Is Your Facility Ready to Receive?

December 9, 2009 06:00 PM

Cows and calves are ready to wean. Check. The receiving pen or pasture has been cleaned or mowed. Check. Hay is in the bunk. Fresh water is on. Fence is up. Hot wire is hot. The moon is in the right sign. Check, check and check.

Sounds like the weaning checklist is all complete, right? Maybe. Before you wean calves or receive a group of recently weaned calves, take a commonsense, close look at your facilities and pen setup before the animals walk into the lot.

There are really two approaches to calf weaning, explains Clay Mathis, New Mexico State University Extension livestock specialist. Calves can be weaned in a drylot or in a trap or pasture. The decision depends upon whether you have adequate facilities and feed for drylot weaning or sufficient grazeable forage for weaning on pasture. With pasture-based weaning, forages are a large part of the animal's diet, compared with drylot weaning, where grains, byproduct feeds, hay and/or silage comprise the diet.

Mathis, who has researched how to lower stress on weaned calves, says either option will work, as long as there is plenty of space for animals to move freely and have access to quality feed and fresh water.

"Research conducted in California found fenceline weaned calves spent more time eating than calves weaned according to other methods and gained more weight during the first two weeks after weaning,” Mathis says.

But fenceline weaning doesn't have to mean a pasture-only system, he adds. Even if cattle are in a drylot facility, having cows adjacent to weaned calves establishes the same relationship.

"During weaning, your facility has to have one thing—a good fence,” Mathis says.

Justin Sexten, University of Missouri Extension beef nutritionist, agrees: "If there is one good fence on the farm, that is the fence you want to wean against.”

As your cattle numbers change from year to year, make sure your facility space and equipment is still adequate for the number of head it will be holding. "If you have corral [pens], they have to be big enough, and if you have fences, they have to be high enough,” Mathis says.

Simple changes to your receiving pen, such as fence structure, bunk placement and feeding procedures, can improve calf performance.
Pens arranged just right.
Sexten adds that there are a number of other commonsense ways to improve calf performance during weaning. Placing water sources and feed bunks strategically in the pen is one of them.

"Producers often place feeders lined up right down the middle of the pen, where it's easy to get to, and calves spend their whole time walking around the feeders. They will eventually find them, but it is very easy to take the feedbunks and slide them over to the fence where the cows are. By putting them next to or adjacent to, the fence, we accomplish two things. One, as the calves cluster toward the cows, we help the calves find the feed. Two, we stop calves from circling around the pen.”

"The most important nutrient to a calf is water,” Sexten adds. "If a calf doesn't eat for three days, he's hungry, but if a calf doesn't drink for three days, he has a problem.

"However, water availability is often the major limitation with weaning facilities. If calves are going to spend most of their time on the fence near the cows, then we want it set up so the cows show the calves where the water is. Because the sooner they drink, the sooner they start eating.”

Need my space. "When we put calves in a drylot, we don't want them too crowded in the corrals following weaning,” Mathis says. Weaned calves will likely be skittish in the new environment, bunching with other calves during the weaning process and getting used to noises like tractors and skid steers, which will put extra strain on fences.

At the feedbunk, there is no room for competition. Weaned calves will need to have 18" to 24" of bunk space per animal. "By putting these feeders up against the fence so they are sticking out, we get to take advantage of both sides of the bunk. If you don't have quite enough feeder space, producers can feed more often, which is better anyway,” Sexten says.

To get calves used to human interaction, Sexten suggests that producers calmly walk through the lot three times a day, especially during the first two weeks. Doing this along with feeding will help cattle associate humans with feed availability.

Let's eat. "We want the calves to eat 2% of their body weight as soon as possible. Until they get to 2%, they are not going to gain weight,” Sexten says.

In drylots, if producers are able, Sexten suggests feeding flakes of small square hay bales in the feedbunks in the first two weeks after weaning.

"You want cattle to eat feed out of a bunk, right? Instead of putting hay in a ring feeder in the middle of the pen, get some small squares and put them in the bunk the first week,” Sexten says. "You will help the cattle find the feed. And most research shows that if you feed hay in the bunk for the first week, you increase dry matter intake earlier on, as opposed to feeding it separately.”

Cattle will prefer whole grains or pelleted feed rather than dusty, ground feed. While cracked corn is better digestibility-wise, Sexten says, it isn't free.

Keep protein levels in receiving diets at 15% to 16%. "Especially in the first two weeks, we want 60% of that to be bypass protein, such as distillers' grains or brewers' grains. Those are both low-starch feeds that are high in bypass protein. If a calf doesn't eat very much, we do not want a lot of filler in that feed. So our receiving diet should be very energy-dense,” Sexten says.

How does that weaning checklist look now? Fine-tuning each element is the key to success. BT


1. Trace minerals.

"In receiving diets, you'll hear talk about needing a very high mineral content,” says Justin Sexten, University of Missouri Extension beef nutritionist. "If you buy cattle that you don't have any background information on, it may be a valuable point of discussion. However, if you have been packing mineral sacks to those calves all summer while they were on the cow, it is likely an unnecessary expense. In two weeks, they are not going to eliminate their entire mineral stores during receiving.”

2. Ionophores and feed antibiotics.

Use ionophores and antibiotics only if they will be effective.

Ionophores will help with coccidiosis, if that is a problem, and may improve feed efficiency and average daily gain. Antibiotics should not be used as treatment—sick cattle don't eat. Used as a preventive measure, they can help to avoid sickness in the first place.

3. Clean up Dusty lots.

Freshly weaned cattle by nature will walk the perimeter of the fence, which stirs up a lot of dust. Calves breathing nothing but dust for two or three days will be more likely to have health problems. "If it is a grass pasture lot, that's the best,” Sexten says. "Concrete also works well.”

To contact Sara Brown, e-mail

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