Starting Cattle: The Profit is in the Details

Posted: October 27, 2020 | Written By: Heidi Doering-Resch, M.S. - Form-A-Feed Nutrition and Production Specialist

starting cattle

It’s been a rough year. I think we can all agree that we have faced many challenges in the cattle industry and are looking forward to fresh cattle in the feed yard and a clean slate to work from.

Starting cattle based on their risk factors has a lot to do with type and kind of cattle. Are they bawling calves, run through a sale barn and put together from multiple locations? Are they preconditioned? Ranch direct yearlings? All three of these scenarios have different starting protocols to ensure cattle are given the best opportunity to succeed at your feedlot. Starting cattle is definitely not a one size fits most. Here are a few pointers to think about when receiving cattle.

  1. Feed them for their risk factor – are they preconditioned, are they bawling, and have been sold through a sale barn? Are they yearling cattle from the north or the south? All these questions need to be answered prior to the cattle hitting your pen floor. Plan your risk and your step-up program accordingly with support from both your veterinarian and nutritionist.
  2. Clean, fresh water is key. Let me repeat that. Clean, fresh water is key. And the more water space available the better. One question I always ask is how much water are they consuming? If there is no meter, then look at the feed in the bunk and their urine color. If they are slow to eat, make sure they know where the water source is. Many cattle that are gathered out of pastures are not used to an automatic waterer making filling noises in their face; they are used to a stock damn they walk to in order to get a drink. Pay attention to this, as if they don’t drink, they don’t eat. Period.
  3. Fresh grass hay in the bunk is always a great idea. Shipping stress is hard on the animal because it’s hard on the rumen. Allowing a proper rumen fiber mat to be rebuilt, and bugs to not be depressed due to shipping stress, will allow these cattle to come up on feed in a healthy manner. They will not necessarily come up on feed quicker depending on their risk factor, but they will be healthy and consistent. You must feed the bugs to feed the animal.
  4. Feed twice a day on the receiving end if you don’t have a pen rider/walker. I make this statement because it will then make you look at the new calves more than once a day if you don’t have that active pen rider/walker. A common health error I find is at the receiving end, feeders are not actually going through their cattle more than once a day for health checks. If you feed twice a day, you also have an opportunity to correct an error should one have been made in the morning feeding. Not all cattle come up on feed the same way. A rule of thumb is to start at 1.5% of their bodyweight (BW) on a dry matter (DM) basis and work up to about 2.5 – 2.75%. A common mistake I find is feeders either don’t feed enough and cattle are not able to get enough vitamins and minerals to help build an immune system at such a timely event, or they drop too much feed and don’t remove the extra feed ‘making’ cattle consume un-fresh feed. Feeding twice a day up front allows you to adjust your feed calls on the go. Once intakes and health are established, then go to once a day feeding if you don’t have a pen rider.
  5. Only feed fresh feed. Period. Whether it’s fermented feeds or dry feeds. Moldy, dusty hay and off-colored burnt corn do not entice an animal to the bunk. Aside from that, moldy feeds wreak havoc on the rumen fiber mat, destroying the animal’s ability to digest fiber and further reducing your DMI and performance. That animal must metabolize that mold through the liver, which can set you up for liver diseases or further health challenges. No one likes to scoop bunks, but it’s cheaper to pay for that labor than a dead calf.
  6. Hay should be fed in a form that they would want to consume. I realize regions differ in what hay or fiber is available, but when ground corn stalks or hard bean stubble are offered in a fresh receiving ration instead of nice ground grass hay, you have already started that animal on the wrong foot if they won’t consume it. Bunk sorting should not be taught, and a good fiber mat sets that animal up for a healthy rumen. Look at how much better your total intake will be if that animal has nice ground grass hay, or something comparable. Something it recognizes in the bunk during its first 45 days on feed.
  7. Do not teach them bad bunk behavior. Sorting of feed and sporadic feeding times can lead to an acidotic rumen. If cattle learn to associate the feed bunk with an upset stomach, their enthusiasm to come back to that feed bunk is reduced, which also reduces DMI and thus overall performance.
  8. Know how to compute and follow your dry matter intake (DMI) every day. This helps show you how your cattle are coming up on feed and if they go stale or drop. It will show you when to look for issues in feed stability, water sourcing, or health issues that may arise, prompting a need for a veterinarian or a nutritionist’s attention in a short manner of time.
  9. Truly look and analyze your cattle every day. Spend time in the pen, whether horseback or on foot, and look and listen to the animal. How is their gut fill? Do they have nasal or eye discharge? Can you respiratory score them? How is pen environment and condition? Is the water tank clean? If you slowly walk through them can you pick out the early pulls? Chances of responding to treatment and having better performance hinder on your attentiveness to these animals.
  10. Lastly, don’t be on your phone when you feed or walk pens. Pay attention so you don’t make unnecessary mistakes. Your role as a pen rider or walker is to pay attention to the details in the pen. Make it count by utilizing your time with the animals to adapt them to a positive feedlot experience.

Starting cattle on feed sets them up for their whole feeding period. Be adaptable but be very attentive the first 45 days on arrival. There is just as much art as there is science in bringing cattle up on feed. The goal and the success will be in the details of starting the pen off in a positive manner.