Tips for Starting Cattle on Feed

March 25, 2015

How we start the cattle on feed will affect how they perform for the remainder of the feeding period.

The primary objectives for starting cattle are to get the cattle eating well and to keep the cattle healthy. The driving force for keeping cattle healthy is nutrient intake that supports the immune system and relieves stress. The bottom line is that dry matter intake is the most important driving force for healthy, high performing cattle and the lowest cost of gain all the way to market.


Here are some tips to follow to reach the goal of getting a great start:

  1. Long stem hay. Grass hay is strongly preferred.  Feed alone for the first 12 hours.  Put it in the bunk, after the cattle arrive, to attract them to the bunk. After the first 12 hours, you can deliver some total mixed ration on top of the dry hay. Do not free choice hay in a round bale feeder, some cattle will eat too much hay and not enough starting ration resulting in poor health and performance.
  2. Feed deliveries. Total mixed ration is the best method for feeding cattle. Target delivery is 1.5% of their body weight as dry matter for the first TMR feeding, working up evenly to 2.5% of body weight in 14-21 days. New cattle should be fed twice a day so you would actually split that 1% – 2.75% over two feedings each day. Again, work the cattle up evenly and steadily. Underfeeding the cattle will result in poor performance and immune response. Overfeeding the cattle will result in acidosis; acidosis will do two bad things 1) teach the calves that eating from a bunk gives them a belly ache and 2) make them 3-4x more prone to a respiratory infection.
  3. Water intake drives feed intake: no water intake = no feed intake. Water should be clean and easily accessible. You should have at least one watering space for every 20 calves (if there are 100 calves, 5 should be able to drink at the same time). Calves that have only drank from streams or ponds will not recognize an automatic waterer. You should allow the waterer or tank to overflow to help calves find it. Placing the waterer along the fence will help circling calves find it. Ball waterers discourage water intake, avoid using them. Electrolytes added to the water can be beneficial to stressed calves.
  4. Limit wet or ensiled feeds to 20-30% of the diet. This would include feed such as corn silage, haylage, wet corn gluten feed and/or wet distiller grains.
  5. Protein levels for the diet should be 13-14%.
  6. Feed a starting supplement that contains a high level of trace minerals and vitamins.  Organic trace minerals and a yeast culture can also be a real plus for stressed calves.  Feed the supplement at the full rate from day one to make sure calves get their full dose of protein, additive, vitamins and trace minerals.
  7. Bovatec in the starting supplement will control coccidiosis when fed at the proper rate of 100 mg per 220 pounds of body weight. This means that a Receiving Supplement with 500 grams of Bovatec per ton should be fed at 1# to a 550# calf and at 1.2# to a 650# calf.  Rumensin can also be used in a starter ration, especially on yearlings, but needs to be worked up so intake is not held back.
  8. CTC is approved to be fed at 1 gram per 100# of body weight for 3-5 days to prevent or treat respiratory disease. This means that 550# calves should get .55# of a 10 gram crumble for 3-5 days. It is best to wait until Day 4 after arrival to start so the calves are getting antibiotic closer to when they typically get sick.
  9. Facilities – Starting cattle should be kept in a little tighter quarters to keep the feed bunk in front of them as much as possible. Be sure they are kept clean and dry. Bed them enough to keep them comfortable but not too much so that they eat too much bedding.
  10. Working facilities – be sure that working facilities don’t add stress to the calves or the producers working the calves. Stress for either one will mean that cattle don’t get treated promptly enough and have a greater chance for permanent damage or death. Texas A&M research shows about $100 hd loss on cattle that get sick and don’t respond promptly. Chutes that don’t properly restrain cattle will result in poorly placed implants and could easily cost the producer about $25 per head in lost performance.
  11. Processing – process the cattle sooner rather than later.  Some rest is good but don’t wait too long.  A good rule of thumb is to let them rest for the same number of hours they were on the truck.  Cattle can be implanted and vaccinated a second time 14-21 days later.
  12. Hospital pens – have a place where sick cattle can be segregated and treated with some TLC. This will control the spread of disease and speed recovery of the sick calves. Don’t make hospital pens in some dark damp barn, or they will become death pens instead.
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