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The Cow-Calf Manager:
Winter Nutrition Critical for Fall-Born Calves

Livestock Update, February 1999

John Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

When calves reach 4 to 5 months of age, their nutritional needs increase greatly as they begin to grow rapidly. Milk supplies a lower percentage of calves' total nutritional needs as calves age (Figure 1). For fall-born calves this happens in late winter. Producers must meet these needs if calves are to grow and be healthy.

How producers supply these nutrients will determine average daily gain of calves and the cost of production. How fast calves need to grow depends on the marketing plans. If calves are to be marketed in April and May at heavy weights or they are purebred calves, then calves need to gain 2.5 lbs. a day or more. If they are to be marketed in the summer after grazing, then weight gain needs to be in the range of 1.0 to 2.0 lbs. per day. If ownership will be retained on calves then gain should be based on the desired weight of calves when they enter the feedlot. Marketing plans should be based on the value of the calf at sale minus the cost of gain -- in other words, the profit margin.

Last month I wrote about feeding the lactating fall-calving cow. But after the breeding season has ended, feeding the cow to maintain milk production is absolutely the wrong way to get nutrients into the calf. As figure 1 indicates the milk production of cows is declining at the same time the nutrient needs of the calf are increasing. In addition, the cost of feeding the cow to produce a pound of gain in the calf is much more expensive than feeding the calf itself. Recent research from Illinois and Ohio indicates an advantage to early weaning calves and feeding them high-energy rations.

While early weaning may be an option for Midwest producers, it is probably not a good idea in Virginia. However, putting the emphasis on feeding the calf and not the cow is a good idea. If fall calving cows lose weight after the end of the breeding season that's OK. Fall calving cows finishing the breeding season in body condition score 5 or 6 can then be managed to allow a drop in body condition to BCS 4 by weaning.

Feeding options for calves are made more difficult because the cows will compete for the feed with the calves. Basic options are 1) feed cows and calves together, 2) creep feed calves or 3) creep graze calves. Again, the desired feeding option will depend on the growth rate you want from the calves.

In low growth rate situations, free access to high quality hay or a poultry litter -- corn mixture for both cows and calves should provide enough nutrients for growth rate in the range of 1.0 to 1.5 lbs. a day. If cows are very thin, then feeding higher energy diets to both cows and calves may make sense.

Creep feeding calves using traditional mixed feeds in a creep feeder is an option if higher rates of gain are desired. This method can be expensive and the return or profit margin may be slim for commercial operations. However, creep feeding may be beneficial for purebred beef cattle producers. A new publication entitled "Creep Feeding Beef Calves" is available from your county Extension office. This publication, written by Dr. Dan Eversole, covers diets, management and economics of creep feeding calves.

Figure 1. Milk Production compared to calf's nutritional needs

Creep grazing is an option that we often don't think of for calves in January-March, but for producers East of the Blue Ridge Mountains it is definitely a possibility. Fall seeded small grain pastures such as wheat or barley offer the greatest potential for high growth rates for calves. Gains of 1.5 to 2.5 lbs. a day are easily attainable. Because of the high cost of establishing these pastures, calves rather than cows best utilize them. In addition, calves cause less trampling damage to the stand. Calves can be allowed access to these pastures by a creep gate or a single strand of electric fence. Depending on the size of the calves you will need about _ of an acre per calf.

Planning your calves' nutritional program to meet your marketing goals will result in greater profits and less disappointment come sale time. Don't forget that your management right now of fall-born calves is critical to your operation.

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