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Caring for calves in confinement

Loretta Sorensen for Progressive Cattleman Published on 25 January 2017
Calves begin eating feed within the first three weeks of life

There’s more to it than you might think

As pasture becomes more scarce and land lease costs rise, cow-calf producers are evaluating alternative methods for producing beef.

Karla Jenkins, University of Nebraska – Lincoln cow-calf specialist, says placing cow-calf pairs in a confined area can be cost-effective. However, producers need to revise feeding plans and accommodate calves in terms of facility design and access to feed.

“Calves have a much higher nutrient requirement than cows,” Jenkins says. “Calves can eat the same diet as cows, but they need access to plenty of high-energy, high-protein feeds.

For some producers, creating a creep gate in the pen allows calves to get to the feed they need or a different ration without being pushed aside by cows or having the majority of the feed consumed by cows.”

If a creep gate isn’t feasible, a creep feeder can be used. To provide high-quality forage to just calves, producers could consider using a fence that allows calves access to forage but keeps cows out.

Meeting their needs

Jenkins cautions beef producers to remember that confined animals depend completely on the producer for all water and nutrition. A feeding and confinement plan that worked early in a calf’s life may not be adequate as the calf grows.

“Keep in mind that in a pasture setting, once calves are 3 months old and the cow goes into lactation, calves will eat 1 percent of their bodyweight in forage,” Jenkins says. “On pasture, calves eat forage at will when cows begin to lactate. In confinement, that feed needs to be provided.”

Water tank height and feedbunk height may be concerns in facilities originally designed for feeder calves. Producers should inspect tank sites to ensure cattle haven’t stomped the site down to the point where calves can’t reach the water.

“When calves suck, the esophageal groove in their throat closes so the milk goes into their abomasum,” Jenkins says. “All nutrition in that milk goes directly for tissue growth, skeletal and muscle growth. Microbes in the calf’s rumen don’t have access to that milk.

The liquid necessary to development of the rumen comes from water. If a calf doesn’t get enough water, rumen development is delayed.”

Unconventional options

Kansas State University beef cattle scientist John Jaeger says western Kansas beef producers are taking advantage of empty feedlots to confine cow-calf pairs when pasture isn’t available. Five years of drought gave some western Kansas cow-calf producers no choice but to turn to confinement.

“There is definitely more than one way to handle cow-calf pairs,” Jaeger says. “Some producers find it more economical to supply required nutrients in confinement over winter. The pairs might be out on pasture from spring into fall. When they return home, instead of going to a hay meadow or other grazing area, they can be put into confinement.”

Chanda Engel, North Dakota State University livestock research specialist, says confinement may simply be restricting cow-calf pairs to a small amount of land where a planted vegetation crop helps extend the growing season.

“If there’s not enough forage on that land to feed the cattle through the season, hay or other feed rations could be fed in that same area,” Engel says. “In order for confinement to be economical, feed sources must be available and ideally raised by the beef producer. Feed rations should be analyzed for both nutrition and cost-effectiveness.”

Jensen notes that mature cows may need limited dry matter intake to avoid overfeeding and increased feed costs. Common feed ration components in confinement have been distillers grains and cheap roughage such as wheat straw or poor-quality hay.

“Know the nutrient content of feed and nutrient requirements for cows and calves,” Jensen says. “Early weaning would allow for providing very different diets for the cow and calf. Consider your individual resources and needs. Don’t set up a confinement system just because your neighbor did it that way. Your needs may be quite different.”

Health considerations

Engel points out that labor resources may limit a producer’s ability to utilize a confinement system. Both feeding and cleaning pens are time-consuming. Herd health should be closely monitored and pest control activities – such as fly control – will be key to successful animal production.

“It’s possible that herd health will improve in confinement,” Jaeger says. “Producers can observe each animal every day, complete a daily headcount and overall keep a watchful eye on their animals.

In a pasture, animals might be checked each day, but actually putting your eyes on each one and counting the entire herd each day can be more challenging.”

In confinement, risk of spreading disease greatly increases. Muddy conditions can also put cattle at risk for numerous health issues.

“If you’re taking cattle to a large confinement facility where numerous producers are using pens, there is greater risk of disease development and spread,” Jaeger says.

To avoid development of disease when cows calve in confinement, producers can consider using separate areas for calving and dividing cow-calf groups according to calf age.

Separating cows and calves into small groups during confinement makes it easier to observe the animals and respond to needs for treatment or modified accommodations.

“In a tight space, it may be easier to spot a cow that’s not claiming a calf or observe that calves aren’t accessing feed like they should,” Jenkins says. “We used the Nebraska Sandhills Calving System in a recent research study, which meant keeping newborn calves away from 2-week-old calves to avoid development of scours."

"For some producers, it may not work well to have cattle separated into that many different groups. That’s when we have to think outside the box to determine how we can successfully use confinement.”

Rather than confining cattle to one area for 365 days per year, a combination of confinement, grazing residue and grazing cover crops could accommodate producer needs.

“Confined areas might be pivot corners, crop ground where cattle swath graze,” Jenkins says. “Hot wire around crop ground might be an option. Feed shot under the fence would accomplish the same thing as placing feed in a bunk.

If we limit our perception of confined feeding to the narrow idea of keeping cattle in a pen, we miss some beef production opportunities.”

Weather conditions also play an important role in confined feeding strategies. In areas like Iowa’s high-moisture climate, keeping cattle under a roof 365 days per year is almost required due to frequent muddy conditions. Where rain is scant, confinement design can be very different.

“How a cow-calf confinement works really depends on resources,” Jenkins says.

Jaeger points out that synchronization programs are likely to be more easily executed in a confinement system. Like any other beef production strategy, producers need to carefully evaluate the feasibility of confining cow-calf pairs.

“This method is probably most useful in response to drought or loss due to fire, loss of rented or leased land or similar situations when producers are trying to hang onto cattle,” Jaeger says. “In a time when capital outlay for land is such a major hurdle for young beef producers, confining cow-calf pairs may provide them with a way to get their foot in the door.”  end mark

Did you know?

Calves at a feed bunk

When limit feeding, all cattle must be able to reach the bunk at the same time, and cows should have a minimum of 2 feet of bunk space while another 1.5 feet should be allotted for each calf, with 350 to 400 square feet of pen space.

Source: Karla Jenkins,
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

–Karla Jenkins, University of Nebraska – Lincoln

PHOTO: Calves begin eating feed within the first three weeks of life. It is important to have a separate area where calves can have access to feed without competing with the cows. This can be a creep feeder in the pen, a low gate into another pen or creep grazing area, or an area of the bunk made inaccessible to the cows. Photo by Loretta Sorensen.

Loretta Sorensen
  • Loretta Sorensen

  • Freelance Writer
  • Yankton, South Dakota