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The winter of 2013-14 was tough on cattle producers

April 21, 2014

T. R. Troxel and M. S. Gadberry


According to the national weather service, the average monthly temperatures were colder than normal beginning in November 2013 and this pattern continued through March 2014, making the winter of 2013 – 14 one of the longest winter hay feeding periods in recent memory. In addition to colder than normal temperatures, many cattle producers across the state had to manage through ice and snow storms. Many mornings and throughout the day, cattle producers had to break ice just so cattle had fresh water to drink.


On the positive note, Arkansas cattle producers were fortunate because they produced a large hay crop during the spring and early summer of 2013. Following the record breaking drought of 2012, spring rains returned in 2013 and many cattle producers harvested their largest hay crop in a number of years. Therefore, cattle producers had the hay supplies to begin feeding early and continue feeding hay into April. Currently most cattle producers are running out of hay, spring grass is late, and threats of freeze are lingering into mid-April.


Even though cattle producers fed extra hay and supplemental feed this past winter, many fall and spring calving cows are not in as desirable body condition.  Hopefully, the fall calving cows are already bred, but ranchers may find getting spring calving cows bred back a difficult task over the next few months. There are a couple of intervention strategies that may help jump start the estrous cycle for these cows and hopefully improve conception for next year’s calf crop.


Weaning the calf at an early age reduces the cow’s nutritional requirement, making it easier to maintain or accumulate body condition.  The last thing a beef cow needs, especially a thin cow, is to be in a negative energy balance going into the breeding season. Once the decision to wean early has been determined, the next question asked is, “What do I do with the calf?” Two basic options for managing the weaned calf are (1) sell the calf immediately and (2) background the calf until normal weaning or longer.


Selling the calf immediately eliminates risk. There is a lot of talk among cattlemen about the number of three weight calves currently being sold, so it appears that many are already taking this approach.  Currently a 350lb steer calf is selling for approximately $242 per cwt. or $847 per head. Despite bringing a higher price per pound, the value of the early weaned calf is less than its value if weaned at the typical age of 6 to 7 months.  Selling the calf will eliminate the additional labor required for managing the calf until marketing later.


Backgrounding the calf can provided additional value from the weight gained from early weaning until normal weaning time.  This option will require fencing that is capable of keeping young calves separated from their mothers. During this period, care must be taken to vaccinate, control internal and external parasites, and provide a diet that will result in positive weight gains.


Most likely, early weaned calves will be managed in a drylot setting until there is sufficient spring and early summer grass. The diet of the early weaned calf will be dependent upon the age at weaning. Very young cattle (less than 3 months of age) have not developed a functional rumen. The diet of these cattle should focus on supplying a higher level of concentrate and low level of fiber. This management is common in the dairy industry where calves are commonly started early on calf developer feed and weaned from bottles by one month of age.  Beef cattle producers are most comfortable weaning older calves (4 months of age) as they will have a rumen that is capable of handling a higher percentage of forage.  Unfortunately, by this age, cows are half way through the breeding season, therefore the net impact of early weaning on reproduction may be less than if calves were weaned at an earlier age.  Weaning at 2 to 3 months of age may be necessary for herd with a 90 day breeding season.  Early weaning may require weaning in phases to avoid weaning extremely young calves that will be more of a challenge to manage nutritionally.


It is important that forages included in the calf’s diet are very good quality. Young calves will require at least a 16 to 20 percent protein diet and anticipate the calves eating 3% of their body weight  in combined forage and concentrate dry matter.  Rations should be formulated for the desired performance while considering cost of ingredients and physiological capabilities of the calf.  Keep in mind that crossbred calves often gain 2 to 2.25 pounds per day from birth to weaning at 6 to 7 months of age. Healthy calves fed a moderately low fiber diet will have a very good feed conversion. As long as the cost to put on a pound of gain is less than the value of added weight gain, these calves can be retained and developed to a heavier weight.


Another option to consider is 48 hour calf removal for cows that are moderately thin to moderate  body condition (body condition score 4 to 5).  One time 48 hour calf removal at the start of breeding has shown mixed results on pregnancy rate.  A recent Florida study demonstrated using 48h removal at 20 day intervals, instead of a one time event, throughout a 90 day breeding season increased pregnancy rate.  While the calves were separated in this study, they had access to hay, water, and supplemental feed.  A calf developer feed should be sufficient during this period.


Since breeding season is upon us, this suggestion is a little behind, but even fenceline bull exposure prior to the breeding season could also provide an additional stimulus worth trying.  Just make sure its a really good fence.



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