Cattle Nutrition: Starting Cattle is Serious Business

August 27, 2010 11:13 AM

As fall approaches, cattlemen are preparing to buy the cattle they need to stock their winter pastures. The preweaned and vaccinated calf supply slowly grows each year, due to the numerous programs available across the country that are designed to benefit producers who practice it.
However, the majority of calves sold every year still have no idea what a feedbunk looks like, let alone a processing facility. If people who are buying and receiving calves take the time to prepare for the arrival of these cattle, it can make the transition a lot easier for all involved.

Here are some points to consider before and during the arrival of calves to your facility this fall:

  • Clean receiving pens. Summer is an excellent time to get pens in condition for cattle. This means scraping and hauling away manure, but also hauling good dirt back in and filling the holes around the water tanks, bunks and fence lines where low spots have developed.
  • Fix fences. Rehanging gates and replacing portions of the fence can save you time and labor later when all your pens are full of cattle.
  • Get your bunklines in order. Whether you just need to realign your feedbunks or perform some

repair and replacement, this is an important aspect of the process. If feed is falling out of the bunk and onto the ground, consider it money out of your pocket.

  • Get your diets ready. If you are using a total mixed ration (TMR), have your diets evaluated and in place before you get cattle. This will ensure you have the right ingredients on hand and are ready to go. And while the process is not as predictable as in the past, fall typically is a better time to contract and buy additional feed ingredients if needed.
  • Clean water sources. Making sure that water tanks are working and clean is critical to encourage water consumption of newly arrived cattle. Providing lots of good water is probably one of the most important steps to getting cattle on feed and healthy early.
  • Fill hay bunks. New cattle should never have to come into a confined pen without 3 lb. to 5 lb. of loose prairie or grass hay sitting in the bunk. This encourages cattle to stop walking the fence when they are first put in the pen, gets something into their bellies to satisfy and calm them down after the stress of handling and encourages them to go drink water if they haven’t already.

Hay in the bunk is always better than a round bale in the pen. By having it in the bunk, you not only know how much the cattle eat every day, but you can limit hay consumption to make sure they are eating the high-quality TMR ration that is being provided to them.

  • Provide balanced rations at the right amounts. One of the most common mistakes when starting calves is to provide them with too much feed. With the widespread use of corn coproducts such as distillers’ grains, it is very easy to put together diets that are higher in protein (16% to 18% crude protein on a dry matter basis), moderate in energy (46 to 48 Mcal/cwt. NEg on a dry matter basis), and still be very cost-effective. University research shows these rations can be fed at moderate amounts (up to 2% of body weight, on a dry matter basis) and perform exceptionally well.

Keeping calves just a little hungry will ensure they keep coming to the bunk and will be easier to manage in all aspects of the program.

ZEB PRAWL is a ruminant nutritionist with Great Plains Livestock Consulting, Inc., located in Eagle, Neb. For more information, visit

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