Starting cattle correctly can make the difference between success or failure in cattle feeding, says nutritionist and feedyard consultant John Beckett, PhD. Beckett recently spoke to veterinarians during the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) conference, outlining programs and philosophies that have worked for his clients.

Beckett began with an outline of general rules for starting cattle on feed:

  • Shipping shrink is correlated with morbidity after arrival.
  • Adequate intake soon after arrival is critical.
  • High intake of starch is detrimental during this period.
  • Adequate trace-mineral intake depends on total intake and concentration of the minerals in the ration.
  • Proper feeding is more beneficial to animal health than antibiotics.

The goal, he says, is to achieve maximum intake over the entire feeding period, and not every day. A good receiving program, with limited feed intake, can result in greater intake overall. With that in mind, Beckett prefers to hold new arrivals back for the first 21 days or so, limiting feed so cattle will empty the bunk between feedings and come to the bunk hungry when feed arrives. He slowly steps new arrivals up with more feed, reaching near maximum levels by the time they transition to a higher-energy ration. You don’t want them too hungry when introducing more grain to the ration, he says. For sale-barn yearlings, he’ll start feeding them about 1.5 percent of body weight on a dry-matter basis, gradually stepping up to about 2.2 percent of body weight before the transition to the next ration.

In a receiving ration, a key goal is to get the cattle coming to the bunk to feed. The ration should be high in roughage, low in starch and low in non-protein nitrogen. Corn syrup, corn steep or molasses can improve palatability, and corn co-products such as distillers’ grains can provide protein without excessive starch. He does not favor feeding silage in the receiving ration as the unfamiliar odor keeps cattle away from the bunk. Too much starch in receiving rations can lead to irreversible acidosis and laminitis.

Cattle feeders rarely have any idea of the mineral status of new arrivals, so a good mineral package including zinc, copper and vitamins A and E can help protect health and performance.

A typical four-ration system includes a starter ration, growing ration, finishing ration and a “finishing-plus” ration containing a beta agonist. Beckett says he has come to prefer a two-ration system that gradually moves from a starter ration to a finishing ration with small increases in ration energy every two days over a 21-day period. This approach, he says, results in a steeper, smoother intake curve.

Feedyard bunk readers, he says, must be engaged in the process, observing cattle behavior, changes in the weather and the consistency of manure for signs of acidosis while stepping cattle up. In pens on finishing rations, he likes to see about one-third of the cattle at the feedbunk, one-third standing and one-third resting at any given time.

Beckett says some yeast and yeast-based feed additives appear to improve health of new arrivals in the feedyard. He also uses a probiotic product, Lactipro, with good success. Feedyards add small amounts of the probiotic to rations to help ensure a smoother transition to higher-concentrate diets. This product, from MSBiotech, contains a live culture of Megasphaera elsdenii that utilizes lactic acid and converts it to volatile fatty acids.