Country Living Series

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Building feed boxes

Ever since Don built the awning on our barn last year, he's had another project in mind: to build feed boxes for the livestock.

Before we had the barn built, we fed the cattle in makeshift feed bins that didn't work well. Dominant animals pushed lower animals out of the way; and hay was wasted like crazy as the animals pulled it out of the boxes and onto the ground where it was trampled and soiled.

Even worse was back in the days when we simply free-fed. Nothing is better for wasting tremendous amounts of hay. The animals gorge, then they lay in the hay and chew their cud, then stand up and poop and pee all over their food, then they tear into new hay. Baaaaad.

In short, we needed proper feed boxes for maximum efficiency and minimal wastage.

Don had this project in mind as his primary undertaking this fall. But first we had to deal with a few issues.

Since we merely fed over the fence into the awning all last winter, we had a tremendous build-up of compacted hay and manure (yet another testimony to the inefficiency of this method of feeding). Because the awning protects this buildup from weather, the hay was nowhere near composting, which might have made it easier to remove.

It was a surprisingly complex issue of how to get that compacted hay out from under the awning. Sure we could pitchfork it wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow out to the compost pile, but that would take, literally, weeks. A tractor bucket was useless because the bucket couldn't "stab" the mats in order to lift it out -- it merely pushed it more because it was one gigantic mat 36 feet across and twelve feet wide.

What needed to happen was to get the matted hay cut into smaller, more manageable (and "liftable") pieces so they could be lifted with a tractor. So what did my brilliant husband do? He used a saws-all!

Yes, he literally cut the mat of hay/manure into pieces. He admits it was an experiment, but boy howdy did it work beautifully.

He used his beefiest blade and had to stop and clean it off every so often, but he sawed his way through the entire matted area beneath the awning in blocks about three feet square. Love this guy. He's so durn smart.

The loosened mats allowed him to hitch up the manure bucket on our old tractor, and "stab" the hay out. (An old-fashioned manure bucket has prongs on the bucket.)

He deposited the matted hay and manure onto a pile at the edge of the woods. Now it can start composting.

This is what the project looked like near the beginning.

And this is what it looked like at the end, when he could no longer use the tractor because the bucket was "pushing" rather than "scooping."

This is the resulting compost pile. Impressive, no?

After this, it was hand-work -- pitching the manure into a wheelbarrow and trundling it to the compost pile. Fortunately the stuff was so loosened up by this point that it wasn't hard, just time-consuming. He roped the girls in as well (he pitched, they trundled).

Once the bulk of the matted hay/manure was out of the way, the next step was to install stout boards across the base of the awning. These boards will support the feed box slats and keep the hay from falling through.

Naturally the chickens thought all the disruptions (which revealed loads of worms) were strictly for their benefit.

The boards were bolted to angle iron braces. He later screwed a piece of wood at the exposed top of each brace so the animals wouldn't stab or scrape themselves on the sharp corner of the iron.

Don also installed boards four feet above the ground to hold the upper part of the slats.

Then came a critical part -- the slats through which the cattle would put their heads to eat from the feed boxes. Don did all kinds of research on how wide the slats should be and concluded the best distance was 13inches (horizontally). To make sure the slats were identical across the width the barn, he built a jig.

When laid across the top and bottom boards, he could mark where the slats should go.

He bought some 2x6's...

...cut them to the correct length...

...and bolted them top and bottom to the stout boards.

Before installing the slats the entire width of the barn , we tested them out on a few critters to see if they were too wide or too narrow. Perfect fit.

Encouraged, he installed slats across the whole width of the barn under the awning.

Then it was time to build the feed boxes themselves. A critical part is the angled backside that will hold hay. To brace these at the bottom, Don first cut, then chiseled, slots at a 45 degree angle on pressure-treated boards.

This will brace the OSB sheets so they won't slide around.

Then he built a series of triangular brackets (with the chiseled pressure-treated boards at the bottom) to support the feed box backs.

The base of the triangle rests right in front of the angled groove.

