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Feedlot facts on weaning

Chris Reinhardt, Kansas State University Published on 04 November 2010

‘Tis the season: weaning time. This month we’ll address on-the-farm weaning rations. The biggest hurdle in getting calves started off right in the fall is the weather. That’s one reason to consider early weaning and subsequent backgrounding. If calves get through the stressful process of weaning from their dam and onto feed ahead of the annual fall 35 degree rain, they have a good chance at success.

Good quality grass hay is very palatable and a good way to attract bawling calves to the bunk. Don’t use a bale ring; you’ll just need to re-train them to the bunk later. After one to two days of hay feeding, limit hay consumption to about 1 percent of bodyweight (5 pounds for a 500-pound calf) and top-dress 3 to 5 pounds per head (for a 500-pound calf) of the weaning ration on top of the hay. As calves consume this small amount of mixed diet, begin to further reduce the amount of hay you feed each day and increase the amount of mixed diet.

CAUTION: Increase the feed offered per head very gradually. Excessive consumption of even a moderate energy starter diet can cause acidosis in a calf, which hasn’t been fully adapted to grain. Increase the ration no more than 2 pounds per head every other day.

If calves are hungry, feed 1 to 2 pounds of extra hay in the bunk. If stools become loose, you may have increased the ration too rapidly. If this happens, feed an additional 1 to 2 pounds per head of hay.

Healthy calves should consume about 3 percent of bodyweight by 14 days on feed. Sick calves may take longer to reach this level of consumption. Gauge any changes you make to feed deliveries on cattle behavior and disease status---slower may be better in the long run. You want to make the weaning diet as easy of transition for the calves as possible. You need to deliver energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals, all in a form that they will readily consume.

A standard mixture of 50 percent ground hay (grass or grass/alfalfa mix), 50 percent concentrate (including cracked or ground grain and starter supplement) can be fairly easy to blend and manage. However, if byproduct feeds such as wheat midds, soy hulls, distillers grains, or corn gluten feed are available and inexpensive, they can be substituted for a portion of the grain component. Silage should be limited to 10 percent or less in the starter ration, but can be increased in later step-up diets. Avoid the temptation to skimp on QUALITY of starter ingredients; also, avoid the temptation to rush the QUANTITY of starter ration you provide for the calves to eat.

When calves have consumed 3 percent of their body weight of the starter ration continuously for three to five days, you can move them up to the next step-up ration.

Weaning Decisions

If you’ve decided to sell your calves, you need to determine how to maximize your return on what you’ve already invested. You may have already determined that selling immediately following weaning through conventional market channels is best for you. However, there are alternatives to selling your calves as a “commodity.”

Kansas State research has demonstrated the potential values of weaning for at least two weeks prior to shipment to the auction market or to the feedyard. Other data have shown benefits of weaning at least 45 days prior to shipment and commingling. But, most importantly, you need to ensure that you will get paid for any added investment you make in adding value to your calves.

The term “adding value” only applies if the buyer perceives the same value that the seller does. If the buyers at the sale you use, don’t pay more for preconditioned calves, then preconditioning has no value, at that sale. However, other buyers, at other sales, certainly DO value preconditioning, and it’s your prerogative to seek out these buyers to get paid for adding true value.

This may also apply to other aspects of your calf crop. Perhaps your calves have excellent genetics for growth or muscling or marbling.

Make sure to seek out the market that will give you the best value for your unique product.

There are certain grocery stores where upon entry, the shopper makes a tacit agreement with the management: “I will pay you more for groceries, but you must provide me with quality.”

Shoppers don’t go to these stores looking to pinch pennies, but instead to buy high quality products with an assurance of sustained value. The same can be said for value-added sales. Buyers don’t come to a dedicated preconditioned calf sale looking for the lowest price, but for sustaining value, i.e. calves that will perform.

So, before you make extensive investment in preconditioning, or after you’ve made a substantial investment in high-value genetics, make sure you find the market that will pay most for your added value. end_mark

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