Limit Feeding Young Calves

An article about limit-feeding young calves a finishing ration got the interest of two of my friends (oh, all right…all of my friends) who wanted to know if it could be done in the Northwest. The article came from Oklahoma State Univ. and was quite timely, because they are in a serious drought in parts of that state. A friend that I work with from Sulfur OK. runs 600 cows and grazes 2500 yearlings. He had to sell ½ the cows and ran no yearlings. He was trying to purchase hay in Utah and Colorado. There was none that he could find any closer. I didn’t realize that things were that serious in the High Plains. Since much of our area is in somewhat of a drought every year, and hay is extremely high-priced this year, this is a program that might work for you.

The article offered limit feeding as a way to feed early weaned calves (as light as 200 lb) when very few options are present. There have been many years in the Northwest when calves should have been weaned early. On an individual ranch basis, maybe a lease was lost, or fire destroyed summer/early fall range. First and second calf heifers are always candidates for early weaning of their calves. The heifers still have a considerable amount of growing to do, and if they must nurse a calf well into the fall it becomes quite a task to gain enough weight to be in condition to breed back and calve at the same time as the mature cowherd. Early weaning their calves allows them to gain weight rather than produce milk for that young calf. The problem then becomes…what to do with the early-weaned calf so that it continues to grow. We have learned that a young calf can’t be turned out to graze stubble or dry range without a supplement with added protein, vitamins, and minerals. Even with a supplement, gains are only 0.5 lb daily. Without supplement, they will lose weight. I know there are some folks that can’t believe these figures. Weigh the calves on and off that kind of feed to see for yourself.

Now finally on to the limit feeding of a high energy finishing ration to light calves. First a few cautions:

  1. You must have enough bunk space for every calf to eat at the same time. This means that self-feeders are out! A completely pelleted ration will not work. It doesn’t have enough effective fiber to keep the paunch healthy.
  2. The cattle must be fed at the same time every day. If equipment breaks down, or weather causes a delay in feeding, the calves will need to be ‘started’ again on a high roughage ration or the risk of bloat and acidosis is very high.
  3. Feeding an ionophore such as Bovatec or Rumensin is almost a must. These feed additives help ‘manage’ the calf’s gut so that feeding once a day doesn’t cause digestive disasters. Remember we are limit feeding the ration. The calves can and want to eat more than we will feed. They will be hungry when the feed truck arrives.
  4. There must be a plan and a market for the calves. Using limit feeding, calves can be programmed to gain from 1 to 2.5 lb/day. The feed cost will be very attractive because the calves will gain quite efficiently.

Calves are started on a high roughage ration and slowly but surely built up to a finishing ration. Don’t rush this process. It probably should take three weeks between the time they are confined until they are actually on the finishing ration. The ration itself can be quite simple. The ration they use in Oklahoma is a mixture of corn, alfalfa pellets, cottonseed hulls, cottonseed meal, and vitamins plus minerals. The cottonseed meal and other small-inclusion items are pelleted. They have four feeds in their ration; corn, alfalfa pellets, protein pellet, and cottonseed hulls. We don’t normally feed cottonseed meal and cottonseed hulls, so our ration would be modified to fit our feedstuffs. Our ration might be made of corn, protein pellet, and
chopped hay. We might use canola meal, distillers grain, cull peas, or soybean meal as the source of protein in our pellet.

Dr. Lalman of Oklahoma State recommends that urea not be used in the protein supplement until the calves weigh at least 400 lb. He also noted that molasses could be used to increase palatability, and water could be added to reduce dust (not both together).

Calves of this size probably should not be fed corn silage, potato waste, or some of the other wet by-products that are fed in typical finishing rations in the Northwest.

Calves are fed the same amount of the finish ration for two weeks at a time before the amount of feed is increased. This and the daily amount fed are the ‘limited’ part of the program. Feed cost per pound of gain is very attractive on this program. I ran a test of feed cost per pound gain for 400 lb calves feeding a ration that cost $160/ton. At 1 lb. daily gain, feed cost was $.69/lb to reach 500 lb. When tested at 2 lb/day gain, feed cost was $.46/lb. Don’t forget to add yardage or non-feed costs to arrive at a total cost/lb gain. A high ration cost was used for my test, your cost, even at today’s prices for hay and corn, may well be lower. Compare these figures with feeding nothing but hay. Gain will be about 1 lb/day, and it will require an average of 13.5 lb of hay per head daily to get calves from 400 to 500 lb. At $120 hay, that feed cost is $.81/lb of gain. If 2 lb. gain is desired, hay and grain will be needed. It would require 4.5 lb of corn and 9 lb. of hay. Corn at $130/ton and alfalfa at $120/ton results in a feed cost of $.83/lb of gain.

Oklahoma State has a website that can be used to determine how much to feed. Their website is: www. Click once on animal science software, then scroll down to the program named progfed2. Once there you will see areas highlighted in blue. These are the places to enter your own figures. You plug in the number of calves you’re feeding; the starting date (this one threw me for a loop...notice there is a ‘ required before you enter the date such as 10/05/06 or whatever date you will start feeding the finish ration); the cost of the ingredients; the net energy of the ration; the weight of the calves; the sex and frame size of the calves or bulls; and the gain that is desired. The program then calculates the amount of feed to be fed daily, when to increase the amount of feed, and the feed cost of gain. The only help you may need is to calculate the net energy of your ration. Any nutritionist or livestock extension agent should be able to provide you with that figure.

If you are fortunate enough to have irrigated pasture or other source of green feed, you may not need an alternative such as described above. Feeding high energy rations to calves isn’t new; it’s just new to the cow-calf sector. Dairies have been feeding their calves high energy rations for years.

Limit feeding high energy rations to replacement heifers and cows is a tool that can be used especially when hay cost is high relative to grains.

Michael J. Mehren, PhD. is a livestock nutritionist consuming high energy liquids solely to beat the heat in Hermiston, Oregon. He may be contacted by Email @

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