N&H Top Line: Feeding newly weaned calves

Specialist gives tips to improve feed consumption by newly weaned calves.

As spring beef calves are beginning to be weaned, it is the producer’s responsibility to help make that transition as smooth as possible. Improper weaning can result in poor growth, which may stay with the animal through its life, according to Kansas State University animal scientist Justin Waggoner.

“I break down the weaning process into three stresses the calf is dealing with,” said Waggoner, a beef systems specialist with Kansas State Research & Extension. The first and most obvious is maternal separation; the second is moving to a new environment and social structure, and the third is the need for a calf to become accustomed to new and unfamiliar feedstuffs as it is transitioned from a diet of grass and milk to a total mixed ration or starter pellet in a different environment.

Waggoner provided the following tips to help ease the transition:

* Many calves are raised in a grassland environment. Getting them adjusted to a feed bunk is one of the most important things a producer can do in the weaning process. If the calves do not eat properly, there’s an increased risk of disease.

* Feeding both cows and calves a small amount of a supplement or the weaning ration out of a bunk prior to weaning when the calves are still with the cows can be a good way to acclimate the calves to those feeds. The cows may consume most of the feed, but the calves are there too, getting exposed to the bunk.

A study at the Kansas State Agricultural Research Center in Hays, Kan., showed that when calves had exposure to a feed bunk, either through a dry lot or pasture method, a higher percentage of them approached and ate from the bunk in the critical first week of weaning compared to calves that had never been exposed to a feed bunk before, Waggoner said.

“The results tell us previous exposure to the feed bunk really matters,” he added. “This is especially important as newly weaned calves are brought into a typical feedlot environment or even a set of pens. Just that adjustment can help in making that successful transition from being at their mother’s side to being in a different environment.”

The ration

Waggoner referenced a series of studies called the Kansas State Hays weaning feed management protocol, a step-by-step process used to wean calves that's designed to standardize the process across different treatment groups. Calves are transitioned from a grass and milk diet to some sort of a total mixed ration.

Weanlings are often used to feedstuffs such as grass and hay, which are not rich in nutrients, so producers must find a way to balance the familiar feedstuff with new, nutrient-rich feeds.

The dry matter intake of calves is often about 1% of their bodyweight, Waggoner said. The Hays protocol suggests that producers offer the calf 0.5% of its bodyweight of concentrate-based, 75-85% total digestible nutrients (TDN) ration while trying to limit silage and other familiar feeds. So, the calf is offered half of its expected intake as a weaning ration or pellet and the other half as good-quality grass hay. Also included in the process:

* Positioning the feed is as important as the feed itself. Put the hay the calves are most familiar with on top of the feed ration on the first day.

* The ration should be increased to around 0.7% of bodyweight on the second day, but keep the hay the same. Put the hay on top of the ration.

* On the third or fourth day, increase the amount of feed, but not the hay. This time, put the ration on top of the hay.

* On days 7-10 of weaning, the goal is to have a calf eating 2.0-2.2% of its bodyweight — maybe even 2.5%.

“We are trying to build a transition into the calves as they move into new feeding rations in a stabilized way,” Waggoner said, noting that this regimen balances the need to transition the calves and ensures that they have enough nutrition.

Often, weanling calves are fed as much as they will eat, which can lead to problems later. “It is important to keep the calves eating, because there are many times where we create more problems for ourselves in a weaning program by getting ahead of the calves and offering them too much feed,” Waggoner said. “The calves eat really strong one day, and then the next day they back off, and the intakes go up and down.”

Make sure calves are effectively prepared for the weaning transition, he said. Adequately preparing them to make that transition should pay off in terms of health and the ultimate lifetime performance of that calf as it moves to the next phase of the production cycle.

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