Two rations to feed early-weaned calves

Here are two feed rations and eight tips for producers who need to early wean calves to save pasture and improve cow rebreeding.

Alan Newport, Editor, Beef Producer

July 13, 2017

5 Min Read
Removing calves at six to eight weeks into lactation reduces the quantity and quality of forage needed to maintain the cow herd, and also causes hormonal changes in the cows that stimulate estrus.Jacqueline Nix-iStock-Thinkstock

One of the biggest components to successfully early weaning of calves from drought-stressed cows and pastures is a prosperous transition to a feed ration or rations.

Much of the information on this topic cited traces back to two annual trials at Oklahoma State University back in 1980-82. That paper notes the first two weeks after weaning are critical because stress can be high and calves need to learn how to eat and drink.

More recent information from OSU suggests two rations for weaned calves. Both have been widely used by beef producers and proven successful, says Dave Lalman, beef specialist for OSU. Those can be found in the chart imbedded in this story.


Diet A has the advantage of requiring fewer commodities and no alfalfa pellets. Diet B is less bulky, resulting in better handling characteristics, and it should flow better in self-feeders.

Also included in the reports are these eight pieces of advice.

1. The calves should be placed in a small pen with shelter available. The feed bunk and water source should be easily accessible and recognizable.

2. The ration needs to be high in energy and protein and highly palatable. New Mexico research has shown young calves seem less as prone to acidosis than yearlings, and eat concentrated rations very well. Consumption of these rations be 3% of body weight within two weeks

3. Cottonseed hulls were used as the sole roughage source in one ration and a significant portion in the other, since they are extremely palatable. If chopped hay is substituted for cottonseed hulls, molasses should be added to minimize dust. Both are complete rations and should not be supplemented with hay.

4. Soybean meal or alfalfa is a preferable protein source over cottonseed meal for young calves, and Lalman says the ration labeled Diet B is well tested and favored by producers starting lightweight calves.

5. The original research suggested three step-up rations, but either A or B work fine until calves get up to about 400 pounds, when they can be turned out on grass or switched to a more traditional growing diet.

6. To insure that smaller and more timid calves get a chance at feed and water, limit 20 calves per pen during the critical first few days on the starter ration. Placing one or two older calves that are accustomed to eating and drinking in with the early-weaned calves helps to reduce stress on the weaned calves and give them someone to follow to the feed bunks and waterers.

7. If coccidiosis is believed to be a potential problem, a cocciostat should be fed at the start of the early weaning period.

8. Watch for respiratory problems, especially during the first few days.

In that older OSU data, calves gained 1.75 pounds per day for the weaned period and in recent years have gained 1.75 to 2.25 pounds per day on the two rations we show here. In North Dakota trials, early-weaned calves gained 1.51 to 2.32 pounds per day.

If silages and other fermented feeds will be used in an early weaning program, Rick Rasby, University of Nebraska beef specialist, says in another paper on early weaning those forages should be introduced gradually into the diets of young calves that are inexperienced with such feeds. Although they have high nutrition, he says, silages should only be used in limited amounts because the high moisture level and the palatability characteristics of silage make it unlikely calves will consume silage-based diets in amounts adequate to grow at targeted levels.

More lessons from a confined-cow perspective

Oklahoma State University has for several years now maintained a confined-cow operation and therefore has calves on feed. Beef Producer asked OSU beef specialist Dave Lalman if he has any new lessons or thoughts from those experiences he would share. This is his answer:

"I do believe we have confirmed some things we already knew. First of all, I would consider our particular operation coccidiosis-challenged. Meaning we have a history of problems if we confine calves in a dry lot during a stressful period for any length of time and don’t include a coccidiostat. We haven’t had a problem controlling the disease as long as we include the additive.

"Similar to a lot of southern Great Plains ranching operations, our primary forage resource is harvested hay. We do not produce cottonseed hulls, peanut hulls, silage, haylage or alfalfa hay here at our location. Also, we don’t have enough animals to justify the use of a semi-load of Sweet Bran (wet corn gluten feed) or wet distiller’s grains because we couldn’t use if fast enough before it spoils. As a result, our diet ingredients are dry and dusty, requiring the inclusion of a liquid molasses product to cut down on dust, increase palatability, and stick ingredients together (reduce sorting).

"Consequently, we have used a TMR of about 30 to 35% processed prairie or bermudagrass hay, 7.5% liquid feed, and the rest a blend of DDGS and cracked corn. We have tried to use the highest quality hay available to us. This gives us a palatable diet that is relatively safe in terms of digestive upset (bloat and founder), adequate protein concentration for little calves, will support 2 to 3 pounds per day ADG, and good feed conversion. Obviously, there would be many other ways to approach this depending on available resources, facilities and feed mixing/feeding equipment. This is simply the general approach we have taken, as an example."

"This nutritional management program needs to be closely monitored and managed daily. Feed intake, scours, hair coat, calves consuming dirt or chewing wood and fleshiness are things to keep an eye on. The calves should be licking themselves and hair coat should be bright and fresh (not brown and stale looking for black calves for example). My suggestion would be to limit feed intake once it reaches about 2 to 2.5% of body weight to keep calves from getting too fleshy. In our recent experiments, we pretty much fed the calves about all they would consume just to learn how much they would eat compared to their contemporaries still nursing their mothers. As a result, the early weaned calves were fleshy by the 205-day mark.

"Obviously, the nutritional management program requires a lot of iron, and with that comes maintenance and depreciation. We have processed our hay, blended our ration and fed using a truck with a vertical mixer/hay processor. If the truck goes down, you are in trouble. So you need a backup plan!"

About the Author(s)

Alan Newport

Editor, Beef Producer

Alan Newport is editor of Beef Producer, a national magazine with editorial content specifically targeted at beef production for Farm Progress’s 17 state and regional farm publications. Beef Producer appears as an insert in these magazines for readers with 50 head or more of beef cattle. Newport lives in north-central Oklahoma and travels the U.S. to meet producers and to chase down the latest and best information about the beef industry.

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