By Scott Roskens
The way we get cattle started will have a lasting impact on their health and profitability for the whole feeding period. The stressful weather we have experienced the last 2 starting seasons have magnified the differences between good programs and poor ones. Obviously, we have to have the nutrition right and proper energy, protein, and trace mineral levels are a good baseline. All of our QLF starters can do this with a balanced diet effectively. Also having the right ionophore and additive levels is a big part of a good starting program. What we need to understand is that good nutrition is not a replacement for management.
The goal of any starting program is healthy calves that are eating aggressively at 21 days. The single most destructive thing we can do for long-term health and performance is overfeed an animal during the starting period. Using a programmed feed intake approach ensures that cattle will get enough feed to get healthy, perform and be ready to compete at the bunk for the whole feeding period. We do not need to maximize intake during the starting period and actually incur more health and digestive problems when we do it. Obviously, this approach requires enough bunk space for all cattle eat at the same time but that should be a prerequisite for starting anyway.
Water and water space is another area that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Having one cubic foot of water for every 25 head is especially important in the starting phase. Also cleaning the waterers the day before the cattle come is a big deal. The experience that calf has when he goes to that water for the first time needs to be a good one and water intake is much more important to health and vaccine response than anything else we can do. We have to do the free stuff right.
Pen space and layout. Confining the starting calves down so they are always close to the bunk and water has also been an effective practice. Many dedicated starting pens have no more than 40-50 square feet per head. The cattle are easy to see and they won’t be able to mill around far from feed and water. A lot of our customers have used portable fencing to keep the cattle close up for 14-30 days and then open the pen up when they are off to a good start.
One other management area that can pose problems in the starting period is free choice hay away from the bunk. I definitely have 8-12 hours of free choice grass hay built into starting protocols but we are trying to get the calves to eat at the bunk. Why would we ever want to offer them an alternative that is exactly opposite of our long -term goal? A good starting diet will have enough hay along with other ingredients that it can be fed in the bunk and provide predictable nutrition during this critical period.