The weaning and receiving period is the most stressful period in a calf's life. That's nothing new. That's when these highly-stressed, undernourished calves are most susceptible to disease, warns Don Gill, Extension animal nutritionist at Oklahoma State University. And it's also why the many VAC (Value-Added Calf) health programs have grown by leaps and bounds.

The emphasis is on health in these VAC programs, but sometimes we forget the vital role that nutrition plays. As a result, Gill and co-worker David Lalman updated recommendations on receiving and growing rations. This is important in a state that ranks second in stocker cattle and third in beef cows.

No "Fits All" Program Gill doesn't recommend a specific receiving program. "The most important thing is to make calves comfortable and give them a diet designed to minimize health problems," Gill says. "For many Oklahoma ranchers this means prairie grass hay, which is usually low in protein, or higher-protein forages such as Bermuda grass in other areas.

"In either case, you want to feed about two pounds of supplement containing an ionophore and coccidiostat," he adds.

"In some cases, it may be more important to add an antibiotic rather than a coccidiostat. Because of the rules and regulations of joint clearances of feed additives, sometimes you have to choose between one or the other."

When selecting between highly palatable hay and a palatable feed mixture, it's important you feed enough energy so calves regain their strength and make modest, but not high, daily weight gains.

Gill has several guidelines to minimize stress, improve health and bump up weight gains during this crucial time.

* Give calves clean, fresh water on arrival. No research supports the withholding water and feed theory, he says. Many cattlemen put out good quality grass hay for the first 24 hours before calves go on a receiving diet.

* Feed the same time each day. "Calves get used to coming up to eat," Gill says. "Sickness is easier to detect because they come up slower to the bunk."

* Tailor your receiving rations to the condition of the calves. On thin calves, rumen fermentation is low and remains low for several days after arrival. If they remain healthy in transit, they get back to normal appetite and feed intake in about two weeks. Sick calves take longer.

For sick calves, here are Gill's general ration recommendations.

* Use higher energy receiving rations to offset dry matter intake. This means maximizing nutrient intake. For stressed calves, proteins should come from plants, like soybeans and cottonseed meal.

"Stressed calves have a lower tolerance for nonprotein (urea)," Gill warns. "Don't feed urea to calves under 600 pounds, and particularly those under 300 pounds."

* Also, use a coccidiostat in the feed, such as Deccox, Bovatec or Rumensin, or by treating water with amprolium. Include vitamin E at 400-500 IU per day. This can boost gains and reduce sickness, research shows.

Gill warns, however, that injections of Vitamin E at processing time can be non-effective, and even detrimental.

Receiving Recommendations 1. Light calves under 300 lbs. They can't do a good job digesting low-quality roughage. Receiving rations should be palatable and higher in protein and digestible carbohydrates than for calves weighing over 300 lbs., Gill notes.

"All-hay diets aren't as effective as mixed rations higher in concentrates," he notes. Lighter calves are less prone to acidosis than yearlings and prefer concentrates to roughage when stressed or sick, according to New Mexico research.

Light calf diets have higher energy and protein content than yearling diets. But this is needed because of their relatively low feed intake. At diets of 3% bodyweight, calves should gain 1.75-2.25 lbs./day.

Gill says these rations should be fed as a complete diet, without other roughages. "Dilution of a complete diet with another feed, like hay, can result in a nutrient-deficient diet which can severely depress the immune system and increase the incidence of disease," he says.

2. Normal weaned calves that are over 400 lbs. and weaned at 6-8 months of age. Gill says you can use either a high-energy or high-roughage diet, depending on your farm resources and costs.

New Mexico research indicates that calves fed high-concentrate diets (75%) gain faster and more efficiently, but tend to have slightly more sickness than those fed prairie hay supplemented with a high protein pellet (see Table 1). Morbidity tends to increase as concentrate increases from 25-75%.

Gill lists three suggested rations for these calves (see Table 2), all with cottonseed hulls as fiber source, which stimulates rumen motility and reduces acidosis. They don't add many nutrients, but are palatable and are justified during the feeding period, he says.

Ration C is based on corn and alfalfa pellets. It's worked well in Oklahoma for several years, according to Gill. Diets D and E use by-products like corn distiller's grain, wheat midds and soybean hulls. These provide more digestible fiber with moderate to low starch. And if under-priced compared with other commodities, they may offer a chance to cut costs. However, this may not be true if a near record corn crop this year reduces prices.

MFA's Receiving Progam MFA's Cattle Charge is one receiving ration that features a high-energy, low-starch, highly-digestible fiber product that generally fits the general Diet E criteria, although MFA officials do not reveal its exact ingredients. It was developed four years ago and accounts for 60,000 tons in annual sales, half of it for receiving rations, according to Dan Netemeyer, MFA's director of nutrition.

MFA Incorporated is a regional cooperative with 150 agri-service centers in Missouri and surrounding states. Feeding Cattle Charge is required in the MFA Alliance Advantage program which certifies that cattle have been handled according to Beef Quality Assurance and Vac 45 guidelines. Calves are usually fed up to 10 lbs. of MFA's Cattle Charge supplement per head per day for 45 days before being sold. "They've been held long enough to get past health breaks," says Virgil Bruner, area sales manager.

Buyer Benefits, Too There are also values to the buyer, says Texas stocker operator Mike Schreiber. He compared medical costs and death losses on preconditioned calves in the MFA Alliance Advantage label with stockyards-bought, run-of-the-mill kinds of calves.

The result: no death losses or medicine and veterinarian costs on MFA Alliance Advantage calves vs. a $6.08 cost for the 1.43% death loss plus $12.94/head medical costs for calves of unknown origin. Schreiber calculated the savings at $3.06/cwt. on a 500-lb. calf selling at 85 cents/lb.

Netemeyer has several suggestions for receiving calves:

1. Put newly-arrived calves on a full feed of Cattle Charge, with hay fed free choice for as long as you want. "Light calves will eat about two percent bodyweight which amounts to 10 to 12 pounds in two days," he explains.

2. "Keep thin calves on the feed for 7 to 12 days, and if they look healthy, turn them out," says Netemeyer. "If you're not sure about their health, hand feed them until you feel they're straightened out. Then turn them out so you don't have to bust them into different groups. Any of these programs will work economically at today's prices, because gain is worth so much."

In essence, Netemeyer's policy is: "Get 'em in, get 'em good and healthy and get them on their way. Providing good nutrition is a crucial part of the program of keeping that calf healthy."

Added gain put on during the receiving period from a high-concentrate ration is often lost if calves must go on a low-input, dry-winter grazing program, according to Gill. However, if they're going on high-quality pasture or into the feedlot, the higher gain during receiving may be justified.

Roughage-based programs often require more labor and covered storage space, but if it's available on your farm, you may prefer a hay-based receiving program rather than buy expensive concentrates, Gill suggests. But weight gains will be considerably lower.

In cases where you don't need gains over 11/42 - 111/42 lbs./day during the receiving period, a diet of high quality hay plus 2 lbs. of high protein works well in research trials and for many producers, Gill says. But the ration should include necessary minerals, protein, vitamins and feed additives.

Though gains are slower, health disorders and digestive disorders are minimized. Gill suggests a ration of 88.9% soybean meal, 5% cottonseed meal, salt, premix, coccidiostat (decognuinate, lasalocid or monensin), vitamin A and E and dicalcium.