Here's some more brackets, half-made.

He bracketed the triangle to the baseboard.

Brackets, loosely set up.

Where necessary, he braced up the brackets where the ground is uneven. Eventually we'll pour concrete footers for permanent bases.

Then we slid sheets of OSB into place, braced at the bottom by the chiseled grooves. OSB has a rough side and a "shiny" side. We put the shiny side facing up so hay could slide down it more easily.

Don braced the OSB with 2x4s at top and bottom, making it solid as a rock.

Then he built end caps. The cap at the far end is removable so we can walk into the feed boxes if necessary.

View from above.

We had no idea how the cattle would handle the slatted feed boxes. None of them had ever seen one before, with the possible exception of Matilda who came from a commercial dairy.

Well oh my, after a few bewildered minutes they took to it like ducks to water.

Despite all the research and effort Don put into these feed boxes, we had no way of knowing how well they would work. There were intangible aspects to consider, most notably the pecking order of the cattle and how much they would jostle each other.

We've learned a few valuable things. For example, our dominant herd matriarch, Jet, has horns and isn't afraid to use them against lesser cattle. My concern was she would walk around and stab beasties in the butt while they were trying to eat.

In fact the opposite has occurred. It's a bit more difficult for Jet to negotiate her horns between the slats, so once she's there, she stays there. While occupied, other animals can eat without worrying about her. When she pulls her head out, many of the other animals pull their heads out as well, to keep a wary eye on her. So the incidences of aggression and dominance have dwindled.

In fact they've dwindled so much that we may keep Jet longer than planned. Earlier this year we made the difficult decision to butcher our other herd matriarch, Ruby, because she was so aggressive to other animals. We were considering the same fate for Jet if she proved too ornery with the feed boxes. Now it doesn't look like it will be necessary.

Another advantage is the less dominant animals eat better. Before this, when we were just tossing hay over the fence onto the ground, the dominant animals would eat what they wanted, and more often than not lay down, and later urinate or defecate, on whatever was left over. Less dominant animals had to pick their way around the soiled hay.

Most animals managed okay, but I always fed Matilda separately. Poor Matilda is bottom on the totem pole, so I often spoiled her by putting her in a separate pen at night with a nice pile of hay just for herself, to make sure she got enough to eat.

Now Matilda still hangs back, letting the dominant animals eat first...

...but then she can come in later and eat as much as she wants. There's more food because nothing is getting spoiled by being trampled on.

It seems almost as if the feed boxes have had a "civilizing" effect on the cattle. They no longer make a mad feeding-frenzy trample for the food at feeding time -- they politely (well, mostly) jockey for position and quietly eat. They can eat throughout the day, not just mornings and evenings, since there's almost always something available to snack on. Currently there are twelve animals (including the calves) with access to the feed boxes, and we've seen as many as ten at a time eating -- with good manners!

The amount of wasted hay is staggeringly decreased. After FIVE DAYS of using the feed boxes, this is all that got tossed on the ground:

The hay that remains in the feed boxes doesn't get wet, doesn't get trampled, doesn't get soiled, and doesn't get compressed. It remains fresh and good for the animals to eat throughout the day. And I actually do a little happy dance when a cow starts to urinate while eating -- because she's not fouling her food!

One thing Don did throughout the construction process was make everything replaceable. Over the years of owning cattle, we’ve learned the hard way how rough they can be on infrastructure. By making the parts of the feed boxes replaceable, if a board or sheet of OSB or slat gets damaged, he can replace it without a great deal of trouble.

We simply cannot get over how wonderful these feed boxes are. Frequently we'll wander over and just watch the animals eat, big grins on our faces. They are a 110% success!!


  1. Thanks for moving on Patrice. I was getting a bit chewed up.
    My sweet, Irish wife told me last night that if I didn't stop putting on weight eating her wonderful food that she was going to buy me one of those tricked-out bras so I had a place to stuff my little .380.

