Starting Right

By: Terri Queck-Matzie

Every day counts when cattle are putting on pounds for harvest. Every bite, every morsel, every calorie. Getting calves headed down the path to heavy gains can be a challenge, and depends on getting a sound start.

It takes good nutrition and an awareness of the adjustments calves are required to make.

“In a perfect world calves will come from a source with a good, solid vaccination program and are familiar with the feedlot and water tank,” says Dr. Matthew Quinn, technical services nutritionist for Zoetis. “That would be ideal, but certainly isn’t always the case.” The vaccination program is key to minimizing the effects of new-arrival stress.

Stockers wanting to ensure their animals remain profitable down the line should look to their preconditioning program. Research (Avent et al., 2004) shows preconditioned calves have 1.5 percent death loss, compared to 4.3 percent nonpreconditioned; and 36 percent of nonpreconditioned calves require medical treatment, compared to 9 percent that are preconditioned. In addition, preconditioned calves show improved average daily gain and feed conversion. “That means fewer pounds of feed per pound of gain,” says Dr. Matt Luebbe, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Feedlot Specialist. “And a better chance of grading Choice or higher (50.4 vs. 35.8 percent).”

Luebbe says the source of the cattle should be one of the prime considerations when purchasing calves. Risk of problems increases greatly with cattle with unknown sources, shipping conditions, and undocumented preconditioning protocols.

Quinn says it’s also important to have a sound mineral program in place for cows and calves. “Transport can cause a loss of key trace minerals and vitamins. Cow/calf and stocker operations can improve immunity and nutritional status by supplying adequate vitamins and minerals prior to shipping.”

Once at the feedyard, water takes center stage. “You need to be sure there is adequate clean, fresh water,” says Quinn. “A calf that can’t drink won’t eat.”

Multiple sources are desirable if possible, and, while it might be messy, letting the water trickle down the side might help young calves unfamiliar with the water tank identify the water source. Water placed near the edge of the pen may be easier for calves to find than in the center of the lot, especially if newly weaned and walking the fences. You will also want to consider whether or not a calf has had experience with automatic devices. And take into account the height of the calves. Make sure water sources are at their level.

Likewise, plenty of bunk space, at least 12-18 inches per head, will help those who are not “bunk broke” by eliminating the need to jockey for position.

Feeding loose, long-stem hay can entice calves to the bunk. “It’s a familiar feed source,” says Quinn. “They’re used to consuming it.” Some feedyards are able to provide limited grazing during the transition, with adequate supplementation, of course. Those fed for a time on pasture show a lower average daily gain, but only half the pulls for respiratory treatment because of decreased disease pressure on the animals. The roughage also promotes healthy rumen, especially important for young calves adjusting to a new diet.

“The first rule is get them up and eating,” says Luebbe, “and if they have the correct nutrition they have a better chance of performing.”

Once they’re eating, Quinn says the best ration is nutrient rich, balanced, and fortified. “It should have a higher than normal concentration of crude protein, and be high in energy to account for initial lower feed intake during the receiving period.” The energy source may vary, depending on what best complements the feedyard operation. Wheat, barley, high moisture or steam flaked corn make good sources.

Distiller’s grains can be a good source, with availability increasing in most regions. WDGs are high in energy and protein, but may be unfamiliar, and therefore unappetizing, to young calves. Pellets can be costly. But they are options worthy of consideration.

High quality legumes can provide a desirable supplement, but beware of scouring. Luebbe suggests starting at 1-1.5 percent of body weight, depending on cattle type.

Timing of feeding can matter as well. Consider feeding twice a day if possible, adjusting feed amounts according to consumption. It’s important to not let feed sit in the bunk and spoil. Likewise, you don’t want to provide too little feed. If calves aggressively run to the bunk, it’s a sign they’re hungry and want to consume more. Twice a day feedings can help control calf rumen pH levels and reduce the risk of acidosis.

Whatever the feed source, ration conditioners will enhance the nutritional value.

“Your nutritionist can help determine which of his/her products can best be utilized to meet your needs,” says Quinn. Aside from enhancing nutrition, any number of products on the market can help fight BRD, parasites, coccidiosis, and other health problems. Zoetis has seen success in increasing feed intake in the first seven days for severely stressed feedyard calves by as much as 45 percent, and feed efficiency in the first 28 days by up to 26 percent. “He or she will know what’s available at the best cost in your geographic area to help control disease threats and jump-start average daily gain.”

He says the starter ration may very well be the most expensive menu offered. Much emphasis is placed on the performance ration, but the starter ration is what sets the tone for future gains.

Working with your nutritionist and veterinarian is essential. And that includes having a plan in place before the calves arrive at the feedyard. “People do this on the health side of things, but they often forget to include a plan for nutrition,” says Quinn. “And it is essential to getting calves up and eating as quickly as possible.”

In addition, Quinn stresses good management practices. Making sure pens are clean upon calf arrival, and the environment is comfortable. Pads and aprons should be easily accessible and mud-free, making it desirable to approach the bunk.

Animal handling is crucial as well. Naïve calves unfamiliar with people and feedyard activity require extra care and calm. That special care upon arrival can ultimately mean dollars in your pocket.

“Everyone wants to give cattle the best opportunity to perform and stay healthy,” says Quinn, “and that means giving them a sound start.”

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