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Weaning winning replacement heifers

DrJimWhiteRaising replacement heifers takes a lot of time, labor and re­sources. However, the investment is worth it. According to the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association, the first six months of a dairy calf’s life account for 50% of lifetime stature growth and 25% of lifetime weight gain. The transition to weaning is particularly critical as a slump during this time will impact the calf’s longterm health and productivity.

Here are some practices that will help avoid the post-weaning slump, adapted from an article in Bovine Veterinarian:

Don’t change everything at once

Making changes incrementally will reduce the stress of weaning. For instance, instead of removing liquid rations all at once, drop them back to once per day for a few days or re­duce the auto feeder volumes before removing them entirely. Similarly, don’t change housing and feed at the same time. Many producers success­fully keep calves in their pre-wean­ing housing for a week after wean­ing, while others keep calves on their pre-weaning grain mixture when they enter new housing. The order of changes can be adjusted to suit operational needs. The goal is to allow calves to adjust to one change before making another.

Transition diets gradually

Going abruptly from a milk-based diet to a grain and forage ration disrupts the microbes living in the calf’s digestive tract. There are many ways to ease into the transition. For instance, you can feed MFA Stand­out Calf Starter ad lib (available at all times) for the first 12 weeks of life or until the calves are eating 10 pounds of daily intake, and then transition to MFA Trendsetter as the grower feed with free-choice hay for another 12 weeks.

Rumen volumes increase dramat­ically in the first 24 weeks of life. Feeding starter early—offering it by day 3 after birth—will trigger chem­ical reactions that drive papillae development on the rumen wall and improve overall rumen development. However, switching immediately to a mostly forage diet at weaning can disrupt this development. If you have to feed forage at weaning, limit it to no more than 15% of the diet. The calf’s rumen will fully devel­op by 6 months of age, and that is when heifers are ready to transition to an all-they-can-eat fermented forage buffet.

House calves in small groups

The first post-weaning grouping of calves should be six head or less. This lets heifers learn how to interact in a group, access the feed bunk, and find the water source without stressful competition. Similarly, calves raised in auto feeder pens should be kept together for their first post-weaning grouping.

Make it easy for the calves

Give the 2- to 4-month-old dairy heifers 12 to 18 inches of feed bunk space per head, making sure that the height allows all animals to reach the trough. Ensure ample air movement without creating a draft. Keep bedding dry and the walking surface clear of mud, snow and ice. Comfortable conditions keep heifers from diverting extra energy to staying warm or getting feed, thus reducing the risk of slump.

Feed for their needs

When feeding young heifers, con­sider what they need rather than what feed is the most convenient. During this stage, it is important to pay attention to the total protein content of their ration. Consider that lower-protein grain mixes—12% to 14% crude protein when paired with forages testing less than 18% to 20% crude protein—don’t allow adequate protein intake for skeletal growth. We recommend MFA Trendsetter Developer R-54, which improves protein utilization to balance a feed­ing program for better performance, faster growth and healthier calves. This ration also covers the animal’s mineral requirements and aids in coccidiosis control with the addition of Rumensin.

Control coccidiosis

Using a post-weaning feed medicated with a coccidiocide, such as the ionophores Rumensin or Bovatec, is important to overall calf growth and health. This is especially important if Deccox, a common coccidiostat used in feed, was in the pre-weaning starter ration. If this medication is removed from the diet after weaning, you can have a break in coccidiosis protection, allowing the coccidia protozoa to complete their life cycle. The parasite can cause diarrhea in calves and young growing stock, often decreasing production. An ion­ophore also improves feed efficiency and helps calves put on weight, lowering cost of gain.

For more information on avoiding the post-weaning slump with replacement heifers, including feed recommendations for your specific operation, visit with the livestock experts at your MFA location.

READ MORE from the June/July 2023 Today’s Farmer’s Magazine, the MFA Incorporated member magazine.

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Vampires aren’t the only pests repelled by garlic

Fly control in cattle operations is always a hot topic as the weather warms up. Flies can cause significant losses in beef and dairy animals by reducing weight gain and milk production.

Pyrethroid insecticides are widely used to combat the problem. A pyrethroid is an organic compound similar to natural pyrethrins produced by flowers such as chrysanthemums. These insecticides are effective on flies and generally harmless to humans, but they are toxic to fish and desirable insects such as bees, dragonflies and mayflies.

