Many producers consider a 2-3% death loss among lightweight calves the first 20 days they're in the feedyard as pretty respectable. Near Platte, SD, though, two beef producers have reduced their death loss to just ¼ of 1% with a change in starter ration.

Upon arrival, 500- to 660-lb. calves at the 3,000+head DeHaan Farms feedyard, receive 4-way viral, 7-way haemophilus, and pasteurella vaccines and Nasalgen®. In the relatively small pens holding 80-90 head each, processed long-stem prairie hay and plenty of water await, according to Dennis DeHaan.

After 3-4 days, the calves begin on a controlled-intake feed program, receiving about 1-1½% of their bodyweight in feed as part of a 48 Mcal/cwt. NEg diet. The ration consists of 3- to 4-in.-long ground hay combined with cracked corn and a liquid feed supplement with by-pass protein, and a yeast culture to nurture rumen microflora for high levels of feed digestibility.

The ration increases daily to the feedyard's goal of 2.75-3% of body weight being fed in 21 days. A medicated crumble is also included when the ration is initiated. On day 14, the calves are given booster shots for haemophilus and pasteurella, poured for worms, branded and implanted.

“Calves just love this ration. It's more palatable than others so they just keep coming to the bunk,” DeHaan says. “And as long as they're eating, half the battle is won.”

He adds that liquid starters handle easily, are nutrient dense, encourage feed intake due to their palatability and help reduce sorting for a lower feed-to-gain ratio.

“It's been a phenomenal year,” DeHaan says. With 1,200 calves on the program, the outfit lost only three calves (0.25%) the first 20 days and pulled just 12 calves (1%). The cattle consisted of 600 black baldies from Montana and 600 of his own calves from Red Angus cows crossed with Red Gelbvieh bulls.

“You want good-quality calves,” he adds. “We like those that haven't been handled a lot, that come right off the ranch.” DeHaan farms with his father Andy, his brother Tom, and sons Lee and Robby.

A Commingled Success

On the other side of town, Doug Peterson enjoyed an equally successful experience feeding 500 head of sale-barn calves in the fall of 2001 and about 2,000 head of similar calves last fall. While he says he likes any calf that makes money, he admits a slight preference for Red Angus crosses.

Peterson followed a nearly identical program to DeHaan's and names the three greatest benefits of switching away from pelleted starters:

  1. Convenience

    The calves have less of an adjustment to make as they move from the starter to grower ration. The same feedstuffs are fed, just at different levels.

  2. Consistency

    Calves remain on the starter ration with the liquid supplement for three weeks versus 7-10 days for pelleted starters. Should they visit the sick pen, they return to the same ration. No adjustments are needed so the transition is not as quick or severe.

  3. Less Cost

    The liquid starter ration costs less per ton.

With the regimented ration based on body weight, the calves have a good appetite and are aggressively eating by day 4 to 5, Peterson says.

“That makes it easy if you're riding the pen,” he notes. “Any calf that doesn't follow the feed truck has something wrong with it.”

Feedyards typically see the greatest incidence of disease and death loss in the first three weeks that the calves are on site. Getting calves up and eating and keeping them away from the sick pen contribute to good performance, shortened feedyard stays and better carcass quality, Peterson says.

Pat Hansen is a freelance writer from Kankakee, IL.

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