Recent feeding systems improvements have boosted feed intake, cattle gain and lowered ration costs at McElhaney Cattle Co. The Yuma, AZ, company fed 105,000 head last year with enhancements coming in three areas.

"Our mill had been the stepchild, as it is in many feedyards," says Rich Zarr, feed plant manager. "It ought to be brought to the forefront."

Appropriately, then, Zarr has overseen the biggest and most visible up-front measure to improve feeding. That is the installation of a new feed unloading upgrade at the railhead, which saves money before a calf takes a bite.

"A couple of years ago the railroad approached us and said we can give you a reduction if you can unload 100-car shuttle trains in 15 hours or less," says Zarr.

Big Investment The drawback, was the size of investment required. It took $2 million to upgrade to that unloading speed at the yard's rail site, where equipment was undersized and storage was in open, flat bunkers.

"We had a five-year payback on this $2 million project," Zarr says, noting it paid for itself in two years.

What it took was the installation of 40,000 bu./hr. unloading equipment with new storage and tracking systems.

"We used to unload a car in 42 minutes," Zarr says. It took 21/2 days to unload a 75-car train. Now it takes only 51/2 minutes to unload a car, and 11 hours to do a 75-car train. "The speed comes from the size of the equipment."

>From the grain dump to the scales to the conveyor system, the new equipment is much larger than the old. But it's the storage that gives the feedlot improved feed protection. Two new silos hold 850,000 bu. of grain, and three of the five flat storage barns remain as backup in case the company finds a good deal on feed.

The new system also connects directly to the mill, whereas the old system relied on a front-end loader to haul from storage to mill. Consequently, McElhaney eliminated a loader from the operation and now has 11 instead of 15 employees at the mill site. "We calculated it costs more than $100,000 per year to run a wheel loader," Zarr says. "Economics demand you build something of this nature."

The automated system allows the mill operator to control grain flow to the mill. The rail car unloading process is also controlled by one person using Wonderware software to run the computerized delivery system.

"We just cue the car up, hit the button, and the computer runs it," Zarr says. The computer gives precise information about the grain, including vendor and destination weights - which can be compared to calculate shrink. Eventually these figures will be networked to the accounting system.

Mike Hubbert, director of technical operations, says the company couldn't clearly see its feed picture. A computer consultant and a couple of programmers implemented his ideas.

"We're trying to put this information in graphical interfaces and exception reports," Hubbert says. A graphical interface is a better way of visualizing data using graphs. Exception reports detail if feeding goals are being met.

The graphs are an immediate educational tool. Colored lines rising or falling give workers an immediate grasp of what's happening in each pen.

"It'll tell everything about that pen," Hubbert says. Each of the 650 pens is tracked and information about the ID'd cattle in it illustrated graphically. Data ranges from the date the cattle were received to their implant histories.

Thus, it links information that the company once wasn't able to link to other tasks. For example, cattle death is noted, and if a pen has abnormally high mortality, Hubbert can check the illness and medication each animal has had since arrival.

"With the use of drugs and billing," he says, "computers are a must." For example, the computer shows when each animal clears drug withdrawal before being shipped.

Four exception reports illustrate feeding trends:

* Details too much feed consumption,

* Details feed consumption that is too low,

* Shows feed increases different from orders,

* Number of sick cattle and dollars spent on health care.

This simplifies most jobs and allows them to employ fewer management personnel. It takes Hubbert 30 minutes to check the feeding program, as opposed to a day's work before.

Named the McElhaney Cattle Co. Cattle Information System, the computer methodology has been shown to other feeders. Some have concocted similar systems.

Simple Changes Effective Possibly the most simple and productive change has come from inexpensive changes Hubbert made when he started consulting here in 1993. He cut the feed and increased consumption.

Hubbert, who has a Ph.D. in ruminant nutrition, believes when cattle eat too much at one time they lost gain potential and died of bloat more frequently. He implemented a 3X/day feeding system to provide only what would be needed at each feeding.

"We didn't want feed left in the bunk every day," he says. Hubbert had done this for a feedlot in Texas, so he took McElhaney managers and truck mechanics there to see how it worked.

Upon returning, mechanics adjusted feed truck belt drives and hydraulics for more accurate delivery. Then each truck was outfitted with a laptop computer connected to the truck scales. The feed supervisor determined how much feed each pen should get, based on previous feed consumed, and that amount was uploaded into each laptop.

Now when a driver puts feed in a bunk he is matching output to the requirement on the laptop. Cattle are consuming more than they did previously.

"Our objective was to increase intake by 1/2 lb./day," Hubbert says, noting that a 1/4-lb. increase would pay for the changes. Instead, the increase was 2 lbs./day. That's the equivalent of 0.3 lb. of weight gain per day, he says.

The cost of this simple system was "minimal" compared to feed savings. Much of that cost was initial software and computers. Hubbert says a laptop lasts only about a year in a truck, but costs are contained by buying reconditioned computers from $500 to $800 each.

Driver training - the other crucial aspect of the program, has worked out well. Though none of the drivers was accustomed to working with computers, each mastered the system. They deliver feed to within 1/3 lb./head/day of the correct volume stipulated by the feed caller. They have to, because their computers connect to his, and he can check exception reports to see if feed is being delivered correctly.

"The secret in feeding is feeding cattle a consistent amount and at consistent times," he points out. "Weight gain is up, bloat death is down."

It's also measured in the ability of McElhaney employees to adhere to a company strategy and see it work.