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Transitioning to the feedlot

Craig Belknap for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 September 2020
Cattle in a feedlot

It’s that time of year when spring calves will be weaned and new cattle will be entering stocker and feedlot operations.

What you do in the next hours and days will have a tremendous impact on how well those calves perform while in your facilities. Getting them started on the right nutrition program will significantly impact both their health and performance, directly impacting your profitability. Here’s how to help cattle make a smooth transition to their new environment:

1. Try to minimize stress at arrival by creating an optimal environment and allowing cattle to rest prior to processing

During the receiving period, cattle undergo a change in diet and environment; are hauled and commingled; have feed and water withheld; might also be vaccinated; and may be implanted, among other things. All of this causes disturbance in the rumen. The ultimate results of these stressors are:

  • Severely disrupted rumen bacterial balance
  • Reduced rumen bacterial populations to only 10%-25% of normal
  • Decreased rumen fermentative ability by 85%-90%

Cattle can also suffer significant weight loss, losing more than half a percent of bodyweight for every 100 miles of transport. Animals that lose more than 7% of bodyweight are at a high stress level and at higher disease risk; this can also have a negative effect on rumen function. To reduce stress, avoid processing cattle immediately upon arrival. A good rule of thumb is to let calves rest one hour for each hour of time they spent on the truck, before they are run through a chute for processing.

Be sure to keep them comfortable in a pen that protects them from the elements; the pen should also be clean, dry and well-bedded. Have a sufficient supply of fresh water available and located where cattle can easily fit. Don’t start the animals on grain within the first 24 hours, and make long-stem grass hay and palatable feed readily available to get their rumen going again. You should also give cattle about a foot of bunk space per head.

A lot of yards will try to process within the first 24 hours. One of the goals at processing is to vaccinate cattle so their acquired immune system can mount an immune response to the vaccine and ultimately build antibodies that help protect them from sickness. This is an effective strategy for most cattle.

However, some research suggests producers might be better off with a delayed vaccination program if the animal’s immune system is not ready to mount an effective immune response to the vaccine. This delayed program entails waiting for around 14 days after arrival, as improved health and performance outcomes have been reported in high-risk stocker calves using this strategy. The obvious downside to this program is that there is a 14-day window right after arrival when cattle may have limited protection from a challenge. Nonetheless, if you have high-risk calves, you may want to consult with your veterinarian about this option.

2. Get the rumen functioning and acclimated to new ration. Consider using a drench product that supports active rumen microbial growth and efficiency

Getting cattle acclimated to a new ration is critical. Start them off on long-stem hay to get the rumen going again. The primary goal is to get cattle eating and to keep them healthy. You’re not trying to maximize gain, but rather you’re trying to ensure consistent intake of a nutrient-dense diet. Work with your nutritionist and take cattle up slowly. Depending on their history, background and size, this will dictate how quickly you can take cattle onto feed. Some cattle must go slower, some can go faster, but ultimately, work with your nutritionist to decide.

Keep in mind, it’s important to hedge on the side of caution. Be sure to feed cattle twice a day, and keep an eye on those who aren’t coming up to the bunk to eat – they are the higher risk. In order to get rumen function moving in the right direction, start at processing by drenching calves with an immune health support product.

Use a product designed to naturally balance rumen microbiota and optimize the rumen environment. An oral drench is usually a one-time deal and administered when cattle are processed that first day. Drenches are rapidly gaining in popularity, as they are easy to use and relatively inexpensive, adding very little to processing costs.

There is incredible value in incorporating a drench. Not only can it provide a way to get vital nutrients that will help jump-start rumen microbes and rumen activity, but it can also provide immune benefits to keep cattle on a higher state of health and drive cattle to the bunk, especially those who are more hesitant. This is where they will get their energy, protein and other essential nutrients. In the end, a robust rumen function translates into healthier, better performing cattle.

3. Create a ration that allows time for cattle to transition to a new diet and include ingredients that support immune function

New arrivals may eat poorly for the first few days until they become accustomed to their new surroundings, their new pen mates and a new ration. Abrupt changes in feed such as introducing too much grain too quickly or putting cattle out into lush pastures can disrupt rumen function.

Feed good-quality grass and a transition starter ration with products that stimulate rumen function and support active immunity. Including an immune support product in the ration will help feed microbes in the rumen and restore the microbial population. This can help with the consistency of feed intake, optimal rumen, and overall health and rumen function. The drench and the immune support product are a one-two punch to the program. A drench is the original dose, then the immune ingredients keep that healthy rumen balanced and functioning for optimal intake and performance moving forward.

All incoming cattle will experience stress of some kind. This stress significantly compromises the microbial population in the rumen, as well as depresses rumen function. Steps taken to lessen stress in newly received cattle, as well as to help them recuperate, will pay extra in terms of improved health and performance. By minimizing arrival stress, stimulating the microbial population in the rumen through a drench, and feeding a nutrient-dense diet containing immune support ingredients, a smoother transition can be made to get cattle started on the right track.  end mark

PHOTO: New arrivals may eat poorly for the first few days until they become accustomed to their new surroundings, their new pen mates and a new ration. Staff photo.

Craig Belknap
  • Craig Belknap

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