Every year toward the end of fall harvest, cattle producers contemplate what to do with their freshly weaned calves. Those interested in finishing calves generally want to fatten them by the end of April to capitalize on the seasonal price increase in the fed-cattle market as well as to ship the whole pen before the summer heat sets in. Planning for retained ownership should start well before weaning day. The key to marketing calf-feds earlier is a cow-herd management and calf-nutrition plan aimed at weaning larger, heavier and relatively older calves. It’s well-established that the biggest calves at weaning will be the first to market in the spring.
The primary factors that influence calf-fed market timing are calf age and genetics. Coupled with maturity, calves that exhibit greater genetic merit and better nutritional background are more apt to reach market weight by 13 months to 15 months of age.
If the goal is to market calves May 1, cow-calf producers need to target an average calving date of March 1, assuming a 60-day calving window. That approach will ensure calves will be 13 months to 15 months of age at slaughter, finishing them in a more favorable marketing window given a proper management and feed program.
Cow nutrition can influence the calf-fed marketing date. Due to fetal programming, the way cows were managed and fed during gestation will have a direct, long-term effect on the next calf crop. A well-balanced nutrition program – combined with a good health protocol – is vital to developing a calf that can perform to its full genetic potential.
While a focus on protein and energy throughout gestation is important, a balanced trace-mineral program that uses organic trace minerals shouldn’t be overlooked.
Calving and weaning dates are important contributors to allowing calves to reach market before summer. Depending on their weaning weight, calves could require as much as 240 days to transition from weaning to finish. Therefore for calves to be ready for market May 1, they need to be weaned in early September at the appropriate age and weight. Even with 240 days on feed, calves will require a well-managed health and feed protocol to hit the spring market.
Supplementing the cow and calf can pay in the weaning phase by easing the transition from a grazing-based diet to a bulk delivered ration. Throughout most of the Midwest, most spring-calving cow-calf pairs will be supplemented at some point from birth to weaning. Whether the program includes supplementing through the spring months before turnout or in late-season when the grass has dried, supplementation can train calves to come to a motorized vehicle for their next meal. That will help distract them from missing their mothers and onto eating more quickly on weaning day.
Another method of reducing weaning stress is creep feeding. Cattle producers typically view it as a means of adding weight pre-weaning. But it also can serve as an excellent training method to start calves on dry feed. Calves that are creep-fed for more than 30 days prior to weaning will become accustomed to consuming pellets or grain from a bunk and won’t be solely dependent on grass and milk.
Creep-feed intake also stimulates production of the volatile fatty acid butyrate, which promotes rumen function and papillae development. That helps calves more quickly adjust to grain rations because they’re already consuming a greater-energy feed. Ideally calves should reach a creep-feed intake approaching 1 percent to 1.5 percent of their body weight prior to weaning.
Weaning to finish
Calf performance and death loss from weaning to finish are primary concerns when considering retained ownership. They’re directly related to nutrition and management. Producers finishing calves for the first time are encouraged to visit with their nutritionist and veterinarian to develop a plan to keep calves on track for a May 1 finish. The plan should include feeding and bunk management, diet adaptations, implant and vaccination protocols, and pen maintenance.
A solid health program – coupled with a low-stress weaning period – is the backbone of calf immunity and helps position them for success during the finishing phase. A good start will help eliminate issues, such as respiratory disease and coccidiosis, that can decrease performance and increase days on feed.
Diet changes are another source of stress as calves receive more energy and transition from high-roughage to high-concentrate rations. Calf-feds should be started on a moderate-energy receiving ration for 14 days to 28 days. That gives them time to establish consistent intake levels and transition through weaning stress.
Following the starting program calves must be fed more energy gradually. That allows both the animal and their rumen microbes to adjust to the greater starch load while also maintaining rumen health. High-energy diets present two challenges – greater starch content and a small particle size. Both factors are known to increase risk of digestive upset if not carefully managed.
Ration energy can be increased every three days to seven days, with more days allowed on the highest-energy steps. The timing of the changes is influenced by the experience level of the cattle feeder, the feed acceptance and any calf-health challenges. That results in a minimum of six weeks to eight weeks from entering the feedlot to the finishing ration. From there managing daily feed intakes through health and weather breaks is the key to minimizing digestive upsets and maximizing performance.
Finishing rations are balanced to meet calf-nutrient requirements for maximum gain. As the dietary-energy content increases, protein levels are held constant and are usually higher than those included in yearling-cattle rations. The added fortification accounts for the increased protein requirements of the younger growing-finishing calves, especially if growth-promoting implants are used to increase performance. A balanced trace mineral program will support calf health and performance.
Retaining ownership of calves from weaning to finish may be a foreign concept to some cattle producers, but it should still be considered as an option when the fed-cattle market provides profit opportunities. For a retained ownership program to be feasible, advanced planning is necessary. Cow and sire genetics, herd nutrition, calving dates, weaning weights and calf age are critical components that will contribute to success. All of the factors need to align, allowing calves to finish earlier and hit the seasonal “sweet spot” in the fed-cattle market. Visit hubbardfeeds.com for more information.
Garrett Preedy is a beef nutritionist for Hubbard Feeds. He earned a bachelor's degree in animal science and a master's degree in ruminant nutrition, both at Kansas State University. He focused on cow-calf nutrition and management.