Proper rumen development is critical for growing calves

Whether producers plan to background their calves or take them straight to the sale barn at weaning, knowing the ins and outs of a calf’s rumen can help that animal achieve projected gains. The first step may be realizing the importance the rumen plays in digestion.

The rumen develops from shortly after a calf is born and changes when it starts eating solid feed. It is the largest compartment in the stomach. Though there are a variety of different scenarios from one operation to another, there are some commonalities producers can incorporate into their herd management. 

Take it slow. Experts agree a measured approach works best. “I would suggest first to use forage in the transition process and slowly adapt those calves to a grain-based supplement,” Patrick Davis, Ph.D., University of Missouri Regional Livestock Specialist, said. Farmers can use quality hay or grass in the transition process. 

Refrain from making sudden dietary changes, and watch the amounts of fat fed. “If the goal is to increase weight gain with concentrates, any level of above 1 percent body weight, daily, should have a step-up approach to that final rate,” Shane Gadberry, Ph.D., Arkansas Extension Beef Nutrition Specialist, said.

In addition, Gadberry advised producers pay attention to the ratio of energy to protein and to make sure the cattle are receiving sufficient rumen degradable protein to support the rumen microbes. “Mineral and fat-soluble vitamin needs are often overlooked in these transitional diets,” Gadberry stated. “Commodity blends are common today and I see a lot of these that will lead to a calcium to phosphorus imbalance.” 

Experts point out calves that are supplemented on forages do well on supplements that contain less starch and more highly digestible fiber ingredients. 

If producers are looking to boost immunity in weaned calves through feeding, there are some steps they can take. One proactive action is ensuring calves are exposed to vitamins and minerals at the cow/calf level. 

“It’s hard to fix mineral deficiencies for stressed weaned calves, especially calves weaned on their way to the livestock market, because these calves aren’t going to eat like normal for those first couple of weeks at their new home,” Gadberry stated. “If calves aren’t eating, it’s hard to fix a problem through feed.”

When products can be introduced through feed, there are prebiotics, probiotics and other compounds available that may improve gut health. Injectable minerals can also prove to be beneficial for calves purchased at a sale barn that were not preconditioned. 

Another option is for producers to work with a veterinarian to incorporate the proper antibiotics in the ration to deal with sickness issues. “You can also include an ionophore in the ration at 200 mg/hd/d to help the rumen be as efficient as possible,” Davis stated. “Rumensin and Bovatec, which are both ionophores, improve animal efficiency while helping to control coccidia, which is a protozoan parasite.”

Davis added Coccidiosis needs to be controlled in a cattle herd because it can cause significant economic losses due to reduced performance, death from direct infections and by predisposing cattle to secondary bacterial and viral infections. 

Overall, experts recommend the best way to reduce rumen issues and sickness in weaned calves is to feed a proper diet that fulfills energy, protein, vitamin and mineral needs. In combination with the forage and grain-based portion of the diet, calves should have free choice access to minerals, trace minerals and vitamins every day. Livestock operators can always consult with their veterinarian for assistance in developing the best plan for their program.


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