Weaning, backgrounding tips for a smooth transition
Weaning time is upon us and many folks will be making decisions on backgrounding. In this week’s column, I’ll share some thoughts and observations on making the weaning transition period less stressful which should lead to a more successful backgrounding program. Keeping calves healthy and getting them onto feed quickly should be your top goals.
It is important to make adjustment to life in the feedlot or backgrounding yard as stress-free for your calves as possible. Stresses associated with weaning and transit can cause feed intake to be depressed. Inadequate nutrient intake can be a major problem during the weaning period if calves are not accustomed to eating from a bunk. Ensuring that calves eat as soon as possible after weaning is critical for health, proper immune response, and growth. Undernourished calves have poorer responses to vaccinations and are more susceptible to disease. It is also important to ensure calves are adequately nourished before weaning. A good quality nutrition program before weaning will optimize the response to the vaccines you administer prior to weaning.
Bunk breaking (training cattle to eat from a feed bunk) can be a difficult process, especially if calves have never eaten processed feed before. Calves that have only drunk from streams or ponds may not know how to drink from a commercial waterer or water fountain.
Here are a few suggestions for bunk breaking calves:
• Begin your preparations early. Be sure corrals, fences, and other equipment are in good repair. Ensure water fountains and tanks are functional and properly insulated for late fall and winter use.
• Water is an often overlooked nutrient. Provide plenty of good quality water for freshly weaned calves. Have a water analysis done on any new wells to ensure you are providing good quality water.
• Watch for signs of dehydration in newly weaned calves, especially if you are weaning in warm or hot weather. If calves are unaccustomed to automatic waterers, they may become dehydrated quickly.
• Allow waterers to run over for a few days after you’ve placed calves in the lot. The sound of running water can help attract calves to the water fountain or tank.
• Newly weaned calves generally walk back and forth along the fence line for the first few days after weaning. Place the waterer along the fence line to help them find fresh water quickly.
• If you are weaning later in the fall, provide adequate wind protection and bedding if temperatures and wind conditions warrant.
• Avoid muddy pen conditions. Ensure pens are well drained. Muddy conditions result in poor feed conversion, reduced intake, and increased cost of gain.
• Many calves have never been offered processed feeds. For these calves, feed long-stem, grass hay in the bunks for four to seven days to help get them used to eating out of a bunk.
• Calves that were creep fed tend to adapt to bunk feeding more rapidly than calves that were not creep fed. In some situations you can even use the same creep feeder to help transition the calves through the weaning process.
• Commercial starter feeds can work well. Be sure the one you select is palatable. Limit the availability of these feeds for the first few days, until all calves are bunk broken, as low levels of fiber or high levels of starch in some products may lead to overconsumption and problems with digestive disturbances.
• After calves are accustomed to eating from bunks (usually less than 7 to 10 days, but this can vary), gradually begin acclimating them to the backgrounding diet. If high amounts of grain will be fed, cattle should be acclimated to high concentrate diets slowly using “step-up” diets.
• I generally recommend that you avoid starting calves on fermented or wet feeds such as silages, high moisture grains, or wet byproducts. These feeds can have odors and tastes that can limit intake during the first week or two of bunk breaking. However, if the calves have experienced these feeds when they are with the cow herd, they will adapt readily.
• Avoid excessive processing of grains and hays. This tends to result in a dry, dusty, unpalatable ration. In most cases, coarsely crack or roll grains for best results.
• Consider, including a liquid supplement, molasses, or other wet feeds in the ration as a way to cut the dust and improve feed intake.
These tips should help you do a better job getting calves weaned and bunk broke and getting your backgrounding program off to a successful start. Best of luck with weaning!
Greg Lardy is the NDSU animal science department head.
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