Weaning with a plan

Let It Begin

Fall has arrived and that means it is time for calves to be weaned.  Whether you are a cow-calf producer preparing to wean calves off your spring calving herd or a stocker operator anticipating purchasing fresh calves, now is the time to make sure you have a plan in place that will lead to a profitable outcome.  In order to experience the most success, you need to make sure your animal health program is paired with a comprehensive nutrition and feeding management program.

First Things First

When developing a nutrition program, you need to ensure you provide nutrients to stressed calves in the order which they need them most.  It is easy to get caught up in the new fads or hot technologies that have hit the market that promise to improve health and performance during this stressful time in a calf’s life, but if we miss the big picture these tools have no chance to work.

The most important nutrient to provide is often unfortunately the most overlooked.  Water.  Without water, nothing else matters.  It is vitally important that calves have abundant access to clean water as soon as possible.  Dehydration can result in lost performance, low feed intake, and poor response to vaccines.  Calves should have access to open tank water sources as soon as they are weaned or arrive at your place.  Calves should have access to a minimum of 1 ½ linear inches of tank space per head, and the tank should be maintained at or near full capacity1.  Continuous flow tanks should be cleaned daily and larger volume stock tanks should be drained and cleaned as often as need in order to keep the upper 50% of water holding capacity clean and free of debris.  In addition, calves need to have enough water volume available to them to meet the demand of the group.  Weaned calves will consume 1 – 2 gallons of water per 100 lbs of body weight per day depending on previous hydration status, feed intake, and ambient temperature2.

Intake, Intake, Intake

The next most important piece of a successful nutrition program is to establish a consistent intake that meets or exceeds the animal’s requirement for maintenance and growth.  At weaning or arrival, it is most important to provide a feed source that is palatable, and familiar to the calves.  Often the best choice here is good, clean grass hay.  It is important to allow these calves to rest and get filled up prior to rehandling or processing.

When it comes to feeding, a balanced approach needs to be taken.  It can be counterproductive to provide a ration that leads to an imbalanced supply of either energy or protein to the calves.   A well-balanced program will assess both the energy and protein requirements of the animal to achieve the targeted level of performance and will attempt to meet both requirements at similar feeding rates.  Taking this approach will ensure you receive maximum return from your investment in the feed.

This is also a time to take advantage of low-starch, highly digestible fiber feeds such as soyhulls, wheat midds, beet pulp, corn gluten feed, and DDGS as energy sources.  Although high starch feedstuffs such as corn, milo, and wheat can be excellent sources of energy and are often the cheapest form of energy available in rations, overfeeding starch to young calves can quickly lead to digestive health issues such as acidosis or bloat.  These negative effects can lead to reduced or variable intake by young calves, which often leads to an increased incidence of respiratory health problems.

A calf that eats is a calf that lives, so when you are evaluating your feed and nutrition program, your main focus needs to be on providing a highly palatable ration that will promote consistency of intake while maintaining a balanced approach toward energy and protein delivery.

All About Additives

There are various feed additives available on the market that have their effective use in a weaning or receiving program.  Coccidiostats such as decoquinate (Deccox), monensin (Rumensin), and lasalocid (Bovatec) are often incorporated into weaning rations and starter feeds to combat subclinical coccidiosis infections early in the feeding period.  When clinical signs of coccidiosis are observed (watery scours, abdominal discomfort, lethargic behavior) it is recommended to use amprolium (Corid) due to its ability to kill active coccidia.  Depending on the level of assumed coccidiosis infection, each of these additives can be used in a productive manner to eliminate active coccidia infections.  The main concerns associated with coccidiosis in stressed calves are the immunosuppressive effects in combination with reduced feed intake and compromised nutrient absorption.

Chlortetracycline (Aureomycin) can be included in a feeding program to help control or treat bacterial infections in the respiratory tract of cattle and is commonly included in rations designed for young, stressed calves.  The utilization of this feed additive requires a Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), so a close working relationship with your veterinarian and feed supplier is important when developing your feeding program.  Your veterinarian will help make the determination of whether the inclusion of Aureomycin will be beneficial, and your feed supplier can help you and your veterinarian determine the correct dosage levels in your feed depending on projected feed intake.

There are many other additives available on the market whose claims center around improving intake, supporting digestive health, or increasing performance.  When evaluating the potential efficacy of these products in your program, it is best to only utilize products that have a proven track record of producing profitable results in feeding situations similar to your own.

Be An Informed Buyer

“Price is what you pay.  Value is what you get.” – Warren Buffett

As you prepare to search the market for a feed that will best fit your operation, it is important to evaluate all aspects of the feed offerings, not just price and protein level.  The cheapest ration will not always be the most effective ration for your calves, and vice-versa, just because a feed is expensive and has a lot of “bells and whistles” does not mean it is the wisest investment.  This is why it is important to work with a feed supplier who understands what you are doing and is able to formulate a ration to best meet your cattle’s specific needs.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” – Benjamin Franklin

  • Pfost, D. et al., 2007. Pumps and Watering Systems for Managed Beef Grazing. The University of Missouri Extension. EQ380:1-8.
  • Parish, J. et al.,   Beef Cattle Water Requirements, and Source Management.  Mississippi State University Extension.  POD-04-19.