Weaning time 2015

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Farm Forum

From time to time, I am asked for my prediction on where the cattle market might go. I usually say something to the effect that if I really knew I would be a lot wealthier than I am now. The last few weeks have made that point. I wasn’t expecting markets to stay as high as they were in 2014, but I would not have predicted this steep a decline either.

I’m an optimist at heart so I sure want to think that we’ve made a bottom and that there’s a chance to put some more money on the market. Unfortunately, trying to time a market low is like trying to catch a falling knife; it’s possible but it is also a good way to end up with a lot of blood on the kitchen floor.

On the positive side, cheaper calves give us an opportunity to add value to the abundant feedstuffs we’ll have by backgrounding cattle. I would highly suggest crunching the numbers carefully beforehand, and to consider the risk protection tools that are available such as LRP insurance or options. These tools establish a floor price but leave the topside open.

The other part of the equation is making sure that calves get off to a good start and stay healthy. It can be hard enough to make money feeding calves under the best of situations. It’s nearly impossible with cattle that get sick. With that in mind, here are some management suggestions to increase the odds of success.

Risk assessment

Some calves are at a higher risk for disease and other problems when they enter the yard. A set of home raised calves, or single-source cattle with a known pre-conditioning history are far different from a group of long haul, lightweight calves of unknown origin(s). Treating both groups alike could result in poor outcomes with the high-risk calves and/or high expenses with the better-prepared cattle.

Knowledge of the calves’ background will help identify higher-risk cattle that need more intensive management. Unfortunately, this transfer of information does not occur often enough. Only 32% of feedyards report that they receive information about the prior history of calves “always or most of the time.”

Nutrition and management

Getting calves to start eating as quickly as possible without triggering digestive upsets is the critical success factor in the first 30-45 days in the yard. Feed intake in highly stressed calves can be less than 2% of body weight for the first two weeks, even lower for the calves that get sick. On the other hand, lower risk, home raised calves typically have higher intakes, which can make them more susceptible to problems such as bloat and acidosis they are allowed to eat all they want or if ration changes are made too quickly.

Because feed intakes are limited in the receiving phase, the feed that the calves will eat must be nutrient dense. Receiving diets should be 50 to 70% concentrate with the balance made up of high quality roughage. Excellent quality grass hay is the easiest roughage source to utilize for starting calves, but legume forage can be used if intakes are watched closely. Calves that are not accustomed to silage or other fermented feed need to be adapted to those feeds over at least a two-week period.

Animal husbandry

Close observation and prompt treatment of sick calves is critical to controlling death loss. The amount of labor available to check and treat sick cattle has been shown to be a major factor in death loss rates. Fall is an extremely busy time of year, especially for farmer-feeders. However, considering that 200 head of steer calves represent an investment of nearly a quarter of a million dollars, it may be more profitable to hire a truck driver so that someone with the right skills has the time to make cattle management a priority.