It's almost spring and with it comes seasonal chores of cleaning pens, fixing fences and double-checking fixtures and equipment. While every yard is unique, basic maintenance and upgrading pays off with reduced overall labor costs and better operating efficiency.

The crew at Sellers Feedlots, Inc., Lyons, KS, incorporates its spring cleaning into regular maintenance routines. Whether cleaning pens or maintaining equipment, they seize every opportunity to perform preventive maintenance functions in every department.

Manager of the expanding 9,000-head yard, Kevin Dwyer, says a long-term approach is the basis for most of the maintenance decision making.

"We look at tasks and examine ways to hold labor costs to reasonable levels," Dwyer says. "If we can figure out a way for one person to do the job instead of two, we'll do it."

Each department at Sellers is responsible for its own maintenance and some maintenance tasks may be shared depending on the situation.

Cleaning Pens One of the primary jobs of upkeep is cleaning pens, which are cleaned each time cattle are moved out. Starting with the 15-ft. bunk pad, crews scrape it to the concrete level and scrape the rest of the pen down to the lowest layer, a solid, hard-packed layer of manure. Any holes are filled and packed.

"We attempt to keep the optimum number of cattle in a pen, depending on the season," Dwyer says. "This lowers the likelihood of extra holes, plus the cattle eat better and stay in better overall condition."

There aren't pen mounds at Sellers. Pens are graded so that the ground slopes toward the center of the pens and to the rear toward a drainage ditch which runs to a lagoon.

"We've been able to keep the pens cleaner and dryer by sloping them than by using mounds," Dwyer says. "We also don't have to maintain mounds or deal with them getting muddy and sloughing off, which would prevent runoff in heavy moisture situations."

Dry pens means better efficiency. Joseph Harner, Kansas State University Extension engineer, says bad drainage is a drain on profit. Every four inches of mud decreases feed efficiency by 10% per day. "In a really wet year, you can add $40 to $50 to the cost of finishing an animal if the pens are muddy for a long time," he adds.

Keeping pens dry and mud-free aren't the only concerns with ground quality. It's also the amount of manure that's dropped onto the ground.

"We've incorporated the Purina Impact Program for feeding," Dwyer says. "The ration has intake limiters in it that let the cattle eat pretty much on a 24-hour clock, without limiting average daily intake and levelling their consumption patterns," he says.

The ration is primarily steam-flaked corn and 2% silage, so less manure is produced than from a forage-based ration, he adds.

Waterers Quality construction and preventive maintenance are the components of keeping waterers in shape, Dwyer says. The continuous-flow waterers are placed on concrete pads into a slight indention. Dirt packs around the bottom of the waterer creating a tight seal that keeps water out and holds the tank in place. Tanks are cleaned three times a week and checked regularly for freeze control.

Fencing Keeping cattle in the pens is a matter of good, permanent fence construction. The Sellers crew has found electrical cable effective. It's run through eyebolts placed in oil field pipe posts, pulled tight with a skid steer loader, and wrapped on the ends. Clamps welded to the posts keep cable lines secure.

Rolling Equipment Anything with moving parts is going to need tuning. Equipment maintenance is a high priority at Sellers.

"There's nothing more expensive than downtime," Dwyer says. "We designate the maintenance responsibility for every piece of equipment to a specific department. For example, the cowboy crew maintains the skid steer loaders." He recommends keeping an eye on the PTO and hydraulic components of feed trucks as well as the mixer. Chains are replaced when a second link breaks, preventing the crew from having a downed truck.

"We're working toward replacing feed trucks every three years and turning over a big loader every five to six years," he says. "One of the ways we stay away from big repair expenses is to perform basic preventive maintenance routines. It takes a fraction of the time and dollars of repairing broken equipment."

The Mill There's no secret to good mill function, says Rob Bolton, Sellers' mill manager. It's simply routine maintenance.

"We go over every piece of equipment every week," Bolton says. "This includes greasing the elevator, any grain handling equipment and anything else that turns. We also check the oil in the gear reducer and check chains.

He also inspects the condition of the grease as it comes out of the bearings. "The color will tell you if moisture is getting to it. Flakes indicate something may be wearing fast. Feeling the grease will tell you its condition and the smell can tell you if it's getting too hot."

Bolton also recommends controlling inputs. He doesn't hesitate to reject a load of corn if there happens to be gravel in it. Pitted rollers aren't an inexpensive repair.

"Simple things keep the mill running every day," Bolton adds. "It boils down to paying attention to detail, keeping parts on hand and constantly monitoring all the equipment."

The cost of good maintenance? It's not a lot, says K-State's Harner.

"Generally, five to 10 percent of the new cost is a good amount to budget for yearly maintenance costs."

Staff Time When assigning upkeep duties, it's helpful to keep in mind the time needed to do it right. Dwyer says the milling staff spends about 15-20% of its time handling maintenance duties, the feeding crew about 10% and the cowboy crew approximately 5%.

"General maintenance isn't a hard thing to keep up with, but it's a really hard thing to catch up with," Dwyer says. "That's why we take every opportunity to do something related to upkeep. Frankly, it's a matter of being able to do things in a timely manner."