    1. Myles, I'm curious why you never apologized for the outrageous Confederate Flag comment . You had plenty of opportunity to walk it back. Instead you are still playing the victim and won't man up and express regret for your thoughtless post. As the Veteran who pointed out your slight yesterday. I would happily extend my hand and say we all make mistakes and go from there. I believe everyone has right to express there opinion. No matter how asinine . With that freedom also comes one taking responsibility for the ideas they wish to express and the repercussions associated with inappropriate comments most of us found objectionable. I for one welcome you as long as you understand that most of the people on this site are here because civility and fellowship is a common theme that attracted us here to Patrices site. We left the cynical world of the Bill mahers and mainstream trash that turns our stomachs .This site is our escape to a nicer kinder place. I will ask again . are you willing to retract and apologize for your Confederate Flag stereotyping comment . If so than I will personally welcome you as friend instead of as an instigator . Your call. I'm sure the others who are of like mind will do the same if we a see a demonstration of character worthy of a one who calls themselves a Marine. All Marines I know are always marines. It doesn't stop when ones Enlistment is done. Myles whether you like it or not you earned the comments you recieved yesterday. No one treated you badly . I commend the other posters for remaining so calm. So if you feel chewed up ,remember who pulled the ears on the sleeping dog. Were tired of the lefts stereotyping .

    2. May I have your name Anonymous?

    3. My Name is available after I see an acknowledgement on your part that you said something incredibly offensive that you regret. I don't deal with Trolls Myles. I have no way of Knowing that you are Myles. And I sure don't have confidence that I'm dealing with a Marine. The Apology I asked of you wasn't just for my benefit . It was for all the members on the Site .Especially to Patrice who graciously shared these young peoples very private wedding with us. The apology is to everyone.

    4. Well Anonymous, it seems that we have reached an
      impasse. I have no idea who you are or where you come from. To be lectured and talked down to by
      someone such as yourself who won't even identify herself is beyond my patience. I did my best to honestly explain and express my personal feelings and how I came by them. So if you are not satisfied, you are more than welcome to extend your hand to someone else who will play your little game. Adio's my friend. I'm sure that you will have more to rant about on your next post.

    5. Spoken like a true troll, Thought so.

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. Dear Anonymous - As a full blooded Norwegian, I feel your negative slight against trolls is not only repugnant
      but also morally degrading. The persona of the troll is
      dearly loved by all of the children of Norway and has been a mainstay of the Norwegian culture for centuries. Your flip remarks are made in the most callous manner without even the slightest regard
      for a proud national heritage. I am calling upon you to come forth behind your mask of anonymity, reveal
      yourself, and apologize not only to me as a proud Norwegian but to all of the good people of Norway.
      ------- Myles Soren Walsvig

  2. What a lovely solution to every animal keeper's problem. Congratulations. DMc

  3. Congrats on the success.
    I was hoping you would post pictures of the feed box build operation and boy did you come through.

    The whole setup looks like some mighty fine engineering there.

  4. Fantastic. What a relief going forward. Am wondering if Don could give some of the numbers for those of us that would like to do something similar. Thank you and congratulations, job well done.

  5. Well done!!

    What a difference a little 'want to' and some 'smarts' can make!

    I love your husband, Mrs. Lewis. :)

    I've just designed some hay baskets for my sheep, easily refilled and
    very portable. They can be suspended from above or hung on the fence, and it's made a huge difference.

    I'd love to have a permanent feeder like Don has built.

    A. McSp

  6. This is a really good and ingenious construction. You did a nice job of it -- and it *looks* good, too, which should be more considered in a world that's so much abandoned craft integrity. I've taken mental notes to do the same if I ever have cattle. Thank-you for the good idea.

