A newly released study has found that providing woodchip bedding, in feedlot pens exposed to wet muddy conditions, has substantial performance and animal welfare benefits that offset the cost of application.
The study, conducted by University of New England's Ruminant Research Group and led by Dr Fran Cowley, found using woodchip bedding under the small pen research conditions increased feed efficiency and improved animal welfare.
The research and development project was funded by Meat and Livestock Australia, in consultation with the Australian Lot Feeders Association.
A custom-built irrigation system was used to simulate southern regions' wet winter conditions during a 109-day feeding period from May to September 2018 at UNE's 1000 head Tullimba Research Feedlot, near Armidale, NSW.
Post doctoral research fellow Dr Amy Tait said using the bedding resulted in a $74 increase in carcase value, a $6 a head net benefit.
"Cattle on both 15cm depth and 30cm depth of woodchip bedding showed increased average daily gain, hot standard carcase weight and other benefits as compared to the pens without woodchips," she said.
"The increase in carcase value more than compensated for the cost of using the woodchips."
Dr Tait said at the processing stage among other measurements taken, researchers were able to collect the cattle's adrenal glands, associated with the production of stress.
"The adrenal glands from the cattle with woodchip bedding were relatively lighter in weight than the animals without woodchip, indicating reduced chronic stress" she said.
The study used Bos taurus type cattle of varying breeds, including Hereford, Angus and Charolais, all aged between 12 and 18 months and an Eastern eucalypt hardwood type of woodchip bedding.
As part of the study, Dr Tait used a drone to fly over the pens of cattle on a weekly basis, monitoring whether cattle were standing up and lying down and if the presence of the woodchips affected their behaviour.
"The use of a drone was a novel and very effective way to collect the behaviour data, flown at particular heights as to not have an effect on the cattle," she said.
Dr Tait said they believed the results could be applied to the industry, but it was important for each feedlot to perform their own cost-benefit analysis when making decisions.
"We have to remember each feedlot would have different costs associated with the application of woodchips," she said.
"Further research needs to be done under commercial conditions (larger pens) to determine how the woodchips might affect morbidity and mortality."
Dr Tait said while there were no significant differences between the 15cm and the 30cm depths of woodchip, towards the end of the trial the cattle in the 15cm pens were sinking further into the pens surface.
"Further research may find that 30cm is a more suitable depth for a cattle being fed for a longer period of time," she said.