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Nutrition for early weaned calves affects their ability to grow, finish

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Getting fresh weaned calves off to a good start can play a vital role in how they finish, according to University of Nebraska Feedlot and Nutrition Management Specialist Matte Luebbe. Whether producers retain ownership of the calves, or place them in a feedlot, the way they are handled at weaning affects how the cattle grow and finish, according to Luebbe, who is based out of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff, Neb.
    Most ranchers early wean their calves to extend the forage resources for their cows. If ranchers have the feed resources and labor, many times they will feed the calf some type of concentrate or byproduct resource to bring it up to a weight they are familiar with. Then, they can sell the animal at a more traditional time and weight, Luebbe explained.  
    If producers are considering retaining ownership of their calves, they need to make sound nutritional and management decisions that match the goals for their entire operation. It is also important to have some idea of how the animals in the past have been weaned, Luebbe explained.
    “Associate that weaning background as high, moderate or low risk and develop a ration from there,” he said.
In a feedlot, producers try to have a person who is knowledgeable about the history of the calves, so they can be managed to reflect those conditions, he added.
A good start to weaning
    One way to get the calves off to a good start is to offer creep feed at least 10 days before weaning.
    “Creep feeding will help with the bunk breaking process,” Luebbe explained. “It is important to feed similar feedstuffs to let them get used to ration similar to what they will be eating after they are weaned, while they are still on the dam.”
   “They will compete. Producers may need to sort these calves based on age or body weight, so they all have an opportunity to consume feed,” he explained. “Producers usually leave the calves in the location where they have been creep feeding and move the cows away. Researchers have observed there seems to be less morbidity with this method.”
    When animals are penned, Luebbe told producers to make sure the facilities will accommodate lighter weight, smaller animals.
    “When putting facilities together, keep in mind some of these animals may need to be treated, so having a handling facility nearby may be important,” Luebbe explained.
    If the calves are being fed from bunks, it is important to make sure the younger, smaller calves can reach the bottom of the bunk to consume the feed there.
    “The calves may also compete for the feed, so make sure they have adequate space to consume the amount of feed they need,” he said, recommending at least one foot of bunk space per calf.
Water availability
    Water is also a concern, he continued. Calves should have one to two inches each, and the water should be clean and fresh to prevent dehydration.
    Luebbe also encouraged producers to avoid putting the water source in the middle of a pen where it is more difficult for the calf to find. Placing the water source in a fence line, where the calf is more likely to run into it while walking the fence, is more desirable, he said.
    Building mountains in the pen provides the animal a dry spot to lie down after it rains and to keep the animal cooler because it is a high point in the pen.
    “Make sure the animals have a comfortable route from where they bed down to where their feed or water source is,” Luebbe said.
The weaning diet
    Calves can be fed long stem grass hay at one-half pound per head per day until they get used to more feed. Producers should provide a digestible energy source and natural protein, such as grass hay, or byproducts like distillers’ grains, silages or pelleted feeds, which can keep the animals from sorting the different ingredients. Some operations have the capability of mixing diets, while others layer the forage first, with some concentrate on top.
    Producers can also feed high quality legumes to prevent scouring and dehydration.
    Luebbe said electrolyte at one to one-and-a-half percent of their body weight can be added to the water. Producers should consider feeding the calves a few times a day until they know what the calves will consume and to prevent spoilage.
    “A producer may also want to consider utilizing different ration conditioners like wet feeds, silages and byproducts. If they are not familiar with these feeds, start with a limited amount. These ingredients have palatability and will reduce the amount of dust associated with the grinding of the ingredients,” he explained.
    Producers can also add ionophores, but he encourages use at a lower level dosage than what would be acceptable for older, more mature calves.
    “Ionophore addition can decrease intake the first two weeks,” he said, “but in the long run, it can improve the average daily gain seven to 10 percent, and is a return of two to three dollars per dollar invested.”
    Luebbe added that ionophores can also reduce or eliminate coccidiosis problems if the label provides for that use.
Implanting calves
    Luebbe also encouraged producers to consider implants, keeping the endpoint of production in mind when developing a strategy.
“It is important to start right and build up,” he said. “Also, it is a good idea to communicate with the people buying the calves. Let them know what your protocol is so they can determine whether to adjust the price based on the use of implants.”
    Using implants can increase average daily gain 10 to 14 percent, which is a $15 to $20 return for every dollar invested, he said.  
    Early weaning calves can help reduce costs and save on forage resources, but proper nutrition is essential to ensure calves are off to a good start and capable of reaching their full potential.    
    Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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