Experts agree that a 45-day preconditioning period puts cattle on the path to feedyard success. Research from New Mexico State University found that calves weaned 41 to 60 days gained faster, had fewer days on feed, less sickness and the highest subsequent carcass values, compared to groups weaned fewer or more days.
It’s not just about the number of days, though. Starch-based diets, like corn, seem to be key in marbling development, so setting calves up well during this critical phase will ensure gains and grade on down the line.
During the suggested 45-day minimum preconditioning period, target gains of 2 to 2.5 lb. per day while preparing calves for the feedyard environment.
The main goals in this period are:
- Acclimate calves to eating from a bunk and drinking from a waterer
- Provide time for complete vaccination and booster program
- Allow calves to re-gain lost weight due to weaning stress
Post-weaning nutrition can be as diverse as the ranches the cattle are raised on, but a few key principles will apply regardless of the operation. The two important variable are what calves eat and how it’s delivered. Calves should have easy access to trace minerals and vitamins to prime their immune system prior to weaning.
Silage mixtures or good-quality, free-choice hay are two options for getting them accustomed to a new feed source, but ranch resources might dictate what’s fed.
Here are some tips to follow:
- It has to be highly palatable to drive intakes.
- It needs to be nutrient dense, since calves won’t be eating much for the first few weeks.
- It needs to be well-balanced between highly fermentable energy and roughage to avoid digestive problems.
Utilize a corn-based, high-starch ration with an ionophore. Starch-based weaning diets will enhance marbling deposition in the calf, continuing the lifetime approach to quality grade improvement. Ionophores maintain gut health while improving protein supply to the animal. Because the distilling process removes starch, distillers grains or corn gluten feed are not recommended as the primary component of a creep diet for calves destined for a quality market. These ingredients make excellent protein sources but should not make up more than 20% of the diet to continue marbling enhancement. While ingredients are important, the amount of nutrients is as important as the source.
If calves are moved from a high-energy diet to a lower gain (<2 lb./day) growing diet, they will not continue to develop marbling at a high rate. A good rule of thumb is for a calf to continue to gain at a constant or increasing rate each day. Long periods of compensatory gain can be detrimental to a lifetime of marbling development.