Feeding Cattle Grain-Based Diets By Mario Villarino

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As our spring season begins to take on, our availability of grasses begins to increase also. During this time of the year, our weaned cattle usually turns into a grazing feeding pattern without too many complications. It is however, more challenging to convert the steers into a grain diet later on, or in the particular case of steer pen shows, to get them into the feeding portion all together. Properly starting a calf on feed and maintaining the calf’s feed intake is a key component to successful development of a quality show calf.

Adequate nutrition of the growing calf is essential in order for the calf to grow frame, gain body weight, and achieve an acceptable final weight. A basic understanding of cattle nutrition, feedstuffs, and feed management is necessary to successfully reach your goals. Calves can come from a variety of sources with very different previous feed and nutritional management.

Therefore, an appropriate receiving diet and adaptation period is important. Unless indicated by the person you purchased the calf from, cattle should be adapted gradually to growing rations rather than abruptly put on high-grain diets. When the calf starts on feed, first provide high-quality grass hay for free choice consumption (3% of body weight; 15 lbs per day for a 500 lb calf). Also make sure the calf has access to plenty of clean, fresh, cool water. Water is the most important nutrient for all animals.

Let the calf adapt to their new environment for approximately 3 days before introducing grain. After the initial 3 days, begin to slowly introduce grain to the calf. Hay should still be offered free choice during this time. Begin grain feeding by starting with 2 lbs of grain per day. Continue this level of grain in the diet for 2 to 3 days; monitor the calf to make sure it handles the addition of grain and does not become sick or stop eating.

After 2 to 3 days, increase the grain fed to 3 lbs, and follow the same observation period before increasing the grain amount to 4 lbs. After 14 days, the calf should be consuming 6 to 8 pounds of grain, and its total diet should be 50:50 grain:roughage (hay). After this initial receiving period, the calf can be transitioned to formulated or commercial growing and finishing diets that contain greater amounts of grains and concentrates.

 Once the calf has adapted to eating from a bunk and its rumen microbes have adjusted to digesting grain, the diet can be transitioned to a growing ration. The growing ration’s purpose is to increase the size and muscularity of the calf without adding excessive fat cover to the calf early on. The amount of time the calf remains on the growing ration will depend upon how much time is available before the show.

A calf should be on the finishing diet for no less than 100 days, and likely closer to 120 days, to reach an adequate level of finish for the show. During the growing period, the amount of feed consumed by the calf will increase, hay will be replaced by grain, and the energy content (total digestible nutrients [TDN]) of the diet will increase to support greater daily body weight gain (ADG). Transitioning from the growing to finishing ration likely requires an increase in feed intake and an increase in the proportion of grain in the calf’s diet.

Increasing the amount of grain in the diet should be accomplished by a step-up procedure. The proportion of grain in the diet should be increased by no more than 10% every 5 to 7 days. Transitioning from a 50:50 grain:roughage (hay) growing ration to an 80:20 grain:roughage (hay) finishing ration will require 15 to 21 days. Feeding a step-up diet will require planning because it will require feeding a diet with 60% grain for one week and then 70% grain for the second week before feeding 80% grain in the third week.

During the step-up period, the calf should be monitored closely to avoid digestive upsets, acidosis, and bloat. Feeding an ionophore like Rumensin® can help prevent digestive problems on high-grain diets. Once the calf reaches the final diet formulation, feed changes should be only for amounts of the daily feed offered. During this period, feed amounts should only be altered by 1 to 2 lbs on any given day. Consistent feed intake prevents digestive upsets and promotes calf growth.

Cattle perform better when they can consume frequent meals throughout the day. Cattle are also stimulated to eat when new feed shows up in their feed bunk. So it is recommended that the calf be fed at least 2 times a day. Ideally the 2 feedings would be at the same time from day to day, for example at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. The total amount of the daily feed amount should be divided into equal portions and half offered in the morning and the other half in the evening.

During particularly hot weather, cattle do not eat as much during the day. The daily feed amount can be adjusted to offer 60% of the ration in the evening and 40% in the morning. .Keep the feed bunk and water source clean. Feed intake is very closely associated with water consumption, especially during hot weather. Clean out old feed or manure from the bunk, and water prior to feeding.

Feed that accumulates in the bunk should be removed after 1 to 2 days. This feed can mold and spoil, especially in warm, humid weather. This is also a sign that the calf is receiving too much feed or is not feeling well. If a large amount of feed is left over, remove it, and at the next feeding, decrease the amount of total feed by 2 to 5 lbs.

After that, gradually increase the amount of feed offered to reach the previous amount. Never increase the amount of feed by more than 1 lb at a feeding (2 lbs per day). Keeping records of the daily feed offered to the calf will track feed offered, consumption, and refusal. There are many options when it comes to growing-finishing and show cattle feed.

Generally the decision is first made to use either a commercial feed product that is available from local feed manufacturers or a custom-blended ration. There are multiple companies to choose from when purchasing a premade calf feed.

One drawback of commercial feeds is that TDN values are not listed on the feed tag. Knowing the TDN value of the feed makes prediction of ADG and cattle performance possible. Fortunately, TDN can be estimated using the guaranteed analysis of fiber, protein, fat, and ash that is on the feed tag.

Table 4 provides the guidelines to determine TDN from feed tag guaranteed analysis (Sprinkle 1999). Commercial feeds generally include a vitamin/mineral premix in the formulation so additional supplementation is not necessary. Certainly some products are better than others, and all products have potential and can be used, but there is no perfect feed. Calf quality and showman knowledge, management skill, and effort are the ingredients that differentiate cattle in the show ring.

The second option is for calf owners to mix their own feed. To formulate and mix a custom feed blend requires some knowledge and experience in ration formulation. Often the custom mix will contain a roughage source, corn, protein pellet, vitamin-mineral premix, and some coproducts. A formulated ration can offer added flexibility to change the ration but requires additional knowledge and skill.

Regardless of the feed choice, the feed should have a good texture. This means that the particle sizes are a good mix—not too large and as little fine material as possible. Dusty or moldy feed should absolutely be avoided. Many commercial feeds include fat or molasses to “condition” the feed to decrease dust and increase the palatability of the feed.

Conclusion: Feeding a growing-finishing or show calf correctly is an important aspect to successfully reach the desired final product. Correctly feeding the calf requires planning, knowledge, and dedication. However, feeding the calf can provide a great learning environment for cattle nutrition, management, finance, and cattle handling. For more information on this or any other agricultural topic, please contact the Hopkins County Extension Office at 903-885-3443.

Coming UP!

  • Basic Vegetable Gardening, April 24, 2018, 7:00 PM. Cost $10 at the door. Hopkins County Extension Office
  • Hopkins County Master Gardeners Annual Plant Swap. April 28, 2018. Bright Star Veterinary Clinic Parking lot. 9:00 to Noon.
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Mario Villarino DVM, Ph.D.
Hopkins County Extension Agent for Ag and NR
1200B Houston Street
Sulphur Springs, Texas 75482
903-885-3443

Author: Savannah Owens

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