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Tips for starting calves on feed

Nutrition with John McKinnon

Retained ownership is a marketing strategy that is used to manage market risk. As opposed to selling weaned calves into a potentially depressed market, retaining ownership and selling at a later stage of production (i.e. as short or long yearlings, or even finished animals) offers the possibility to sell into a more favourable market, as well as to use low-cost feedstuffs to grow calves to heavier weights. In particular, as the industry has moved to later calving, more and more cow-calf producers are taking advantage of this marketing strategy. While retained ownership allows producers to transfer market risk, it does not eliminate it. If you plan to background calves, you need a marketing plan that includes not only a preferred marketing date but also one that identifies the target weight for each group of calves you are feeding. As well, you will need a feeding program that ensures that calves reach their target weight by the anticipated marketing date. In this column, I would like to address one aspect of the feeding program; that is starting calves on feed.

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Starting newly weaned calves is one of the major challenges that cattle feeders face. The issue revolves around the interplay between stress and low feed intake of these animals. Large feedlots are well acquainted with this interplay, as they are buying calves from a variety of market outlets and over multiple geographic locations. The resulting weaning, transportation and mixing stress can result in a significant disease challenge for these calves. This stress also compounds behavioural issues such as that of low feed intake due to unfamiliarity with feed bunks, water bowls and silage-based rations. To overcome these challenges, larger feedlots have well-designed receiving programs that cover both the health and nutritional management of their calves.

A mistake many cow-calf producers make, particularly those new to feeding, is thinking that their calves are immune to this weaning stress. These producers believe that since they are keeping their calves at home, there is minimal transportation and mixing issues. While the magnitude might be reduced, the fact is that calves retained for feeding will be under some degree of weaning stress and it is critical that cow-calf producers are prepared to manage the disease and feeding issues that can arise as a result of this stress. This includes working with your veterinarian and nutritionist to design vaccination and nutrition programs that focus on getting calves off to a quick and healthy start.

Perhaps the first question we should address in relation to the feeding program is what do we expect newly weaned calves to eat? Typically, the goal is to have weaned calves that are settled and eating well, consuming between 2.5 and 2.7 per cent of their body weight on a dry matter (DM) basis. For 500-lb. calves, this translates to about 13 lbs. of dry matter (i.e. 500 lbs. x 0.026 = 13 lbs. DM). If we are feeding a ration that is 60 per cent DM, then the goal would be to have the calves eating 22 lbs. of total mixed ration on an as fed basis (i.e. 13 lbs. DM/0.6).

In reality, newly weaned calves will eat anywhere from 1.25 to 2.25 per cent of their body weight (DM basis) or better, depending on the nature of the stress and disease challenge they face. Calves eating at 1.5 to 1.75 per cent of body weight or less are barely eating at a maintenance level.

In order to entice calves to eat, a common management practice is to provide access to long-stem grass or alfalfa/grass hay. Calves will readily recognize hay as a feed source and will fill up on it, a process that helps to stimulate rumen fermentation and feeding activity. Providing access to hay can be accomplished by draping it over feed bunks for the first day or two. On day two, you can start spreading the starter ration on top of the hay. This way when calves come to the bunk, they start consuming the starter ration as well as the hay. Over the next couple of days, you can start removing the hay and increasing the amount of starter ration, with the goal of reaching a dry matter intake of 2.5 to 2.7 per cent of body weight (DM basis).

While the above method of starting calves works well for smaller operations, it is labour intensive for large feedlots. In the latter case, hay feeders are commonly used to provide calves with access to hay upon arrival. When the calves move to their home pens, the starter ration is waiting for them in the feed bunk.

The makeup of the starter ration is also important for optimizing DM intake of weaned calves. Typically, starter rations are made up of 30 to 40 per cent concentrate (i.e. cereal grains), 55 to 65 per cent forage and five per cent supplement (DM basis). The forage component is primarily silage. However, chopped hay is often included as it can help calves get over the unfamiliar taste and odour of silage. One of the issues with this strategy, however, has been the price of hay, which can limit its inclusion level. In subsequent columns, we will look more closely at the makeup of the feeding program, as well as proper feeding management.

About the author

Contributor

John McKinnon is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and a consulting nutritionist who can be reached at [email protected].

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