These safety concerns and increasing resistance indicate the need for alternative control tactics. There are a variety of fly-control technologies on the market today, including botanical extracts and oils with bioactive compounds that can exert different modes of action.

One of the most promising is the Allium sativum species—also known as garlic. Garlic oil and extracts are identified by EPA as “minimum risk pesticide products” under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, a designation given when the risk to the public and the environment is low enough to not require all the data and review necessary for registration.

Allicin is an active ingredient in garlic that has antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and antiprotozoal activity. It also acts as a natural insect repellent. After consuming garlic, animals will secrete the allicin, which cannot be metabolized. The familiar, pungent garlic odor is emitted through the animals’ skin and breath and makes them less appealing to flies.

The head, neck, back line and tail head are where the greatest repellent effect is seen. The effect will be influenced by level of intake as well as weather and environmental conditions.

Anecdotal evidence from producers using garlic-enhanced salt or mineral seems to be positive. And while there is limited formal research on garlic, the few existing studies have consistently shown fewer flies when cattle were fed supplements containing garlic. Most reports indicate results in the 40% to 60% reduction.

Garlic has also shown some effect on repelling ticks. A 2017 article in the International Journal of Acarology (the study of mites and ticks), reported that a water-based solution with garlic concentration of 25% can be safely applied on animals to remove ticks and 10% to prevent ticks from attacking animals for a period up to a week.

While any reduction is good, keep in mind that the EPA says a compound needs to control more than 90% of targeted pests to be considered a conventional insecticide.

In response to requests for MFA minerals with garlic, we have added the ingredient to several versions of our popular MFA Ricochet FesQ Max mineral with Shield Technology. Some of these garlic products are floor-stocked at our feed mills while others require a minimum 2-ton order. Check with your local MFA manager or livestock representative for product availability.

Plant-derived bioactive compounds such as allicin typically exhibit short residual activity, which can be seen as an advantage or disadvantage, depending on who is buying the drinks. It’s important to remember that garlic only works as a repellent and does not kill insects. Producers wanting to reduce the impact that flies have on their cattle herds need to tackle the problem with a multi-faceted approach, both internally and externally.

Even when using products containing garlic, producers should also consider feeding an insect growth regulator in mineral to interrupt the flies’ life cycle and reduce future population numbers. External fly-control measures can include insecticide sprays, dusts, backrubbers or oilers. Using multiple modes of action helps prevent or delay development of resistance by pest populations.

Bottom line, bioactive botanical compounds such as the allicin in garlic are not a cure-all for controlling horn flies, stable flies or ticks, but they may offer environmentally friendly alternatives to synthetic pesticides and improve upon safety and resistance buildup. These advantages, and the variety of available compounds, are potentially valuable tools for an integrated pest management program. We’ll likely see more development and research in this area.

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Black vultures: friend or foe?

If you reside in Southern Missouri, the words “black vultures” are prob­ably not new to you or the folks at the local coffee shop. They’ve been in this neck of the woods for several years, but residents further north have recently noticed their expan­sion and increasing population. In particular, livestock producers are concerned because black vultures have earned a reputation for attack­ing live calves.

These birds are different than the red-headed turkey vulture that we are all accustomed to seeing throughout Missouri. The black vul­ture has a black body with a naked black head and is a bit smaller than its turkey vulture cousin. Both feed on dead and decaying animals. The difference between the two is that black vultures will attack live animals that are injured or unable to escape. Although this problem is not very common, it does happen. When it happens to your herd, it becomes personal.

The black vulture’s range spans from South America all the way to the Southeast United States and recently into Missouri. Making the issue more complicated is the fact that black vultures are federally protected through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This protection makes it illegal to harm or kill a vulture without a permit. However, there are legal ways to deal with black vultures if they become a nuisance on your farm.

If possible, avoidance or deter­rence is the first line of defense as well as the easiest and most cost-effective method—especially if black vultures have not been spotted on your farm. Try to avoid calving or having other livestock born in an area away from people. Instead, use an area closer to the barn or house where there’s more human activity. If a black vulture population is known to exist on your property, try using loud noise­makers like firecrackers or shining laser lights during the evening to scare the pesky birds on their roost. This can keep them from using your property.

The best method is to use a replica of a vulture or an actual dead vulture (with permit) as an effigy, which serves as a warning to the other predatory birds. Effigies need to be high enough to be seen from a distance and should be hung upside-down by the legs with wings splayed. Placing these around roost sites can be very effective, but it also can cause the birds to become habituated to the effigies, and another method of deterrence might need to be used.

