Holding Finishing Cattle on Feed

The objective of any finishing program for feedlot cattle is to optimize gain and feed efficiency throughout the finishing period while maintaining cattle health. Although cattle are getting heavier, carcass grades have also improved. Many producers target market weights to optimize carcass value, relative to time on feed and associated animal performance and efficiency. Over-finishing can greatly increase risk of poor cattle health, and cause cattle to go "stale" with plateauing rates of gain.

However, market disruptions can quickly derail marketing and feeding plans. COVID-19 has caused disruptions to the packing industry and the impacts have been felt by the cattle industry. These abrupt disruptions to the market may require cattle feeders to hold cattle longer than expected. Fortunately, it is possible to slow growth in ruminant species through altering forage inclusion rates and formulating rations with lower energy densities or through limit-feeding of existing rations. For significant and extended market disruption, more drastic changes in a feeding program are necessary. How can your feeding program be adjusted to avoid significant over-finishing of cattle?

Feeding considerations for holding cattle

Under normal circumstances, an important aspect of planning a feeding program is understanding your target endpoints, i.e. when fed cattle will be shipped to slaughter or market, and target rates of gain. The law of diminishing returns on feed efficiency in fed cattle occurs when cattle are fed beyond optimal weights. Understanding your target endpoints is important to achieving efficiencies and avoiding packer discounts for over-finished cattle. It is then possible to calculate target average daily gain and formulate rations accordingly. This becomes more challenging when there are abrupt market disruptions and uncertainty around when your cattle can be marketed. While holding cattle is undesirable from a financial perspective, there are a number of considerations that need to be taken into account when it is necessary to hold cattle during market disruptions to slow rate of gain, prevent digestive upsets, and keep carcass size reasonable.

How much should gain be slowed?

With uncertainty in timing of marketing fed cattle and resulting difficulty targeting end points, it becomes challenging to determine how much rate of gain should be slowed. The adjustments made to feeding programs to slow rate of gain will depend on a number of factors including stage of production, implant programs, and availability of feedstuffs. The goal should be to always maintain some gain (where possible >2 lbs/day), as true maintenance rations (where there is zero weight gain) can greatly impact future growth and carcass traits and therefore only be implemented as a last resort.

Keep in mind that disruptions in the packing sector can potentially cause longer-term cattle backlogs and cattle feeders at any stage in production should be prepared to modify feeding programs according to market conditions. There is more flexibility in feeding programs for newly placed cattle that still have room for gain, whereas cattle approaching market weight have fewer options.

In addition, holding heavy cattle on feed comes with increased risk of digestive upsets where adjustments aren't made to the ration, as prolonged feeding periods of a high-concentrate rations increase risk of acidosis and related conditions including liver abscesses and founder. Consider ration changes and implement feeding strategies to reduce fluctuating patterns of dry matter intake and maintain gut health.

Roughage - a mechanism for slowing gain

The objective of this approach is to reduce dietary energy levels to slow rate of gain. Although, it is best practice to make gradual changes when increasing energy in the ration, when stepping cattle down, these gradual transitions are less critical and can be made more abruptly. While most finishing rations will include at least some roughage for scratch factor (usually 7-15% DM basis), increasing this by about 10% (DM Basis), will generally reduce average daily gain by about ¾ lbs per day. Roughage in feedlot rations can include corn silage, haylage, dry hay, and straw. Keep in mind that corn silage contains about 40% grain, so when increasing corn silage in the "step-down" ration the changes can be made at more than 10% further inclusion rate. Another approach may be to put cattle back on one of the earlier steps of a step-up ration used to adjust cattle to a high-grain ratios. Depending on the step-up program, the lower steps of a step-up ration will typically contain higher inclusions of fibre, suitable to slow growth by about 0.5-1 lbs per day.

Feedlot operators typically grow, harvest, and store enough roughage to meet the demands of their feeding program for the year. When increasing inclusion rates of forage in the ration, the amount of stored forage and the cost of purchased forage must be considered for any ration scenario. Keep in mind that alternative ingredients that are low-energy and high-fibre, such as oat hulls and soybean hulls, are also effective in reducing the energy density of the rations, but have less capacity for "rumen fill".

Feedlot operators with self-feeders and corn and supplement-based rations are limited in their ability to offer forage through typical feed delivery approaches and may need to consider alternatives to offer forages and high-fibre ingredients to slow growth.

Limit feeding as an approach for controlling gain

If cattle are heavy (> about 1600 lbs) and close to target market weight, or if forages are not available, limiting feeding may be a good option to slow gain. Limit feeding is a means to reduce feed waste, especially when availability of additional roughage is limited. However, this strategy requires a "proceed with caution" disclaimer because it requires excellent management and will only work effectively in situations where there is adequate bunk space (i.e. at least 18"/head) and there is limited aggression at the feed bunk. This strategy works best for foreseeable short-term market disruptions, and less ideal as a longer-term solution. Where limit feeding is poorly managed, yo-yo feed consumption patterns, uniformity in cattle finish, and digestive upsets are possible.

Other considerations

  • Re-evaluate your implant program. Outcomes of feeding programs will depend on the implant program used, where implants are used. It may be necessary to scale back implant programs to reduce rate of gain.
  • Maintain best practices around bunk management. Sound bunk management practices help keep cattle on feed, maintain uniformity in lots, and reduce digestive health issues, especially in finishing cattle being held on feed.
  • Consider impacts of grain grind size. Grain grind size is another factor that influences risk of digestive upsets, where finely ground grain increases risk of digestive upsets, particularly in finishing rations. Keep in mind that risk of acidotic episodes also increases when small cereals, such as wheat, are fed.
  • Budget for transition time when ramping energy density in the ration back up. If markets dictate another change in course of your feeding program such that energy density is increased again, reimplement best practices when increasing energy density of the ration, including gradual changes and monitoring intakes.


It is possible to slow growth in feedlot cattle during market disruptions by reducing energy density in the ration. While it is generally not profitable to hold cattle on feed past optimal endpoints, there are strategies that can be adopted to reduce the impact of holding cattle on carcass quality, cattle health, and cost of production. Work closely with your nutritionist to balance maintenance rations that are suitable for your cattle and according to market conditions.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca