In this lecture, we will be discussing the pen fattening of relatively small numbers of cattle, by farmers who only have a few cattle. We will notbe discussing large-scale feedlots, which is a highly specialised enterprise on its own.

The object is to assist the small producer to make his/her surplus cattle more marketable, so that he can get a reasonable price for them. There is a much greater demand for fat cattle, especially by butchers, than there is for thin cattle.

If possible, a number of producers could get together and arrange to hold an annual livestock show, with special classes for fat cattle. They can fatten a few head each, to be entered into the show to compete and be sold at the show. This will generate interest by the local population, and more buyers will be attracted to the show, thereby pushing up the sale price for the producer.

This lecture will also cater for the small feedlot owner who buys cattle from surrounding farmers, to fatten them, with maybe 50 head in his feedlot at one time.


There are several aspects to be considered when constructing pens for fattening cattle. These are:

  •     Size of pen
  •     Material for construction
  •     Height of pens
  •     Feed trough
  •     Water trough
  •     Slope of the ground
  •     Number of pens
  •     Hayrack


Obviously, the pen must be built to a size that will accommodate the maximum number of cattle that will be fattened in the dry season only. One must allow 14m2 per beast of pen space, but if they are to be fattened during the rains then you need more space, 20 – 25m2 per animal, depending how wet the area gets. If the floor of the pens is to be concrete, then only 5m2 extra per head is enough. These space allowances are for young cattle. For mature cattle, add a further 5m2 per head to each of the figures given above, plus another 5m2 if they have long or sharp horns.


The best and most cost effective is to build the pens with post and rail, preferably using treated poles for longer life. If trees are plentiful, local poles are acceptable.


The pens should be 1.8m high. This will keep most cattle in. Four horizontal cross poles should be adequate. Gates can either be strong farm gates or slip rails, but must be the same height as the pen sides.


These must be constructed to minimise wastage of food. They can be made out of concrete, or, if only a few cattle are involved, half drums split lengthways, work well. If they are made of concrete in a fixed position, a 1.5m wide concrete apron must be laid along the trough for the cattle to stand when they eat. If rain is likely to fall during the feeding period, it will be necessary to put a roof over the trough. Allow 24cm trough space per head, or 40cm if the cattle have horns.


This must be positioned at the bottom of the pen, so any spillage will run out of the pen. In hot areas, the water trough should be in shade, so that the water stays cool.

A fully-grown ox or cow will drink 45 litres of water on a hot day. So before even starting to construct the feed pens, the farmer must make sure that he will be able to supply that amount of clean water for every animal he plans to feed.


It is important to construct feed pens on slight slope in the land (2 – 5%), so that rain water will run off. The pen must slope down, away from the feed troughs.


While it is quite acceptable to put up to 50 head or more in a cone pen, as long as it is big enough, certain types should not be mixed. Do not mix cattle in the same pen.

  •     With and without horns
  •     Of different sizes
  •     Of different sexes

So it may be necessary to have more than one pen.



If a farmer wants to feed the roughage (hay or stover) separately, i.e. not mixed in with the meal, then he will require some form of hayrack, or hay box, in the pen. It must be big enough to hold at least one day’s requirement.


Only healthy animals should be put into feed pens, because sick animals have no chance of achieving a good performance and will reduce the profitability of the batch. The utmost care must be taken to ensure the well-being and comfort of the animals, as any unnecessary stress will spoil their performance. If cattle have to be handled for dipping, weighing or moving, this should be done quietly and without shouting and fuss.

The following points should be observed:

  •   All animals should be dosed against round worms before being put into the pens. If the animals have been grazing in vlei areas, they should be dosed against liver fluke;
  •   Any injuries or cases of opthalmia (bad eyes) should be treated. If further treatments are to be carried out, the animal should be put into a special hospital pen for easy access and to avoid disturbing all the other animals in the pen when the sick animal is collected for treatment;
Stimulant: raising levels of physiological or nervous activity in the body  

  All cattle should be dipped before penning. It should not be necessary to dip them again for ticks, but they may have to be dipped again for control of biting flies. In that case, they may be sprayed using a knap-sack sprayer;

