Caring for the little ones

The pros and cons of smaller calves in the feedyards

by Terri Queck-Matzie

Faced with brown, barren pastures and dried up waterholes, cattle producers in the South are exercising one of the few options at their disposal – placing calves in the feedyard at a very young age.

“When forage supplies get tight, it’s a matter of priorities for the cow/calf producer,” says Dr. Michael Brown, Ph.D., a professor at West Texas A&M specializing in feedlot cattle nutrition. “The priority is to retain the factory – the mother cows – and that means selling off the non-pregnant animals.”

To do that, producers are weaning calves as early as possible, a move that alleviates stress on pastures, and changes the nutritional needs of cows.
It also changes the feeding strategy for the calves. “They may have seen hay, but not many have seen a feed bunk,” Brown says of calves that may have been weaned as young as 45-100 days. Making the move to the feedyard a smooth transition is key. Brown says it is important to model the environment from whence they came as much as possible.

For calves, Brown says bunk hay, or in some cases a round bale in the pen, is a great incentive to get them to eat, and then exposed to a ration.

“There are a wide variety of by-products available to feed,” says Brown, “and which one is used will depend mostly on availability and cost.” Corn gluten feed, for example, is rumen friendly, according to Brown, and where available, generally cost effective. “It has less starch, and can be used to reduce forage needs,” he adds.

The main goal is to reduce the trauma of transport and the days without food and water, and get the calves’ hunger mechanism started. Young calves generally stay on a starter ration until health stabilizes (Brown says they tend to see few health issues by around 45 days in the lot), then are shifted to a finishing ration. “That, of course, depends on economics,” he adds.

It also depends on health.

“There’s a tendency to want to move them to the top ration as soon as possible,” says Brown, “but it’s best to keep their feed the same until they get through the health issues.” He says the 45-day mark is important for health, and a key reason why most preconditioning programs use it.

Until then, it can be touchy. “It’s just like a daycare or elementary school,” explains Brown. “Viruses spread from animal to animal.” Respiratory problems are the main culprit. “For calves at high risk of respiratory disease, 30-40 percent will likely be treated for respiratory disease at least one time.”

That not only means medical expense, but also time away from the feed bunk, another reason to keep the young ones on a starter ration through the adjustment period. “Every time they go off feed, it causes the organisms in the rumen to transform a bit,” explains Brown, “and every time that happens it can be like a ration change, so it’s best to keep the food supply steady.”

He adds one of the good things about the drought is that lightweight calves tend to be a little older. A 600 lb. calf will likely be older than under normal conditions, and that means a more robust immune system.

But with a good vaccination program, calves generally do well, and as long as they stay healthy, there is high expectation for the end product.

“You’re likely to see an increase in carcass quality,” says Brown. They tend to have improved feed efficiency and studies have shown marbling increases the earlier a calf is placed on a corn-based ration.

Time in the feedyard also provides increased opportunity to manage implants over the animal’s lifetime. Most calves will receive two to three implants, with a lower dose at the lighter weights, increasing as the animal gains pounds.

The dry weather conditions also provide unexpected benefits. Lots remain dry and free of mud, and snowstorms are few, making for optimum feeding conditions.

“With the right procedures and the willingness to adjust and deal with what’s there, these calves can perform very well,” says Brown. “It’s a matter of giving them the opportunity to reach their genetic potential.”    ©

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