The last method to deal with black vultures is a depredation permit. This should be used as a last resort unless imminent harm is being caused to livestock. Livestock producers can obtain a depreda­tion permit through Missouri Farm Bureau by contacting 573-893- 1416. Approved applicants will be allowed to kill up to three birds with the permit.

If a black vulture has killed livestock on your operation, with proper documentation the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Livestock Indemnity Program may provide reimbursement for that loss. Con­tact your local FSA office for more information.

There are many other resources in the state that can assist you with more information or actions to take if black vultures are a problem on your farm. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is responsible for responding to conflicts in the state due to migratory birds. If you are having problems with black vultures or would like more assistance, contact APHIS Wildlife Services State Office in Columbia at 573-449-3033, ext. 10. The University of Missouri Extension has a great website with more information at

It should be mentioned that vultures play a vital role in main­taining a healthy ecosystem by consuming and helping with the decaying process of dead animals and reducing the spread of diseases in the environment. Animal scaven­gers, whether in the sky or on the land, are sometimes recognized as animals of no value, but without them, this world would look a lot different—and not for the better.

If you are concerned about black vultures on your property, it’s im­portant to have a good plan in place. Talk with professionals or produc­ers who have dealt with these pests before and can share suggestions on the best tactics to combat them.

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Too much N can do cattle in

Nitrogen is crucial for plant growth. However, too much plant nitrogen—specifically too much plant nitrogen in the wrong form— can be deadly to cattle.

As spring arrives, producers should be particularly vigilant about potential issues. Plants naturally take up nitrogen from the soil and use it for photosynthesis. Young, growing plants are most likely to accumulate nitrates, especially if subjected to stress, such as a late frost.

Nitrate poisoning can result if livestock consume forages with excessive nitrate levels. Here’s what happens. Rumen activity breaks down the nitrate (NO3) into nitrite (NO2), which has one less oxygen molecule. Nitrite is the real cause of “nitrate” poisoning. Nitrite enters the bloodstream and alters the oxygen-carrying process, resulting in reduced oxygen supply to the body. Nitrites also dilate blood vessels, further complicating oxygen transport.

Symptoms of nitrate poisoning in animals include rapid or difficult breathing, dark-colored blood, muscle tremors, drooling, abortions, lower production/growth, frequent urination, poor appetite and diarrhea. It can even lead to death.

If animals consume low levels of nitrates, they can usually handle it with no ill effects. The trouble arises when they are fed elevated levels of nitrates. Understanding nitrate’s role in the plant and when levels may be high can help avoid this problem.

Grass pastures respond well to nitrogen applications. Nitrate, the form of nitrogen that plants prefer, is water soluble and absorbed mainly through the roots. In the presence of sunlight, the plant metabolizes nitrogen into amino acids and proteins. Disrupting the normal cycle can cause excessive nitrate because uptake from the soil will be faster than the plant’s metabolism.

Nutrient management plans for livestock operations often use manure applications to return nitrogen to the soil. Equipment should be calibrated so you know how much manure is being applied, taking care to avoid over-application. If manure was applied in the fall, perform a nitrate test the next spring to evaluate how much nitrogen is available for the coming crop. If you sidedress during the growing season, a nitrate test prior to application can determine how much N is needed.

While important, the amount of nitrate in the soil is not the only indicator of how much nitrate will be in the harvested forage. Plants that are stressed during the growing season, whether by insects, diseases, weather or other factors, could have higher nitrates when harvested. If you can minimize plant stress during the growing season, you should have fewer problems with excess nitrate.

When nitrates are a concern, harvest on bright sunny days, and avoid harvesting during long cloudy stretches. The lower stalk tends to have higher levels of nitrates. Raising the cutter bar can help keep the stems out of harvested material.

Likewise, don’t harvest three to five days after a drought-breaking rain. In this situation, the crop may gladly take up excess nitrogen, but if harvested too soon, the forage will not have had time to convert the nitrates. Similarly, frost can trap nitrates in the plant, so avoid harvesting immediately afterward.

If you are concerned that the forage may be high in nitrates, consider ensiling it, which can decrease nitrate levels by 33% to 50%. The wetter the forage that is ensiled and the more extensive the fermentation, the greater the reduction in nitrate levels.