  •   Vaccinate all cattle before they go into the pens against anthrax, black quarter and botulism;
  •   Implant with a growth stimulant (like Revalor of Compudose). This gives 10% improvement in growth and feed conversion;
  •   Fresh food must be put out twice a day. Once a day, before feeding, the feed trough must be cleaned out, leaving no old food in the trough;
  •   In a small feedlot, all the animals can be weighed once a month to check on their progress. In a large feedlot, certain animals can be marked with paint when they enter the pens, and these can be weighed in order to get an idea of the performance of the whole batch; and
  •   Introducing the animals to the new feed should be done slowly so that they can get used to the food, and the rumen bacteria become adjusted to the new ration.
Ionophore: a substance which is able to transport particular ions across a lipid membrane in a cell  

Only isolated cases of disease occur while cattle are in the feedlot. The most common ailments are the tick-borne diseases, brought into the pens with the animals. However, cases have occurred where redwater was contracted from ticks, which continued their life-cycle in the pens. Ticks dropped off an infected animal from a previous consignment, are thought to have transmitted disease to the following consignment of cattle. Tick-borne diseases in cattle in the feedlot are very acute and unless immediate action is taken, death can occur within hours.

Pneumonia is a fairly common ailment, but with close supervision and prompt treatment few fatalities occur.

Non-eaters, in other words cattle that refuse to eat the food supplied in the troughs, are not very common, but a few cattle each year have to be persuaded to eat or thrown out.


The most important aspect of fattening cattle is getting the ration right. It must be a scientifically balanced ration containing a good energy source (usually maize), protein, roughage, salt, feed lime (limestone flour), minerals, vitamins and an ionophore (monensin). If a farmer has his own maize (or sorghum) or can get it relatively cheaply from his area, then he can use that as the energy source. For a farmer who is feeding only a few cattle, it is not practical for him to get all the other ration components separately to mix into a ration. All stock feed companies make a beef fattening concentrate that contains all of these components except the maize and the roughage. The farmer then just has to mix his own maize meal (or crushed maize) with this concentrate in the proportions recommended by the feed company, and feed his roughage separately. The roughage must be of good quality, so that the cattle will want to eat it. Usually hay or stover is used. On average, cattle being fattened will each eat about 250kg of hay during the feeding period. If maize stover is being used, one animal need the stover from one acre (0.5ha). Before starting to feed the farmer must ensure that he has enough roughage for the whole feeding period.

When feeding the roughage separately, it is not necessary to have a special adaption ration for the first 2 weeks of feeding. The cattle will eat more roughage to start with and gradually cut down as they progress. But during the first 20 days, the meal must be restricted as follows:

  •     Days 1 and 2   – 2kg/head /day
  •     Days 3, 4 and 5 – 4kg/head/day
  •     Days 6 – 10  – 6kg/head /day
  •     Thereafter feed ad lib.

When roughage is fed separately, there is always a lot of wastage. If roughage is in short supply, then it can be incorporated into the ration, but must be milled or chopped into 2 – 3cm lengths first. If hay is milled it must be put through a hammer mill with screens removed, so that it ends up in 2 – 3cm lengths. It must not be milled into a fine meal.

If roughage is mixed into the ration like this, for young cattle it must be put in at 30% of the ration for the first two weeks, and the mixed ration fed ad lib, not restricted. After the first 2 weeks, the roughage must be put in at 20% of the ration for the rest of the feeding period. For cows and mature oxen, put 40% roughage into the ration to start with, reducing it to 25% after 2 weeks.

The final ration will then contain 12.5 – 13% protein and all the other important ingredients at the correct levels. A cheap and simple ration for fattening mature cattle (NOT young stock) is a mixture of 75% milled snap corn (the whole maize cob with grain and sheath) and 25% broiler litter (dry). This is not as good as the ration discussed above, but it is so much cheaper, and could be just as profitable.

When fattening cattle it is essential to feed regularly. Fresh food should be put out twice a day at roughly the same time each day. In order not to waste food, the amount of food put out must be adjusted all the time. Ideally, the cattle should finish the food in the trough one hour before the next feeding time. The trough must be cleaned out every day. Any old food left over can be given to other cattle.



This is caused by the animal eating large amounts of grain, and it often occurs during the first few days of pen feeding. Symptoms are:

  •   The animal appears depressed, listless and off its food;
  •   The rumen appears to be full, and all ruminal movement and cudding ceases;
  •   Breathing is shallow but an increased rate and;
  •   The dung is foul smelling and may contain undigested grain.

