Proper supplement use maintains desired weight gains for winter calves

Calves require the right balance of water, energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to maintain wellness and produce optimum weight gains throughout the winter. Inadequate amounts of minerals and vitamins in hay and forage make it important to use supplements during winter calf feeding.

According to a University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture fact sheet, some forages naturally contain all necessary vitamins and minerals; however, it is more common for forage diets to be insufficient in vitamin A and one or more mineral.

Finding the right balance of nutrients and right supplements for a herd’s ration is something experienced cow calf operation owners like Derek Armstrong in Rogers, Ark., are familiar with.

Armstrong said he tries to use supplements that will benefit calves in more ways than one, helping balance the deficiencies in winter forage.

“We look for supplements that will provide both minerals and vitamins,” Armstrong said.

Knowing the nutrient levels that are already available for the calf will help producers avoid buying unnecessary supplements, which could be costly.

Armstrong said knowing the vitamin and mineral content of the water and forage available to his calves is important so he can make decisions about purchasing supplements.

“Our water and forage have been tested so we can know the nutrient levels that are available without supplements,” Armstrong said.

Sourcing forage for winter feeding from a reliable supplier is also a practice Armstrong follows, ensuring the hay has an adequate nutrient supply to minimize the amounts of supplements needed for the herd.

“First we look for quality, from a consistent source,” he said. “Then we look for a good deal at the best location.”

Armstrong said he prefers to take a scientific approach to selecting supplements.

“This past year we did a mineral trial with a Benton County extension agent,” he said, “measuring consumption rates for three different minerals.”

The trial helped Armstrong choose the most economical supplement for his calves.

Once the nutrient needs are identified, it is important to make the supplement choice that best fits the operation’s needs.

Feeding minerals free-choice in a loose, fixed form is a common method of supplementation.

“Loose mix is our choice because it is easy and we always have a salt block available,” Armstrong said.

At the bare minimum, a salt block should always be available for the herd to supplement sodium.

There are different varieties and colors of blocks but Armstrong said the plain white block should provides all the sodium his calves need.

Measuring the success of mineral and vitamin supplementation on health and daily gain is also important in order to understand the economic impacts it has on the operation.

Poor coat heal, runny noses and watery eyes are all signs Armstrong looks for to determine if his calves are lacking in minerals or vitamins.

“We measure the success of our supplements through coat quality and heard health,” he said. “Unhealthy calves are easy indicators of mineral and vitamin deficiencies.”


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