Just like you wouldn’t harvest immediately after a frost or drought-breaking rain, avoid grazing the crop in those conditions. If that timing cannot be avoided, offer a safe feed to your animals first so they do not overconsume the high-nitrate forage.

When grazing, cattle will tend to not eat the lower stalk of the plant, which, again, is where nitrates accumulate. Having animals consume 50% to 65% of the forage will minimize the risk. Forcing animals to clean up all the forage can be trouble, especially if they don’t all eat at once. The first cows eat the leaves, increasing the percentage of stalks. A cow late to the party gets a higher nitrate load.

If excess nitrogen is suspected, it is important to do a forage test. Nitrate levels should be considered based on the total diet, including water, which can contain a significant amount of nitrates.

A nitrate value of less than 2,500 parts per million (ppm) is typically considered safe. If forages have over 4,500 ppm of nitrates, caution should be taken, especially when feeding young or pregnant animals. Monitor animals for signs and symptoms of nitrate poisoning.

Nitrogen is both a need for forage production and a risk to cattle, so careful management is important. Visit with your MFA livestock and agronomy specialists for more information on how to keep both plants and animals healthy and thriving this spring.

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Base grazing decisions on these five principles

While it is possible to put cattle in any fenced pasture area with a water source and say, “Good luck cattle. Good luck pasture. Try not to be too apparent in your needs,” that’s not smart pasture management. Effective grazing requires thought and effort, and the payoffs are worth it. Well-managed pastures perform favorably year after year, providing valuable forage for the herd. Poorly managed pastures are at risk of weed infestations, inadequate nutrition and forage degradation.

Pastures in MFA territory vary dramatically. Some are native grasslands with species such as switchgrass, bluestem, Indiangrass, gammagrass and others. Many pastures are cool-season mixtures of grass and legumes, such as fescue with clover. Others are summer annual monocultures such as sudangrass.

Each of these different types of pastures can have different issues. For example, there are concerns about bloat with alfalfa or prussic acid with sorghums. There are also many grazing systems to evaluate, such as rest-rotation, adaptive multi-paddock, intensive or strip grazing, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Pasture management must take into account the specific considerations for your forage type and operation goals, but there are several universal principles, as outlined by the Beef Cattle Research Council. Your choices in these considerations will directly influence forage yield and pasture productivity.

1. Don’t overstock.

2. Spread grazing pressure across the entire pasture.

3. Have adequate rest for each pasture.

4. Do not start grazing too early.

5. Maintain adequate litter cover and account for nutrient removal.

First, avoid the tendency to overstock the pasture. Ensure that the forage supply is adequate for the animal demand. To do this, you will need to consider the number of cattle present as well as the length of time they will be grazing. In addition, remember to account for trampling, wildlife and insect damage. Typical guidelines recommend a utilization rate of 25% to 50% for native pastures and 50% to 75% for tame pastures. These ranges allow the pasture to sustain itself from year to year.

Second, spread grazing pressure across the pasture. Cattle will selectively graze the tasty, productive areas and will likely avoid hilltops where forage quality may be lower. The goal is to spread grazing pressure across the whole pasture, which helps maintain forage health and lessens the risk of overgrazing the most productive areas.

You can get cattle to graze in a relatively uniform way by using a variety of methods. Popular options include strategically installing temporary or permanent fencing, placing mineral and salt, and locating stock watering stations to encourage cattle to graze the whole area.

Third, ensure enough rest to allow pasture plants to recover. Forage plants need adequate time to replenish their energy reserves. Without it, their productivity will decrease and pastures will be vulnerable to winterkill, weed invasion and soil erosion.

Fourth, do not graze too early. It is tempting to want to get cattle out on forage as soon as possible, but grazing before a pasture is ready can set it back dramatically. Within reason, the rough guide is that for every day you defer grazing in the spring, you’ll get back two days of grazing in the fall.

Finally, allow pastures to retain adequate litter cover. Litter includes forage residuals left over from the previous growing seasons. Litter is important for both native and tame pastures. This plant residue insulates the soil, keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Litter reduces water loss due to evaporation and lessens soil erosion, and, as it decomposes, returns nutrients to the soil.

If you base pasture management on these five principles, you can help maintain forage productivity, ensure stand longevity, sustain a healthy plant community, conserve water and protect soils. Visit with your MFA livestock specialists for more information on effectively implementing these practices in your operation.

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