Treatment is to dose the animal with 30 grams of bicarbonate of soda dissolved in water. The condition can be prevented by introducing the concentrate ration gradually.


This is a condition often seen in pen-fattened cattle on a high-maize, low roughage diet. Bos indicus that is Brahman, Afrikaner and indigenous cattle are much more susceptible than European breeds. All four feet become very tender. Animals lie down a lot, rise and walk with difficulty and the hooves grow out long. In mild cases weight gains are probably not significantly reduced, but if severe this condition can upset the economy of a feed-lot venture. At the first sign of laminitis, adjustments should be made to the feed by increasing the roughage and reducing the maize slightly. Affected animals should be treated gently and, if possible should be separated from others to avoid bullying. Remember that transport to the abattoir will cause some suffering.


This is the swelling of the stomach (rumen) caused because the animal cannot emit the gas formed in it. Causes of bloat are:

The gas is held within a froth which forms in the stomach. Certain plants such as lucerne can produce this froth, as well as a lack of long roughage in the diet. This condition is called frothy bloat. Dry or gaseous bloat can be caused by feeding a ration containing too much maize, other less common causes are:

  •   Paralysis of the stomach caused by eating a poison or a poisonous plant such as slangkop;
  •   Adhesions of the stomach caused by ingesting a nail or piece of wire;
  •   Obstruction caused by eating pieces of plastic bag or other indigestible material and;
  •   An unnatural position such as when the animal lies down flat on its side.

Bloat is a normal condition in ruminants after death, and can develop very quickly in the case of sudden deaths.

Cases of frothy bloat can be treated by the farmer or stockman, but bloat caused by any of the other factors mentioned above should be treated by a veterinary surgeon. Mild cases of frothy bloat are treated by drenching the animal with linseed oil, turpentine or a proprietary bloat remedy, of which there are several on the market. In severe cases of dry bloat, the rumen is punctured using a trocar and cannula. Introduce the instrument at the point shown in the diagram on the LEFT hand side, aiming downwards and forward. Remove the trocar and leave the cannula in position, and the gas will escape through the tube of the cannula. Bloat remedy can be poured into the rumen down the cannula, and the cannula should be kept clear and manipulated about to allow the gas to escape. Once the rumen has returned to its normal size, the cannula is removed and the animal treated with antibiotics to prevent infection of the wound.


Induction Live-mass kg   
Live-mass Gain kg   
Live-mass at Slaughter kg   
Killing out Percentage %   
Cold Dressed Mass @ c/kg = 
Hide Allowance     
   Total ReceiptsR
Induction Live-mass kg @ c/kg =R
Feed kg @ c/kg =R
Transport to and from farm    R
Interest on purchase price % of feeder cost R
Levy and Insurance   R
Other Variable Costs   R
  Total Variable Costs R



  •     I, Two year olds         (350 – 400kg induction live-mass);
  •     II, Yearlings                  (250 – 300kg);
  •     III, Heavy Weaners   (over   200kg);
  •     IV, Light Weaners     (up to  200kg).


This table gives an estimate of feed intake, live-mass gain and dressing percentage for different sizes of animals being fed in pens.

EXAMPLE 1: Yearlings, fed for 10 weeks in pens.

    Induction Live-mass         250 – 300kg

    Total Feed Intake           781kg (11.2 kg/day)

    Total Live-mass gain         116kg

    Final Live-mass                  a)  250 + 116 = 366kg

                                            Or b)  300 + 116 = 416kg

    Dressing Out Percentage                        = 50.5%

    Final Cold Dressed Mass

                                               a)  366 x 50.5 = 184.83kg


                    Or   b)  416 x 50.5 = 210.08kg



EXAMPLE 2: Two year olds fed for 4 weeks in pens.

    Induction Live-mass                400kg

    Total Feed Intake                     303kg (10.8 kg/day)

    Total Live-mass gain                44kg

    Final Live-mass                          400 + 44 = 444kg

    Dressing Out Percentage                          50.4%

    Final Cold Dressed Mass

                                                        444 x 50.4 = 223.78kg


Figure 1: Young Cattle in finishing pens

Figure 2: Beef Cattle being finished in pens