Ways to keep calves on the road to weight gain

Pounds equal profit in the cattle industry. Therefore, making sure weaned calves are consistently gaining pounds plays a role in a producer’s bottom line. Operations that work to reduce stress at weaning, give calves spacious quarters, and feed high-quality forage and fiber-filled feedstuffs equip freshly weaned calves for success. 

Forage and Fiber

One way to keep weaned calves on the right track is to feed them an appropriate and balanced ration. “High-quality forage is the first step because weaned calves are not ready to handle a low-quality forage like our cows can; or even like yearling cattle can,” Ken Coffey, Ph.D., professor of animal science at the University of Arkansas, said. 

Livestock specialists recommend producers allow the newly weaned calves to graze their highest-quality forage or eat their best hay. “Their rumens are designed to digest forage. So, better-quality forage for our weaned calves is what we really need to focus on,” Coffey added.

Additionally, livestock specialists recommend supplementing weaned calves with a mixed ration containing feed byproducts and significant fiber content. Livestock specialists also suggest feeding a blend of feed byproducts to give calves a balance of nutrients. “Having a mix, for example, of distillers grains with soybean hulls helps take off some of the extremes on both of those two,” Coffey explained. “Distillers grains are really high in phosphorus and soybean hulls are low in phosphorus, so when we blend those, we get an adequate phosphorus level.” A balanced phosphorus level reduces the potential for a calcium-phosphorus imbalance, which can lead to the urinary calculi (kidney stones) in steers. 

Reduce Stress and Spread Out 

If an animal is stressed, a producer is likely losing money. A stressed calf eats less or not at all and is more likely to get sick. “Stress really hurts cattle; it affects their immune function and growth performance,” Coffey stated.

Fence line weaning as well as giving calves room to roam helps to keep them healthy. “We have done work like this for a number of years, and just getting those cattle spread out more reduces the stress and reduces the sickness,” Coffey said. Providing weaned calves enough space where they are not “nose-to-nose” aids in preventing the spread of illness. 

A stressed calf may also not respond as well to vaccinations. Producers are spending money for the vaccinations, yet a stressed calf may not be getting the full benefit of the vaccination. Managing the weaned calves’ stress has lasting effects. “Taking measures to reduce stress is good for the animal in the long term,” Coffey stated. “A lot of times we don’t catch that they are sick as soon as we should and permanent damage sets in. That is why we lose some in June when it turns hot and humid, they have had too much lung damage and just can’t breathe, and they die because of the heat and humidity.”

Implementing management practices to give weaned calves excellent care sets them up for greater success and positively impacts producers’ pocketbooks. “Anything we can do to reduce stress is going to help us be better managers, it helps the public perception, which is huge now, and the bottom line is it helps us make more money because we don’t have as many sick animals. There are statistics out there on how much a sick animal costs you in addition to the medicine; there’s a cost of lost performance,” Coffey concluded. 


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