Starting young calves on fine, palatable, long-stem forage is best because they’re likely more familiar with it. “You also need to get them transitioned onto energy-dense, nutritious feeds quickly, since they can’t handle much volume of forage yet,” Lardy says. He recommends top-dressing hay with the concentrate until calves start eating it.

“You might use a starter pellet from a commercial feed company or mix the diet yourself, but these calves need good-quality forage and nutritious concentrate to ensure they have adequate protein and energy levels and meet their vitamin/mineral requirements. Avoid low-quality hay, or hay with dust, mold or heat damage; these will lead to problems in early-weaned calves,” he says.

In Texas, Gill says he’s using the dairy model with some of the really young calves, feeding a complete feed for the first month and then gradually increasing the roughage portion of their diet.

Rumen volume in a three-month-old calf is much less than that of a six-month-old calf. Young calves need a denser diet. Patterson says they’re very efficient feed converters and can eat more percent of body weight (dry-matter basis) than a bigger calf; they’re also efficient at converting that to gain.

“When we wean a younger calf here at the Padlock Ranch, we provide a higher concentration of energy, protein and minerals and a little less roughage,” Patterson explains. “Later-weaned calves can go right on grass and do well, but early-weaned light calves need a higher level of nutrition to keep growing and gaining.”

Padlock Ranch weans calves in a feedlot facility with concrete pads and bunks; calves are fed a total-mixed, milled ration that contains hay and concentrate. The hay helps the calves adjust and keeps the rumen healthy.

“For rumen safety, we also use some fiber-based energy products – wheat mids and distillers grains, along with corn or barley, to get energy levels up without having a diet too high in starch,” Patterson says. Wheat-mid pellets are very palatable and calves start eating those fairly quickly in a mixed ration. The more stressed they are and the lower their feed intake, the higher the nutrient concentration necessary; every bite needs to be nutritious, he adds.

“On lighter calves, we don’t use a wet ration like silage or haylage. After they get a little more size, over 400-450 lbs., we start working more silage into their diet and they can be managed like older-weaned calves,” Patterson says.

“With bigger calves, if you feed a wetter ration, they just eat more. But small calves don’t have enough rumen space to eat enough to get adequate nutrients to meet their requirements for growth,” Patterson explains.