. At about -70 degreesF, you'll start freezing flesh, particularly on younger cattle and cattle without a full winter coat,' Mader says.

Mader cautions that wind whistling around windbreaks and shelterbelts can add to the misery of cattle in unprotected pens. During the severe winter of 1996-97, he estimates that cattle in pens on the north and east side of shelter belts in northeast Nebraska were exposed to windchills of -100 degreesF, compared to -70 degreesF windchills in the other pens.

But, none of these environmental risk management tools beat knowing how to feed cattle during extreme weather. For instance, some feeders reduce the energy density of feed by upping roughage when there is a cold snap. That may be wrong.

In a feedlot trial Mader conducted, the ration of cattle without wind protection was switched from 15% to 7.5% alfalfa hay on a dry matter basis. These cattle posted greater gains and efficiency than cattle whose ration was increased from 7.5% to 15% alfalfa.

In general, when normal weather patterns prevail, Mader says cattle fed in the more open areas perform at higher levels. Cattle fed without protection in another Nebraska study conducted over three years consumed 3% more dry matter, gained 10% more and were 6% more feed efficient than cattle fed in pens with north and northwest wind protection. The unprotected cattle consumed 3% more, gained 8% more and converted feed 5% more efficiently than cattle with access to overhead protection.

Feeders who want to reduce environmental risk should look at the impact climate and mud will have on cattle in a pen, then design pens to reduce the impact. At the same time, efficient waste collection and disposal must be considered. 'When you design lots with one of those in mind, you are also taking care of the other. They go hand-in-hand,' says Mader.

Pen design and slope: Do you have a 3-6% slope with surface sloping away from the feed bunk? If you're in an area subject to periods of heavy rain or snow, you need 25-50 sq. ft. of mound per animal in the pen.

Pen Space: In drier areas like the Southern Plains, a minimum of 150 sq. ft. per animal is ideal. In the wetter Northern Plains and western Corn Belt, 250 sq. ft. is the minimum, depending on the drainage. If pens are flat, or if drainage is poor, those minimums need to increase by as much as 50% for optimum animal comfort.

Wind barriers: Air movement minimizes mud problems, regardless of the season, and allows for evaporative cooling of cattle in the summer. Do you have wind barriers constructed so they'll trip snow and keep it out of the pens, but still provide some air movement for drying?

Management: Do you have a management plan to implement with a severe change in weather or an extended period of bad weather?