Feeding calves and the 100-yard dash share one thing in common; in both instances it is nearly impossible to start poorly and expect to win. During the initial 6 weeks on feed calves must successfully adapt to a new environment with new sources of feed and water, all without momma at their side.

Ideally, all calves would be well prepared on the ranch for life in the feedlot. In reality, there will always be some cattle that have not been prepared as well as others. In the best of circumstances starting calves will still offer some challenges. The good news is that these challenges can be overcome by good management and animal husbandry.

Risk Assessment

Some calves are at a higher risk for disease and other problems when they enter the yard. A set of home raised calves, or single-source cattle with a known pre-conditioning history are far different from a group of long-haul, lightweight calves of unknown origin(s). Treating both groups alike could result in poor outcomes with the high-risk calves and/or high expenses with the better prepared cattle.

Knowledge of the calves’ background will help identify higher-risk cattle that need more intensive management. Unfortunately, this transfer of information does not occur often enough. Only 32% of feedyards report that they receive information about the prior history of calves “always or most of the time”.

Nutrition and Management

Getting calves to start eating as quickly as possible without triggering digestive upsets is the critical success factor in the first 30-45 days in the yard. Feed intake in highly stressed calves can be less than 2% of body weight for the first two weeks, even lower for the calves that get sick. On the other hand, lower risk, home raised calves typically have higher intakes, which can make them more susceptible to problems such as bloat and acidosis they are allowed to eat all they want or if ration changes are made too quickly.

Because feed intakes are limited in the receiving phase, the feed that the calves will eat must be nutrient dense. Receiving diets should be 50 to 70% concentrate with the balance made up of high quality roughage. Excellent quality grass hay is the safest roughage source to utilize to start calves, however legume forage can be used if intakes are watched closely. Calves that are not accustomed to silage or other fermented feed need to be adapted to those feeds over at least a two-week period.

Diets containing 47 to 50 Mcal NEg and 12 to 14% CP should be adequate for normally weaned, low-risk calves. High-risk cattle may require higher levels of concentrate and CP to compensate for lower feed intakes. Additional mineral and vitamin supplementation in the feed may be beneficial, especially in higher risk calves. The cheapest ration may not be the most profitable if one of the unintended consequences is increased sickness and death loss. It is very easy to fall into the trap of stepping over dollars while trying to pick up dimes.   

Animal Husbandry

Close observation and prompt treatment of sick calves is critical to control death loss. The amount of labor available to check and treat sick cattle has been shown to be a major factor in death loss rates. Fall is an extremely busy time of the year, especially for farmer-feeders. However, considering that 200 head of steer calves represent an investment of nearly a quarter of a million dollars, it may be more profitable to hire a truck driver so that someone with the right skills has the time to make cattle management a priority.

Stress during the receiving phase becomes additive. Dehorning, castrating, and vaccinating calves all at the same time will likely result in significant problems. Spreading those procedures out reduces the amount of stress the animal experiences. Cattle that are not dehorned or castrated prior to arrival in the feedlot should be discounted severely enough to account for the increased risk and labor required.