Is limit feeding an option for newly received cattle?

There are several stressful periods in the life of a calf. Two of the most stressful—the period after weaning and when they move into a confined feeding situation—come early in life and can hinder performance.

Dale Blasi, Kansas State University professor and Extension specialist for beef cattle nutrition and management, conducts research trials of limit feeding newly acquired calves and tracking how they perform. Blasi, who is also manager and director of the KSU Beef Stocker Unit, spoke at the 5 State Beef Conference in Greensburg, Kansas, Nov. 13.

“I think one thing we’d all agree on with respect to any calves started on feed is not to stress them,” he said. “Don’t add any further stress, and that’s certainly a very important point.”

Studies in the mid-1980s and even back into the 1970s, Blasi said, showed low intakes are a real problem with these types of calves. Especially when they’re sick.

“Long stem hay is really a staple that we use to get these calves transitioned off of the truck, get them started, get them comfortable,” he said.

Previous studies looked at the relationships between energy content in a receiving diet and morbidity, and found there is “definitely a problem.” Follow-up work in the mid-2000s looked at the removal of roughage to increase energy in the diet.

Researchers found with increased concentration of energy in the diet, there’s morbidity, however, there’s also improvement in performance. “And I guess today, maybe nutritionists are really itchy about how we increase energy in receiving diets because of that.”

According to Blasi, limit feeding has been around a long, long time and there’s a lot of advantages to it. He has developed his own metaphor for explaining it, too.

“You got an all-night, all you can eat buffet—Vegas, baby, versus the boot camp breakfast,” Blasi said. “If you’re in boot camp, you do your calisthenics and eat for 15 minutes, or maybe 10 minutes, and then you get on with your day.”

He said that’s exactly the approach, or philosophy, with respect to limit feeding.

There are more benefits to limit feeding cattle:

• Reduced cost of gain;

• Flexibility with respect to purchasing your commodities; and

• Less roughage and manure handling.

“I think that’s even becoming more relevant in today’s climate with respect to sustainability,” Blasi said. “Decreased feed wastage, less labor and feeding equipment expense and, I think, some opportunities with regards to marketing and targeting the sizes of those calves.”

Drought should also be considered since it is “another huge cost with respect to what I’m feeding.”

“You can dramatically reduce your reliance on roughages for growing calves,” he said.

By limit feeding at the same time as increasing dietary energy, producers get more performance out of increasing the energy because the passage rate slows down as it goes through the rumen and ultimately the small intestine.

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“So we’re getting greater apparent digestibility out of what each of those animals consume,” Blasi said.

Objectives for limit feeding include:

• Restrict and, at the same time, predict animal performance;

• Minimize fleshy condition on calves;

• Increase frame size;

• Reduce cost of production; and

• Extend time to consider marketing options.

When limit feeding cattle, a producer should provide a minimum of 15 inches of bunk space, but pens shouldn’t be overly large. Weight scales are ideal, but as long as there’s a good, accurate weight of the cattle recorded in the beginning, scales are not necessary. If the calves aren’t a uniform size, that should also be taken into consideration.

“So limit feeding encompasses a lot of things,” Blasi said.

Past studies haven’t used co-products, which are now widely available to livestock feeders. Common types of co-products are wet or dry corn distillers grains or other solubles. Blasi uses a product from Cargill called Sweet Bran.

Studies during the mid-80s started cattle slowly, taking nearly two weeks post arrival to get them to their target ration. This was mostly done because of the corn. In his research trials, Blasi gives calves one percent of their body weight in long stemmed hay at arrival. By day 2 they are getting 1 percent of the total ration. The calves are bumped up one-quarter percent a day up to 2 percent body weight by day 5.

“So we’ve shaved off approximately half of the amount of time to get the calves where we want to get them to,” Blasi said. “Bear in mind, using a high-forage receiving diet, every mouthful of feed that gets compared to a limit fed diet you’re getting more calories and more protein in every mouthful that those calves consume.”

That’s really important for the newly arrived, high-stress calves. Even though the stress level isn’t nearly as high with weaned calves as the ones going onto feed, Blasi said using this type of ration and stepping it up could work.

“The thing that is very critical is the inclusion of co-products and that’s being the wet distillers or the wet corn gluten feed at not less than 40 percent dry matter,” he said.

Blasi and his graduate students closely watched the cattle monitoring health, performance, digestion and immunity on the 350 head of crossbred heifers at the KSU Beef Stocker Unit. The animals weighed an average 477 pounds to start the 41 day study with four separate treatments—ad lib or eat as much as possible; the other three treatments stepped up the NEg content from 0.45 to 0.50 to 0.55 and 0.6. By design, the rations had lower dry matter intakes.

“So less being consumed, but again, each mouth full of feed was being consumed with much more fortified for energy and protein,” Blasi said. “When it was all said and done with the ad lib calves, the 45 calves were consuming at 2.6 percent of their body weight and when it was all said and done those 0.6 calves were donning 2.2 percent of their body weight.”

Across the board there was no difference in average daily gain, and performance was comparable.

“The other thing to think about feeding logistics and efficiency—if you’re putting more concentrated diet together, with less roughage to handle and hassle yourselves with, the length of time to feed, the number of loads to deliver for feeding calves is dramatically reduced,” Blasi said.

He suggested visiting where a producer can plug in the numbers for a particular scenario.

“You can plug in your calves, what size they are, where you buy them from and when you want to buy and, of course, when you want to sell and you can look at your value of gain,” Blasi said. “You can dial those calves up to gain a little faster or you can slow them back depending on what market windows might exist.”

For Blasi, the improvements in feed efficiency based on the costs they encountered, the manure removal cost and cattle health detection is huge.

“I think we can argue that it’s better than nothing if we can do a better job of detecting cattle health,” Blasi said. “Marketing window I give it a plus. Saving time and wear and tear on your machinery.”

There is one last question when it comes to growing calves. “Is there any benefit? Can we get calves up on feed quicker if there was better coordination between the yard and these growing facilities if these calves are introduced to these higher energy diets?” Blasi said. “I don’t know. I put a big question mark there.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].