THE Western Australian Lot Feeders' Association (WALFA) has ramped up conversation on a national shade for feedlot cattle initiative, which aims to see shelter in all feedlots by 2026.
In a bid to keep feedlot operators across WA engaged, informed and supported, the Australian Lot Feeders' Association (ALFA) shade initiative headlined WALFA'S Better Beef 21 program this month.
The bi-annual event, held in the South West, attracted the interest of researchers, innovators, lotfeeders, producers, backgrounders and cattle industry stakeholders.
According to ALFA, the initiative builds on an estimated 60 per cent of industry feedlot capacity, which already has shade in place by asking all feedlots to invest in capital works to install shade in their facilities.
There are about 400 National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme accredited beef cattle lots in Australia, with more than 95pc family owned and operated.
Among the guest speakers leading the sheltered feedlot discussion at Better Beef 21 were Iranda Beef feedlot general manager Thomas Green, ALFA president and Camm Agricultural Group chief executive officer Bryce Camm, ALFA technical services officer Jeff House, Murdoch University associate professor David Miller and Paradise Enterprises director Gary Dimasi.
As part of day one of the event, Kerrigan Valley Beef feedlot principal Trevor Hinck and WALFA president Todd Fotheringhame joined Mr Miller, Mr House and Mr Miller for a panel discussion to answer any questions participants had and provide further information about the feedlot shade initiative.
Iranda Beef feedlot general manager Thomas Green.
A scorching heatwave five years ago, cemented Thomas Food International's decision to install shade structures at its Iranda Beef Feedlot.
Iranda Beef Feedlot general manager Thomas Green, who oversees the 17,500 head of cattle operation at Tintinara in South Australia, said shade was installed to support animal welfare, productivity and profitability.
In 2018, a significant investment of shade was put on 90 per cent of the feedlot with plans to shade remaining pens over the next 24 months.
Mr Green said already the operation had seen benefits of shade on feeding during summer months, particularly in consumption and consistency of consumption, both of which had increased significantly.
He said one unshaded row, allowed him to compare the differences between covered and uncovered cattle.
"We see a much more dramatic reduction in feed consumption and the period of recovery is much longer in the unshaded pens," Mr Green said.
"Once a steer or group misses that consumption they never really get it back.
"For those cattle, that is lost performance and lost potential."
Mr Green said despite being about 60 kilometres from the coast the feedlot, which is one of the largest in southern Australia, experienced climatic extremes.
"We typically have hot dry summers and cold wet winters," he said.
"In winter there are no negative side effects of the shade, as the cattle still gather under it even when it is 15 degrees.
"I think with how extreme and variable the climate is everywhere now, no one is really safe from impacts such as heat load events."
Iranda feedlot has used 70pc block-out shade cloth (3.2 square metres/head), installed in a north-south orientation as recommended in Meat and Livestock Australia's (MLA) beef cattle feedlots: design and construction manual.
The shade measures 48m in length and 12m in width, providing 95 pens at the property with shade.
This type of orientation has allowed shade to move through the pen, which is particularly important in southern Australia.
"With our wetter and colder winters we can't dry the pens out like lotfeeders on the Downs in winter," Mr Green said.
"The shade is offset from the water trough and not covering the feed bunk - these are two really important factors on our site.
"Having shade over the feed bunks would mean cattle would obviously make their preferred spot in summer in the shade.
"And they would camp along the bunk and foul it up with faeces and hair.
"They would also block other cattle from eating, resulting in uneven eating patterns."
A key consideration when building shelter for a feedlot is height, according to Mr Green.
For Iranda, matching the height of their shade (6.5m) with the equipment they use for pen cleaning was important, as it allowed for better airflow.
Mr Green said lotfeeders should be mindful of the need to install cabling and stay systems in each row.
According to MLA three types of shade structure can be used in feedlots including longitudinal rows, centre squares and separate panels.
Longitudinal rows are long thin shade structures that stretch over many different pens, centre squares are large tent-like structures in the centre of the pen and separate panels are structures connected in a grid-like pattern and provide alternating shade spots through each pen.
He said there were a number of options, but corrugated iron was a lot neater because lotfeeders didn't have to worry about stays.
"We have one row in the feedlot that is still not covered and we are considering putting galvanised iron sheet shade over it.
"A downside of iron sheeting shade though is that when it rains the rain sheets of the iron can impact the pen surface.
"Shade cloth is good because it somewhat protects pen surfaces and breaks the rain to make it more fine so you don't get any sheeting off it.
"We also don't have any posts in the pens at all, which means we don't have to work around the posts and the cattle can remain in the pens while the shade is being installed."
Alfa technical services officer Jeff House.
Animal welfare and productivity benefits continue to outweigh the cost of shade installation, according to the Meat and Livestock Association (MLA).
It funded a trial, about a decade ago, which explored shade versus no shade in feedlots and the impact of both.
And one of the biggest impacts the trial found that shaded feedlots had on animal welfare was the improved choice of freedom for shade seeking behaviour.
