Use custom approach to start cattle on feed

Written by Dr. Jim White on .

Cattle feeding is about risk management, providing nutrition to help the animals reach their genetic potential and caring for them in an environment they find welcoming. Animal performance starts with get­ting cattle on feed. If done correctly, quality will follow.

Producers should take a slow-and-steady approach to starting cattle on feed, being attentive to the needs of each pen. Receiving programs are not one-size-fits-most. There are specific goals for each type of cattle and certain criteria the producer needs to appreciate. Management of the diets can have long-term impacts on performance.

Considerations include:

The step-up program will be affected by all of the above.

When starting cattle on feed, ensure adequate amounts of clean, fresh water. The more water space, the better. If they don’t drink, they will not eat. Having a meter to mea­sure water intake is great. If calves are slow to eat, make sure they know where the water source is. It might be necessary to let the wa­terer run over to attract them to it. Make sure that the water is flowing properly and that it is good quality. If you’re unsure, have it tested at a lab for livestock suitability.

When cattle are dehydrated, there are distinct visual symptoms—both physical and behavioral—such as lethargy, tightening of the skin, weight loss, reduced feed intake, increased fecal viscosity and drying of mucous membranes. The best approach is to avoid dehydration with adequate water supplies.

Having delicious grass hay in the bunk is also good idea. Shipping and co-mingling stresses are hard on the animal and hard on the rumen. To feed the calf, we need to make sure to feed the rumen bugs. It is important to rebuild a proper rumen fiber mat and correct any disruptions caused by shipping stress. This will allow cattle to come up on feed in a healthy manner. It may not necessarily be quicker, depending on their risk factor, but it should be healthy and consistent.

The biggest thing that a manager can control is how the calves are fed every day. If you do not have a pen walker or rider, consider feeding twice a day. This gives you two opportunities daily to observe the cattle. It is important to frequent­ly check pens for morbid calves. Problems recognized early are easier to fix.

Not all cattle come up on feed the same way. A rule of thumb is to start at 1.5% of their bodyweight on a dry matter basis. As an example, start with 5 pounds of pellets and 5 pounds hay per head per day for 6-weight calves, and work up to about 2.5%, using 5 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of pellets such as MFA Cattle Charge R with Shield.

Feed delivery needs to be appro­priate. It is undesirable to overfeed, and it is undesirable to underfeed. If you deliver too much feed, expect to see reduced palatability of the bunk ration and erosion of the feed-to-gain ratio. If you don’t provide enough feed, the cattle can be short on energy, protein, medication, vitamins and minerals, resulting in reduced performance. An advantage of feeding twice a day is that you can adjust the feeding rate within half a day.

Ensure feed is fresh, whether it is silage, high-moisture grain, dry feed or liquid feed. Moldy, dusty hay, off-colored burnt corn, corn silage that has heated and so forth do not entice an animal to the bunk. No one likes to scoop bunks or pitch top spoilage, but it’s cheaper to pay for that labor than reduced perfor­mance or dead calves.

It is very helpful to calculate the daily dry matter intake. If feed intake is less than expected, look at health issues, feed quality, feed availability, water availability and quality, cattle comfort and other factors.

Monitor and evaluate the cattle every day. When doing this, don’t be on your phone when you feed or walk pens. It is important to spend time in the pen looking at and listening to the cattle. A common acronym is DART, representing four areas to be thoroughly assessed and monitored: Depression, Appetite, Respiratory and Temperature.

Remember, how you start the cattle on feed will affect how they perform for the remainder of the feeding period. The bottom line is that dry matter intake is the most important driving force for healthy, high-performing cattle and the lowest cost of gain all the way to market.