  7. As a boy back on the farm in Illinois we had mangers for the hay and very little was wasted. During the winter the cows and calves were kept in under cover and this worked well with minimal waste. Here in Texas the cattle stay in a pasture all year and the hay is fed from the large round bales. These are usually enclosed inside a round metal hay feeder but they waste a lot of hay. Many small farmers do not even use the metal containers and just feed directly on the ground. There is a lot of waste this way and it is not unusual to see a large mound 2 ft deep of the wasted hay in the spring. I never understood why they do not have a better way to feed the beasts during the winter but there is usually some graze left even in the winter. Glad to see that the tractor is running again. If I may suggest find some non ethanol gas for the tractor and other small engine devises as it will keep them running much longer. Try this site to find a source near you.

  8. Thrilled it's working!! So much labor saved for you...

    **BIG smiles**

  9. It looks like you are getting more efficient in your cattle operation. Waste not want not is what my Grandmother always taught me. I always enjoy reading your blog, you are doing things I always wanted to do but do to my wife's health that is not an option. God Bless you in all you lay your hand to.

  10. This system is very common down here in TX. If you go to old barns you'll commonly see what Don has done, using tree branches instead of boards and at the big dairies I've worked at they are made of metal set in concrete.

    Question: why wasn't Jet dehorned? Would using naturally polled breeds help cut down on injury from aggression? Just curious.

    1. The ladies were about a year old when we got them and they had horns at that time. Beyond a certain age it's tricky to remove horns (although I now know banders might work). A polled breed would certainly cut down on injuries and there are polled Dexters out there... but they cost a fortune.

      - Patrice

    2. Come down to Missouri and you will find decent deals on polled Dexters, or better yet, get a heterozygous polled Dexter bull and then most if not all of his offspring will be polled. That's what we recently purchased. A Dexter bull with 4 polled heifers.

    3. I understand what your saying about their age. Not to mention that replacement cattle are expensive. My husband's uncle had to replace some of his herd after the drought we had here in TX and it ran him around $50,000. Ouch!

  11. Love the awesome feeder that Don built! Just curious if it is working ok for your horse to get its head in and out without any trouble as well. We have both horses and cows and would love to build something like this soon.
    Thanks J

    1. Our horse is actually still on the other side of our property, sharing space with a neighbor's horses. We did put in one slot that was wider than the others so hopefully it will work for the horse. Time will tell.

      - Patrice

  12. Efficient use of feed stocks will really put you ahead Mrs. Lewis.

    As with your other prepper-ops you've got a way to 'Bug-in' and do it with a purpose if necessary.

    With all the happenings SE of you, hopefully the winter will keep it there.


  13. Fantastic! We need to build something as well. We usually put hay on the ground and it gets wasted PLUS I have wool sheep who get it all in their fleece.

  14. We are needing this solution too, as we finish up our winter feeding barn. I had no idea what words to "google" to start coming up with some sort of how to. Do you think 13" would work for slightly larger beefers (angus, hereford, crosses)? They'll be sharing with sheep and calves but that hasn't been a problem previously.

    1. 13 inches might be a bit small. We tested our bull (who has a wider head) and he couldn't negotiate the racks. You might try, say, 15" and see what happens. Start with just a couple at first in case they're too wide or too narrow.

      - Patrice

    2. This is great timing. We're starting to fight weather here in WNY and my projects list is still a bit long. For this part we're trying to figure out 12' or 24' (or most likely 2x12), and how to make it as movable as you seem to have accomplished. Growing up in CA didn't exactly prepare me for this! I do think 15" would be a better starting point for us, so thanks for commenting back.

  15. Nicely done Don. Given the Cost of hay or putting it up, One needs to salvage as much feed as possible with such a sizable herd. Thanks for sharing Patrice.

  16. This post really made me smile. When I was a very young lad, my siblings, cousins and I were playing in the barn at my Great Grandparent's farm. They had a feeding chute like this that could be fed from a trap door in the hay loft. My oldest cousin fell into the chute and got hung up for what seemed like ten hysterical minutes, as cows nuzzled him and chewed on his pant leg. Finally an uncle managed to free him from his predicament. One of my fondest memories - thank you for reminding me.

  17. I'll bet your chickens will enjoy getting in the hay box when the big hay bits get eaten up so they can peck at the chaff and leaves.

