Ridley Block Operations Interview: Block nutrition innovations lead to new applications, improvements in environmental sustainability
An interview with Dan Dhuyvetter
The following is an edited transcript of our interview with Dan Dhuyvetter, director of nutrition services, R&D and marketing for Ridley Block Operations.
To listen to our entire conversation with Dan, click on the player.
Can you start by telling us a little bit about why grazing management is important to the cattle industry?
The grasslands, or forage base, are the largest nutritional input for beef cattle operations, primarily within the cow-calf sector. Being the largest component of their diet, managing the forage properly becomes very important in terms of your herd production level as well as the economic returns from the land.
What are some ways that people can implement a successful grazing management program?
There are a number of different steps for improving forage management. Primarily, if you take a look at the grasslands, you want to make sure there is ample forage for cattle grazing, and all considerations should be given for managing the forage resource. When you manage cattle on grass, you want to take a look at the season of forage production, particularly when the forage or grasses are actively growing.
Then, how is it that you can optimize how that forage is harvested by your livestock? We often see certain areas within a location of a pasture that are not utilized or are underutilized in terms of the cattle. They don’t tend to go there for different reasons. They may not prefer the grass species that’s there or the terrain might be a little too rugged for them to actually get there. Some of the ways you can take a look at that, and we have done considerable research in this area, are by using block supplements, very palatable supplements that cattle seek out, and place those supplements in those areas and improve the forage utilization. We have seen as high as 15 percent improvement in the utilization of grasses in those locations that normally go underutilized, and now they are actually being harvested by the cattle. That’s in terms of up to a 600-yard or 600-meter radius from where you place those supplements.
There is certainly an environmental impact to this as well. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, in terms of impacting the environment by locating the supplements that you provide, one of the strongest things is as an attractant to those supplements. Cattle want to spend time by them. If you have grasslands that have waterways in them, or what a lot of people refer to as riparian areas, they (cattle) can do damage to the stream banks if they spend a lot of time down in those areas. Cattle tend to migrate there unless you give them a reason to stay off those areas by moving supplements further up out in the grasslands, where you want to have the cattle grazing. You can help protect those sensitive areas in terms of the environment.
The other thing that happens is, if you can better utilize the entire forage base, you just optimize your production from that land resource. You get more utilization of your forage base by using these supplements and putting them in strategic locations throughout your pasture.
You even have a block technology, the BioBarrel®, that is completely biodegradable. Want to talk a little bit about that as well?
Oftentimes, in placement of supplements, one of the battles producers face is the containers those supplements are in. What we have developed is a degradable container that, basically as the cattle consume the supplement, the container disappears or just goes away. There is no need to go back and pick it up; it just degrades into the environment.
Some of those containers are actually consumed by the cattle because it is fiber-based. Ruminant animals have that ability to digest fiber, so they can consume the container and there are no problems with it.
And there are no concerns with rain?
No. One of the things we did in the past couple of years is we introduced a technology called WeatherAll®, which is a (food-grade) wax coating that is put on during the manufacturing process of the container. What that wax coating does is it really prevents any sort of seepage or moisture from coming into the container during weather events like heavy rainfall periods or even slow drizzle-type rains. That container stays in place and holds the supplements as it is supposed to and, again, it matches it to the degradation rate that the supplement disappears.
Speaking of weather events, I want to segue to a recent article I read about the FAO using blocks as part of disaster recovery plans in certain countries. Do you want to comment a little bit about that and how blocks could be used as an operations plan for pending weather events or in recovery efforts?
Mother Nature is always an issue that livestock producers have to work with, and the uncertainty of what’s going to happen is one of those occurrences where preparedness is your best friend. For supplements you can put out in the environment, especially if there is a pending weather event that’s coming, you are able to get that nutrition out there where cattle can actually access it, given an event that may come and you can’t get to them in a timely fashion. Being able to place (block) supplements out in the environment (that are consumed over days and weeks at a time), where the cattle are can certainly help so you’re not scrambling after the (weather) event to try to get those cattle fed.
You mentioned WeatherAll®. What are some other new technologies, or are there other new technologies in blocks?
There are always different ways for supplements to be fed. The traditional or conventional way is to try and look at what is in the diet of these grazing ruminants and find out what it is you can provide to improve their efficiency. Over the years, actual use of the blocks supplements has started to broaden out, and using the blocks for grazing management, moving cattle around, has been something in more recent years that has been developed.
Additionally, using block supplements in confinement feeding — normally you think you bring all of the diet to those animals, why would you need a free-choice supplement? We have done work with the University of Wisconsin where we actually can provide low-moisture block supplement to dairy cows. The cows are high-producing dairy cows that are at risk, because of being fed high-starch diets, of subacute ruminal acidosis. By providing these blocks supplements that have buffering and alkalinizing agents in them, plus the ability for the cows to start licking the supplements to provide more buffering through their saliva production, we are able to help hold those cows (from reaching metabolic acidosis). We’ve got good documented proof, and actually a patent that’s been accepted, that it will hold them out of this acidosis condition. You maintain the health of the cow and improve milk production.
Another area is (a direct result of) the palatability on these blocks being so great and cattle and livestock seek them out. When you start calves on feed, one of the biggest issues they have is just getting them up to the feed bunk and wanting them to consume feed. By providing a palatable low-moisture block supplement, we can get calves encouraged to lick that supplement and then that stimulates their appetite to get on feed quicker. We have been able to cut death loss and calves’ mortality in half and improve average daily gains by at least a quarter of a pound a day. There are different applications to the blocks that we see beyond the traditional “just supply the deficient nutrient and move on.”
That’s fascinating, Dan, and very exciting. Before we wrap up, is there anything you would like to add about the future of block technology?
I think that the future of the block technology is extremely bright because of the flexibility of the different sizes and packaging material we are able to start utilizing within the delivery of blocks. Then also the broadening out to other species like wildlife and some of the things we can do to help on the environment side. We recognize that greenhouse gas emissions, or methane production, by ruminant animals has been singled out as a culprit. For us to help improve the fermentation efficiency, we can help limit how much of the greenhouse gasses — methane — are produced (by improving fiber digestion through self-fed supplementation on pastures). From our perspective, we think there is a great chance for us to utilize these free-choice or self-fed blocks to help improve those efficiencies and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions.
A very exciting future indeed. Thanks, Dan.
Dan Dhuyvetter spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference 2016. Audio recordings of most talks, including Dan’s, are now available on the Alltech Idea Lab. For access, click on the button below.