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Nutrition – for Oct. 4, 2010

It is the time of year when cow-calf operators typically wean their calves and make marketing decisions. The majority will be sold through auction markets and subsequently placed on growing programs in feedlots across the country. With the trend to spring calving, we also see more cow-calf producers retaining ownership and backgrounding their calves over winter.

For those feeding calves this winter, getting them off to a good start will be one of your biggest challenges. Consider what these calves have been through. Most have been weaned, mixed, transported and processed. They may not have seen feed for 24 to 48 hours. Now that you have them in the pen, they are expected to find the feed bunk and water bowl. In addition to a new environment, these calves are faced with a variety of bacterial and viral challenges that challenge the immune system and predispose them to a variety of diseases. In short these calves are “stressed.”

It should not come as a surprise that one of the first signs of this stress is poor feed consumption. It is not unusual to see a pen of newly weaned calves eating at a rate of 1.5 to 1.75 per cent of body weight (or less) when our goal is to have them at 2.5 per cent or better. To put this in perspective, a 500-pound calf at 1.5 per cent of body weight is only eating 7.5 pounds of dry matter when we want it at 12.5 pounds. At this low end, it is no wonder that these calves get sick! It is important to remember that the health and nutrition programs are inter-related. Stressed calves that are not eating are more likely to get sick than those that went on feed quickly. It is for this reason that we must focus our efforts on getting calves off to a good start.

Our first concern is to ensure that these calves have something to fill up on. The standard way to start calves is to provide them on arrival access to good quality grass or alfalfa/grass hay, preferably hay that has not been processed to any great extent. An ideal way of feeding hay is to drape or shred it into feed bunks. Calves not familiar with bunks will recognize the hay and come up to eat it. Some feeders use hay feeders in receiving pens so calves have quick and easy access. Hay should be fed in this manner for three to five days and then withdrawn as consumption of the starter ration increases.

The starter ration can be fed as early as day 1. Many feeders will feed 2.5 to five pounds of the starter per head, top dressed on the hay (i. e.

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0.5 to 1.0 per cent of body weight). The starter ration typically consists of 55 to 65 per cent forage, 30 to 40 per cent grain and three to five per cent supplement (dry matter basis). The forage should be processed to ensure proper mixing and to prevent sorting. While silage can be fed to new calves, the amount should be limited as calves do not readily take to silage-dominated rations. One rule of thumb is to maintain dry matter content of the ration at a minimum of 50 to 55 per cent. This will restrict the amount of silage that can be fed. Barley grain should be dry or temper rolled while corn is typically dry rolled or stem flaked depending on the program. Nutrient specifications for the starter ration at the University of Saskatchewan include crude protein at 12.5 to 13.5 per cent, calcium at 0.5 to 0.6 per cent and phosphorus at 0.3 per cent of ration dry matter. Higher protein levels tend to compensate for lower feed intakes. Ideally the starter supplement is based on a natural protein source and is formulated to provide all essential trace minerals, vitamins A, D and E and any feed additives such as an antibiotic, ionophore or coccidiostat.

Feed intake of newly weaned calves should increase rapidly over the first two weeks on feed. However, once their intake reaches two per cent of body weight (dry matter basis) further increases should be limited to a maximum of 10 per cent of the previous day’s consumption. Calves should be given two or more days at the higher feeding level before making further increases. As the animals approach full feed, make smaller changes if bunks remain empty. Moving cattle onto feed in a consistent, gradual fashion is one key to keeping intakes high over the entire feeding period.

Once your calves are eating the starter ration at 2.5 per cent of body weight or better, you are ready to move to the next step of your feeding program. This might involve moving to a designated backgrounding ration for medium-frame calves or in the case of heavier, larger-framed animals, moving through a step-up program to the final finishing ration.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules that guarantee success for getting calves on feed. Working with your nutritionist and veterinarian to develop a well designed receiving/ starter program will help you get your calves get off to the best possible start. In many cases, these programs will be a combination of both the art and science of cattle feeding!


JohnMcKinnon isabeefcattle nutritionistat theUniversityof Saskatchewan

About the author


John McKinnon

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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