  18. Hi Don - You are an amazing man and I can fully understand why Patrice is so proud of you. What you have both accomplished is totally amazing. No matter what the background was that you have alluded to, you represent at least to me, how a righteous Christian man and husband should act. Although I try, I will never come close, but it's reassuring to me that a few individuals have succeeded.

    1. Hi Myles - Thanks for the nice words. But you've placed me on a pedestal that I don't deserve. I most certainly have not succeeded in righteousness. Nor has anyone else who ever walked the earth, save one. Brother, the fact that you say that you try makes us equal in every respect before God. You, me, and everyone else are tried daily by God's court and are found guilty; and rightly so. But we have been told that despite our inescapable imperfections, we have been given a "get out of jail free" card by being washed in the blood of the Lamb: God's Word made flesh. I'm as bad a sinner as I ever was in God's eye. But because of the gift of the Son, freely given and gratefully accepted, I "shall not perish but have eternal life." Since I believe you've accepted that same gift, you've succeeded every bit as well as me and all our other brothers and sisters in Christ. Keep trying to please God. I will too. It's the least we can do for the Son's sacrifice and our salvation. Peace Brother.

    2. Thanks Don. Lately, I feel that I have been going backwards instead of forward. I've been through the whole gamut. Like most Norwegians I started out Lutheran, then Evangelical Free, American Baptist, and finally Methodist. Even some Buddhist studies on the side when I was in Japan. Now the only exposure that I'm getting is when I take my Irish sweetheart to Mass on Saturday evenings. My problem is that I have always been a history buff and it seems that the more I study about the actual origins of the Church the less I believe. I was much better off when I just accepted everything on faith alone as a child would. Oh well, it always seems like my spiritual walk has been cyclical instead of progressive so who knows what's around the corner. Thank you so much for your kind reply my friend. Your feed boxes are par excellence. Semper Fi

    3. Myles--Try "Evidence That Demands A Verdict" by Josh McDowell.

    4. HI Robert - I've read it, but will try to find it among my books and give it a reread. Thanks

  19. If your chickens are like ours they will start laying in the hay boxes.

  20. Nice work Don! I couldn't resist chiming in on Patrice's comment about how "DURN" smart you are. Well golly gee, the man is Left Handed, we're the only ones in our right minds!

  21. Well now I know what I'm doing next time I can't get a "mat" of old hay up from the barn! Thanks Patrice!

  22. Hey you all did a wonderful job, but maybe watch out for the
    chickens. We were going to insulate our chicken coop this winter,
    but haven't gotten around to it yet. We were told not to use ose
    board as such the chickens will pick at the glue in the boards. I am
    not sure if the chickens are allow around the cattle. but that may be a concern.

  23. I think I missed it. Why are the slats set on an angle?

    1. I asked Don to explain and here's what he said. The angled slats actually keep the cows' bodies perpendicular to the feed boxes (seems counter-intuitive, but it actually works). This way the cows don't block the other slats with their bodies and keep other animals from being able to eat. Instead, they can eat side by side.

      Also, as demonstrated by our dominant cow Jet, it's a little harder for the animals to get their heads through the angled slats; so once they're there, they tend to stay there. This is especially useful with dominant animals. They're preoccupied with eating, not pushing other animals out of the way. When Jet has her head in a slat, the other critters can eat in peace without having to keep a wary eye on her all the time.

      One more benefit is it's harder for the animals to pull hay OUT of the feed box if they have to negotiate it through angled slats. So the amount of hay wastage goes way down.

      - Patrice

  24. As far as the compacted hay and manure in the addition/loafing area where your herd hangs out, I would urge you to consider Joel Salatin's method of scattering feed corn periodically so that it works it's way down into and between the layers. He keeps pigs and periodically turns them loose in his cattle loafing shed where he does this. The pigs go after the corn which they can smell down underneath all the mess, they root after it so aggressively that they turn over the compacted stuff and really make it loose.
    Plus you'd get some really good pork!