What decisions do we need to be prepared for? As we enter October, decisions relative to breeding, calving season, grazing management, pre-vaccinations and, in some cases, marketing have already been made and the course set. That leaves us with decisions around weaning, starting calves on feed and choosing an implant strategy.


Articles in previous months have provided insight on steps to ensure successful weaning (August 2015). However, producers need to ask themselves: “What is my feed and labor situation?” as well as, “What are my goals?”

Low-stress weaning has been well-documented as a key to a successful weaning program. Fenceline weaning reduces stress on calves, cows and owners, but not every producer may have the ability to successfully fenceline wean, and those that do fenceline wean eventually need to bring calves to a feedlot pen or confined feeding space.

Considerations then need to focus on people and calf interactions to insure a stress-free environment.

In regions of Nebraska where cornstalks are abundant, or in years when ranches have a greater amount of grass, weaning of May calving herds may be pushed back as far as March or April.


The Maddux Ranch, operated by Jack and John Maddux of Wauneta, Nebraska, has done just that. Located in Chase County, Nebraska, which has an abundance of cornstalk residue grazing, they developed a system to leave calves on cows when they went to stalks.

What they found was that the calves, which were weaned at 10.5 to 11 months old, stayed healthy through the winter with acceptable gains that were very cost-effective. “We feel wintering a calf as a pair, in addition to being a cheap overwintering technique, is a terrific way for heifer calves who will be entering the herd in the following year to learn how to find corn and graze cornstalks through learning at their mother’s side,” explains John Maddux. Pairs received supplemental distillers grains throughout the winter.

Starting calves on feed

The old saying of “This isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile,” rings true when we consider the calves we are weaning and that are coming to our lots. “They are a lot different,” explains Dr. Robbi Pritchard, distinguished professor at South Dakota State University. Dr. Pritchard has purchased calves from the same South Dakota ranch since 1984.

“In the past 30 years, we have seen an increase in weaning weights from 496 to 650 pounds and finished steer weights increased from 1,050 to 1,365 pounds, marketing six weeks sooner.”

Thus, we have an animal that has a lot greater growth potential than what we had just five years ago. Improvement in growth and carcass traits can be attributed to improved genetics as well as more efficient and effective use of pharmaceuticals. Decisions to deliver an appropriate amount and quality of feed to the bunk to meet this new animal’s requirements are critical in maximizing the potential of the calf.

Dr. Pritchard points out, “It is critical to consistently get the appropriate amount of calories into the calves. There are consequences associated with getting consumption of too few calories and just as importantly with consumption of too many calories.” Fewer calories have shown a negative impact on slower growth, while getting cattle too fat early has shortened their growth curve, resulting in lighter carcass weights.

Effective bunk management is key

With the change in the genetics and growth of calves, proper nutrition is a must – but effective management of feed delivery is something not everyone can master. “In today’s market, a 10th of a pound improvement in feed-to-gain is worth 6 dollars per head; thus, effective bunk management is a key component of successfully feeding cattle,” states Dr. Pritchard.

Keys to successful bunk management include:

  • Deliver a consistent amount: Cattle don’t know how to eat and often eat too much, resulting in acidosis.

  • Deliver at a consistent time: Cattle are creatures of habit, and small fluctuations in time will hurt efficiency.

  • Deliver a consistent ration: Consider that your mixer may not be delivering what you put in. It may not be the same from one end of the bunk to the other.

  • Keep good records: Scoring bunks is an essential part of a consistent feed delivery.

  • Feed calls: Learn how to read cattle behavior to know when they are needing additional feed.

Consider implanting

Implants have been documented to be effective tools in increasing production from the ranch to the feedlot. Dr. John Lawrence at Iowa State University, in an extensive analysis, reported the value of implants to cow-calf operations at $34 per head and in the feedlot at $71 per head. The large return on investment, including product and labor, can be captured with little infrastructure.

Tools have been developed to help producers make decisions on choosing an implant strategy. Dr. Pritchard developed a unique tool that allows one to see the impact of weight gain and effect on marbling on price differentials of different implant strategies. The program can be accessed at www.implantcalculator.com

It is important to remember that utilizing lower-potency implants in the backgrounding phase and early in the finishing phase will not impede marbling development. Terminal or high-potency implants should only be given when cattle are adapted to the finishing diets.

In closing, I will leave you with a quote from cattle rancher John Maddux of Wauneta, Nebraska, from a presentation he made at the 2009 Range Beef Cow Symposium. “In our traditional business, new ideas and perspectives are important for our survival, and unfortunately these lessons probably can’t be learned on horseback; we must get out and experience a much different environment to develop a wider worldview and perspective.”

Decisions can be simple or complex, but it will be the experiences we learn from which will help us make successful decisions in the future.  end mark

PHOTO: A key for new calves at the bunk is to provide them adequate amount of calories for the right rate of growth. Photo courtesy of our Staff.

Kelly Bruns
  • Kelly Bruns

  • University of Nebraska
  • West Central Research and Extension Center
  • Email Kelly Bruns