That is according to Australia Lot Feeders' Association (ALFA) technical officer Jeff House, who presented at day one of the Better Beef 21 event.
Mr House said sheltered feedlots gave cattle the power to decide whether or not to seek shade, which was a strong behavioural trait for those animals.
He said other impacts sheltered feedlots had on animal welfare were:
- Mitigated possible thermal discomfort.
- Alleviated possible thirst and dehydration.
- Reduced solar radiation and reflective heat.
- Reduced possible pain and disease.
- Decreased fear and distress.
"It is actually ticking a number of boxes," Mr House said.
"There hasn't been a huge amount of work done in Australia necessarily, but there is definitely growing interest locally."
Mr House said the MLA study, which was conducted by Dr John Gaughan, of the University of Queensland, in 2010 clearly demonstrated the benefits of having shade infrastructure in place.
"The trial saw Angus steers on a 120-day feeding period," he said.
"They were on a dry-rolled, wheat-based finisher diet provided with shade of 3.3 metres square per steer, using 80 per cent solar block shade cloth aligned in a north-south orientation.
"Cattle with access to shade had 3pc greater dry matter intake - 36 kilogram extra - and a 1.9pc increase in hot carcase weight, which was an extra 6kg/head at the processing plant."
Queensland is by far the biggest feedlotting state in Australia with about 530,000 head of feedlot cattle already shaded or about 64pc of the State's feedlot capacity.
Meanwhile, WA has the least number of cattle shaded with about 5000 head shaded, representing about 7pc of the entire WA capacity.
In terms of the whole of Australia's capacity of 1.45 million head, about 58pc of total capacity is shaded.
As part of his discussion, Mr House shared a graph, which used arrows to represent cattle absorbing heat.
"There is direct solar radiation from the sun and reflected solar radiation - they are both really important ways of animals actually absorbing the heat," he said.
"But realistically the biggest one is actually through feeding time.
"Internal heat production in cattle is actually a really big source of heat for those animals, so they actually have that happening inside them the whole time and really these others are adding to the animals heat load."
Mr House said if the ambient temperature was higher than the body temperature then the animal would absorb heat as well.
Also if the ground was hotter, heat was absorbed through the surface, whereas if it was cooler than the animal's body temperature the animal would lose heat through the ground.
"That is why when the ground is cooler they will tend to lie down," he said.
"As the ground heats up, then more of the cattle will stand up to reduce contact with the hotter surface.
"If the ambient temperature cools and they've got wind, then that allows that heat to be removed from the animal's skin surface through convection.
"Air movement is critically important."
Mr House said in terms of sweating, it was not a major way animals lost heat.
In fact, it was through panting and evaporating heat through the lungs.
"Hence there is a cost of managing heat coming out of their body," he said.
"They actually physically have to pant and manage that heat, so it does cost in terms of the energy used to do that.
"And that is actually the biggest way that animals lose heat once the temperature starts to get hotter.
"If the surface temperature is nice and cool, if the animal's temperature is nice and cool, then heat produced from metabolic processes is lost really easily.
"Once those outdoor environmental conditions increase then they work to lose that heat."
Mr House said across all the work done in the shaded feedlots, animal welfare was the main focus point.
"We talk about nutrition - freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition," he said.
"I think in a feedlot situation we have to articulate that really well, that they have access to fresh water and their diet is maintained."
Mr House said when it came to environment lot- feeders needed to ensure cattle were free from discomfort, in a suitable environment, which included shelter, and a comfortable resting area.
As for their health, he said they needed to be free from pain, injury and disease, and that is "managed really well" in a feedlot situation.
"In terms of behaviour, we need to ensure the animals are free to express normal behaviour through the provision of sufficient space, proper facilities and the company of other cattle," he said.
"Finally we need to consider the animal's mental state - that is that the animal is free from fear and distress, and we ensure conditions that avoid mental suffering."
Murdoch University associate professor in physiology and animal production David Miller.
A new research project, which will examine the impacts of shade in cattle feedlots, is expected to kick off in Western Australia in coming months.
Funded by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) and the Australian Lot Feeders' Association (ALFA), the year-long trial conducted by Murdoch University will follow groups of 110-day fed Angus steers at a commercial feedlot in the southern part of the State.
It will evaluate the welfare and production benefits of shade on feedlot cattle in a temperate climatic region in summer and winter.
Murdoch University associated professor David Miller said it was the first experiment to be conducted in WA and therefore would provide localised information and data about the responses of cattle to shaded feedlots.
He said as part of the 110-day program, data would be collected at induction, day 28, day 78 and exit.
The design includes 10 separate pens, five shaded and five unshaded, with the shaded pens providing 3m 2 of shade per animal.
Dr Miller said cattle entry would be staggered over the entire year to look at year-round benefits on performance, welfare and health parameters, including meat quality measures after exit.
The experiment will also look at hydration state, levels of heat stress, time budgets for eating and drinking and behaviour measurements that can give an indication of an animal's welfare state.
