Managing Feed Intake in Calves

– Dr. Roy Burris, Beef Extension Professor, University of Kentucky

The most common problem that I see in feeding calves is simply feed bunk management. It sounds simple but it can be a real problem…one that can easily be solved by paying attention to details.

Let’s start with managing self-feeders. Just dump the feed in and the calves take care of the rest. Right? Wrong. First, we have to consider whether we want the calves on limited feed intake or “full-feed”. If limit feeding is the plan, we usually use roughage or, perhaps, salt to limit intake to the desired level. Adding roughage will dilute out the energy content so that calves aren’t likely to overeat and founder. Adding a limiter, like salt, will cut back on dry matter intake so that less feed is actually consumed so that founder or acidosis isn’t as likely to occur either.

Salt can be used as an intake limiter because cattle will generally consume about a tenth of a pound of salt per hundred pounds of body weight (BW) before they quit eating. Thus 500 lb calves will consume about 0.5 lb of salt before they stop eating. This means that whatever amount of feed that is desired for daily consumption should be mixed with a half pound of salt. For example; if you want a 500 lb calf to consume 1% of its bodyweight of a supplement, that would be 5 lb feed and 0.5 lb salt for 5.5 lb total (or a mixture of about 90% supplement and 10% salt).

When cattle are being full fed (generally on finishing diets), getting them on full feed and keeping them there is a real problem. Calves should be started on feed slowly and feed increased gradually so that founder doesn’t occur. Calves can generally eat about 1% of their bodyweight without problems but feed should be increased gradually from that point until they are consuming all that they want. I usually start at about 1% BW in an open trough and increase by a pound every day or two until the calves leave some feed, at that point you can switch them to a self-feeder. Or you could start on a self-feeder and use a feed intake limiter, like salt, then gradually decrease the level of the limiter until calves are on full-feed (or the desired level).

Bunk management is critical in self-feeders! You must be sure that the feed flows down in the feeder. Check it frequently for “bridging”. Here’s the part that most people miss – every time you have a “blowing” rain, the feed in the trough portion of the feeder will get wet and should be removed. If not, mold will occur and the feed may “cake up” and cattle won’t eat it. It also won’t allow feed to flow downward. Pay close attention to self-feeders. Cattle that are on full-feed should not be without feed for very long or overeating will occur when feed becomes available.

Feeding silage in open troughs frequently gives mixed results with calves. People sometimes tell me that their calves won’t eat as much as we report in our feeding trials. That is probably due to poor feed bunk management with the silage diet. Calves will likely refuse to eat some of the coarse-cut stalks. This portion should be removed from the bunk without attempting to make the calves “clean it up”. Feed that stays in the bunk long enough to become moldy should also be removed. Feed that is rained on should be removed before it molds. Remember – in order to have the most efficient gains calves should have access to fresh, clean feed.

What about water? It’s the cheapest “feed” that we have! Yet its importance is frequently overlooked. Automatic waterers should be checked frequently. Calves generally get feed in the water which “sours” and they may even defecate in it. If you think that is a nasty job to clean it out think about how bad it would be to have to drink it. Water intake drives dry matter (feed) intake. So be sure that calves have an abundant source of clean, fresh water for best performance.

Feed and water are the keys to calf performance. Be sure that they are clean and fresh. Feeding beef cattle is an art and a science. Be sure that you pay attention to the “art” of bunk management. The eye of the master fattens the cattle!