Weaned calves may need extra feed to keep growing

Calves born in the fall and recently weaned may have some trouble gaining and maintaining weight in the summer. Weaning stress combined with hot temperatures can cause weight loss and reduced feed consumption. Diet, health and overall management are the tools producers have at their disposal to keep weight on their calves.

Typically, calves at this age will need supplemented feed to help them gain and maintain weight appropriately, Eldon Cole, livestock field specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, explained. 

“Calves can be very slow gainers their first summer unless they’re supplemented with a feed at the level of about one percent of their body weight per day,” he said. “A popular supplement for many years has been blends of dried distillers grains, soy hulls, corn gluten feed or maybe just a corn-soybean meal mix.” 

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Forage quality is something to consider when it comes to feeding and managing calves in the summer. 

“As summer progresses, plant fibers can increase which simply lowers the digestibility of the forage,” Dr. Shane Gadberry, ruminant nutrition specialist with the University of Arkansas Extension, explained. “If forage digestibility is slowing calf growth, a highly-digestible feed can be fed to substitute for the calories they can’t get from the plants they are grazing.” 

The type of forage calves are grazing will also contribute to weight gain and maintenance. Cole said poor gains are exaggerated if calves are grazing “hot” fescue and that if they are grazing toxic fescue without an energy supplement, daily gains could be lower than half a pound per day. 

Gadberry explained calves grazing toxic endophyte-infected fescue will want to spend their time in the shade, wet areas or ponds instead of grazing and gaining weight. 

“Ideally, those calves need to be on the highest-quality, non-toxic pasture you have. If you have a warm season grass or a non-toxic fescue with legumes, that’s perfect. Some even feed straight alfalfa hay during the mid-part of the summer,” Cole said. 

Dr. Gadberry offered some insight on different types of summer forages and their potential performance for summer calves. 

“Bermudagrass is a very common perennial summer grass that can maintain calves through summer but won’t produce exceptional weight gains in July or August,” he said. “Crabgrass is an annual summer grass that calves can gain a little better on than Bermudagrass through summer. Some producers have switched fields over to native grasses. It will be important not to over-graze these fields in mid- to late-summer. Native grasses can maintain or add weight to calves, but the calves may need protein supplementation through summer months as these native grasses mature.”

To set calves up for a successful first summer, Gadberry recommended some management and procedures take place prior to weaning so there are fewer stressors and therefore better weight maintenance and gain. 

“Any practice that can be done ahead of weaning, like castrating and dehorning, will help. Castration is far more stressful and influences weight change more on a 7- to 8–month-old calf compared to a 3-month-old calf,” he said. 

Routine parasite control, providing appropriate mineral and plenty of fresh water will also help calves get the gains they need over the summer. 


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