He said the experiment would also look at the economics and what the benefits would be in providing shade all year round.
Previous data, which had been collected in northern Australia, strongly indicated that shade utilisation increased with air temperature, solar radiation or the temperature-humidity index.
"It was also shown (in previous experiments) that cattle provided with shade had improved performance and reduced stress.
"And in studies from other countries it has been found that shade provided during extreme heat events lowers the rates of morbidity and mortality."
These results were found in both Bos Taurus and Bos Indicus cattle.
Research conducted in Queensland, published in 2020, looked at shade utilisation and responses in three different breeds of cattle, Angus, Charolais and Brahman.
"All three of the breeds responded by increasing their shade utilisation, as the heat load increased, but there were differences between breeds, with the lighter-coated Charolais and the Brahamn breeds being more heat tolerant," Dr Miller said.
"Cattle have the ability to cope with heat, they have physiological and behavioural mechanisms like panting and seeking shade.
"However, these coping mechanisms come at a cost to animal performance."
An economic analysis in 2006 estimated that Australian feedlots lose $16.5 million over summer.
Based on the Queensland data that indicated that shade improved dietary intake (3pc) and carcase weight (2pc), economic analysis by ALFA suggested that shade could increase profit by $20/head.
Dr Miller said that these figures may be different for southern feedlots, where temperatures and humidity are generally lower.
"We also want to look at the benefits over the whole year, most of the previous studies have just been done in the summer," he said.
"Are there any benefits that could be provided by shade structures in winter, such as some shelter from the rain, or will pen surfaces under shade stay wetter for longer causing boggy areas that can impact health and performance?"
Dr Miller said testing the benefits (performance, health, welfare) of shade provision for lotfed Black Angus cattle in WA will set a benchmark for feedlot producers in similar types of climatic regions in Australia to assess the advantages and payback period of adopting a shade solution.
He said Black Angus cattle not only represented the major genotype lotfed in this region, but they are also one of the higher risk genotypes in an extreme heat event.
"While shade is currently not part of the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS), ALFA would like to see shade in all feedlots by 2026," he said.
"They see this initiative as an opportunity to demonstrate the industry's leadership and commitment to animal welfare."
Paradise Enterprises director Gary Dimasi.
What started as a "crazy idea" soon became a reality for Paradise Enterprises director Gary Dimasi.
Four years ago, the Donnybrook lotfeeder built a 185m long, 15m wide sheltered, dome-shaped feedlot at his property.
Known as the dome the feedlot can hold up to 600 head of cattle across six pens with the purpose of keeping them dry in the winter months and cool in the summer.
And while it has been a worthwhile investment for the Dimasis, it has also come with a number of challenges, which "still need to be ironed out".
Mr Dimasi said one of the biggest challenges was cattle urine catching methane under the shelter.
He said to resolve this the enterprise had been spraying microbes to help break down the waste.
"This would also help speed up the compost breakdown when the pens are cleaned out," Mr Dimasi said.
"We have a tool in our office, which helps us to measure fungi and bacteria.
"So before we started doing the biology spray in our feedlot, we did some sample testing, and it helps to break down smell, urine and the compost quicker."
Mr Dimasi said cattle would adapt to certain weather conditions depending on their breed.
For example on a rainy day - Droughtmasters from Broome and Friesian steers would venture outside, whereas local Angus cattle would seek shelter under the dome.
"Another challenge, which we are still mucking about with, is to do with a pen of Angus heifers," he said.
"I thought I was dreaming the first-time we put Angus cattle in there and the pens didn't seem to dry out.
"We looked at installing a flow metre on the water troughs just to monitor their intakes because we weren't sure whether it was because they drank more water or not.
"In pen 15, underneath the dome, there's about 109 heifers in there.
"That pen got cleaned last, before we had 60mm of rain, and it is the dirtiest pen of all."
Mr Dimasi said he wasn't sure why the Angus cattle pens were drier, even in comparison to crossbred Angus.
He said the cleanest pens were those of the Droughtmasters or Santa Gertrudis.
"We clean all the pens out about five times a year and this year, we will do one more scrape right before winter," Mr Dimasi said.
"The manure from the dome takes a lot longer to break down from the outside of the feedlot.
"If you are spreading it back out into the fields, you have to at least wait for 12 months to get the nutrition because it does create more issues.
"You'd be sucking all the nitrogen out of the soil."
Mr Dimasi said Paradise Beef was still working on the Angus cattle challenges, including how they were going to keep pens clean when Angus was the predominant breed.
"We have been comparing manure from the dome to no cover feedlot," he said.
"It is about just understanding what is in our environment.
"There's so many different brands and types of biology out there it's just about figuring out what works best in certain feedlots, to speed the breakdown cycle."
Mr Dimasi recommended feedlotters in the south, who were looking at installing shelter, to build a structure that created shade at the feed bump.
"I do believe in the hotter areas the cattle will follow the shade so if you can create a bit of shade over the feed, that's going to help with your shy eaters," he said.