Ease the transition from farm to feedlot

Written by Dr. Jim White on .

When calves go from the farm to the feedlot, the transition can be quite stressful. Both weaning and shipping stress the animal, and then they are subjected to a new and different environment. Freshly weaned calves are more susceptible to respiratory disease and nutrition-related illness than preconditioned calves that have been given vaccinations, a nutritional background and time to adjust to weaning before being shipped to a new location. In fact, freshly weaned calves have double the treatment costs at the feedyard than preconditioned calves, which have lower rates of morbidity and mortality.

A preconditioning program starts before weaning. Many calves receive their first round of vaccinations at “branding,” around 60 to 100 days of age. The recommended vaccinations are outlined in the MFA Health Track program. These vaccinations should be repeated 14 to 21 days before weaning to provide higher antibody titers, a measure of the concentration of antibodies in the blood. These vaccinations help the immune system be ready to face diseases the calf is likely to encounter in the next phase of production.

Creep feeding is a tool that can be used prior to weaning. It helps ensure calves receive proper nutrition and eases the transition of calves from one feed source to the next. Creep feed during the last 45 days before weaning to prepare calves for post-weaning rations. Creep feed should contain about 14 percent crude protein and 70 to 75 percent total digestible nutrients. In MFA’s feed lineup, examples of appropriate creep feeds are Cattle Charge or Full Throttle.  

Calves should have unlimited access to forage at this time for proper rumen function. You can introduce calves to creep feed by giving a limited amount of the ration to their mothers first. Scatter some of the feed around the creeping area so mama cows will loiter. Plan on weaning and preconditioning approximately two months prior to shipping, typically 45 days. This reduces separation stress and provides time to monitor for illness.

Weaned calves walk fencelines, trying to escape to their mothers. Placing feed and water troughs perpendicular to fencelines will help maintain their intake and start bunk breaking. “Spilling” feed, such as hay, over the bunk edges will catch their attention, leading them into the bunk. Ensure proper bunk space, which is one to two feet per animal. This particularly helps timid calves.

Calves may struggle to find water in troughs, especially if they are accustomed to rivers or streams as a water source. If so, overflow your water troughs, flooding the area around the trough and encouraging the calf’s curiosity. Having fresh clean water for calves is important for rumen development.

In both pre-weaning and post-weaning phases, provide calves with a high-quality mineral supplement. Critical trace minerals are copper, manganese, selenium and zinc. They are important to proper immune function and vaccination response. Providing some minerals in chelated form can improve mineral status of calves during preconditioning. Vitamin A, D and E will need to be supplemented. The same is true for sodium and perhaps calcium, phosphorus or magnesium.

By being introduced to concentrated feeds and feed bunks, calves will experience less stress at the feedyard, and they can adapt quickly. Calves that come in prepared are more likely to perform better and have a carcass with a better quality grade. Make the transition process as easy as possible for the animal by using a preconditioning program that covers vaccinations, nutrition management and environment. Along with raising healthier and happier calves, they will also be more productive and profitable.

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