The basics for handling freshly weaned calves at feedlots

Rest and getting them on feed and water are simple things but they take planning and management

Properly trained feedlot workers will minimize handling stress and check to see new arrivals are finding the feed and water.
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Stress can have a big impact on calves and if not managed properly, freshly weaned calves heading to a feed yard can be very susceptible to pneumonia and other illnesses.

While herd health veterinarians and feedlot production specialists can each have slightly different approaches to getting new feeders ramped up to the intended full-feed ration, all have a common starting point — get calves unloaded into a receiving pen, don’t overcrowd them, make sure they have access to good-quality grass hay, are drinking water, the lot is well bedded, and the cattle get a few hours of rest before processing.

It sounds like a simple enough plan when introducing newly weaned calves to the feed yard, but it takes both planning and management.

Here are the views of four Alberta experts.

Let them rest

Calves need to have at least a few hours of rest in a well-bedded receiving pen before being processed, said Dr. Joyce Van Donkersgoed, a veterinarian with Alberta Beef Health Services in Coaldale

“The key is to get them eating as soon as possible,” said Van Donkersgoed. “They are tired after being trucked and most likely hungry and thirsty. At the receiving pen you don’t want them overcrowded. They should have access to as much good-quality grass hay and fresh clean water as they wish, that is easily accessible. They should be allowed to eat, drink and rest for at least six hours, if practically possible, before being processed.”

Knowing some background on the calves can help considerably.

“Are they coming directly from a ranch or auction mart? Were they still out on pasture? What were the pasture conditions? Was creep feed or loose mineral available? Vaccination history? That’s some of the information that can help the feedlot better manage calves when they do arrive. The more you know about the calves the better.”

If they are straight-from-the-ranch calves that have not been preconditioned or pre-weaned, the feedlot operator may need to show the calves the basics of finding food and water in a confined feeding pen.

“Some operations use round bale feeders in the receiving pen while others only have a feed bunk,” said Van Donkersgoed. “Make sure there is plenty of good-quality grass hay and keep it fluffed up and visible so the calves can see it.”

It’s important to make sure feeders and water bowls are at the proper height so even the smaller calves can reach them. If needed, she has used her hand to splash water and make some noise just so curious calves will come by and check out the water bowls.

Dr. Steve Hendrick likes to see freshly weaned calves have at least a day of rest at the feedlot before being processed.

“If they are auction mart calves I would recommend at least 48 hours of rest before processing,” said the veterinarian with Coaldale Veterinary Clinic.

“And if they are cold weaned ranch-direct calves I would increase that to preferably four days of rest before being processed. Some research has shown that having sufficient rest may help to improve the efficacy of treatments when they are processed.”

It’s also important to have properly trained feedlot workers to minimize handling stress, he said.

Effort should be made to encourage calves to find the feed bunk and the water, said Hendrick. For the first three days after arrival fresh hay can be placed on top of fresh silage ration “so they have to nibble through the hay to find the ration.” And while pens should be properly bedded, especially if conditions are cold and/or wet, it becomes a management balance to ensure calves gravitate toward the hay for feed and don’t just eat straw.

After three days, as the calves transition to more of a silage-based ration some grain is needed to provide energy, but at the same that ration shouldn’t be “hot.” A hot ration generally refers to a ration with a high grain component and not enough fibre. As grain is rapidly digested in the rumen it converts starch to acid. Without forage fibre to buffer the acid the increased acid is then absorbed through the rumen wall, causing metabolic acidosis, which in milder cases can put cattle off feed and result in weight loss, while in severe cases can lead to shock and death.

Lower the stress

With young calves coming into the feedlot, possibly from several different sources, Bob Lowe said his priority is to make sure they have feed “and do everything possible to make the transition as smooth as possible.”

The first order of business is to get calves vaccinated, fed and rested, said the owner of Bear Trap Feeders at Nanton.

“The biggest challenge you face is that these calves have been taken away from an environment where they had their mother, milk and grass and you’re putting them in a setting where they have none of that,” said Lowe. “They are stressed and tired, so you try not to do anything that’s going to add to that.”

From processing, calves are moved to a feed pen with a large round bale of good-quality grass hay, water is accessible and there is already a forage ration in the feed bunk as well.

“We want them to have a full belly and get rested,” said Lowe. “They can eat and lay in the hay and I’ve seldom had any problem with calves finding the water bowl. If it is a concern we keep them pushed up toward the water, and once they see one drinking the rest will follow.”

Lowe tries not to overcrowd calves — give them space to eat, rest and become familiar with new surroundings.

“That bale of hay is the last hay they will see in our yard, so we begin probably that first day to encourage them to find the feed bunk as well,” he added.

Quiet handling is important as calves are moved to the bunk area to discover the new type of feed. The starter ration is a combination of silage, straw, as well as some barley.

“They have hay and they’re eating, but you encourage them to find the bunk and start picking away and learn to like the ration as well.

“We’re expecting by day four or five these calves should be eating two to 2.5 per cent of their body weight.”

Get off to a good start

Knowing as much as possible about the background of calves arriving at the feed yard will help managers understand risk levels and apply appropriate handling and processing measures, said Matt May, feedlot nutrition and production consultant with Feedlot Health Management Services in Okotoks.

If hay is an option, it should be available for the first three to four days after arrival and as calves move into their home pens, he said. He prefers to have the hay topped with ration so they become familiar with silage and grain from the start. Again, pen checkers need to be paying attention from the outset to make sure calves are finding hay and water and becoming familiar with the feed bunk and waterers.

With most feed yard pens holding between 200 to 300 head, May prefers to close a pen off to new arrivals after no more than seven days.

“Within that first week the first calves in will become familiar with the bunk, their penmates and the first level of ration so if at all possible I don’t want to be adding new fresh calves to that pen after a week,” he said.

After new arrivals have had about three to four days of largely a forage-based diet, May recommends removing top-dressed hay from the diet and provide calves with the starter diet primarily based on small-grains silage-based ration with some grain for energy.

Over the next 25 to 30 days he will transition calves to a new ration about every five to seven days. “They will be on their first ration for about five to seven days after the pen is closed, for example, then transition them to the next ration which generally means replacing 10 per cent of the forage component with 10 per cent more concentrate,” he said.

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