Granted, production requirements vary with geography, but if you stay focused on two elements of the overall nutrition program, all other protocols will pay greater dividends than if you don’t.

Freelance Writer
Rick Purnell is a freelance writer based in California.

Jason Sawyer

Jason Sawyer, a stocker and feeder cattle management specialist with Texas A&M University, says by separating your nutrition program into receiving management and production, you’ll ensure that your overall management system better helps you achieve your goals.

“If you think about that system, most stocker operators want to upgrade their cattle, so they’re going to have calves that present higher risk, lower weights and may arrive after long hauls,” he says. “Thus, it pays to have a receiving element of your overall nutrition program.

“That receiving program may last a few days or two weeks, depending on your management and location.

At the minimum, you want calves on arrival to have immediate access to familiar feedstuffs, such as high-quality grass or alfalfa hay. Abundant, fresh, clean water is critical. It’s the most important aspect of any nutrition program.”


Sawyer stresses a receiving nutrition program doesn’t have to be complicated. It simply has to fit your operation and your goals.

“For some stocker setups, the receiving program may only be two days long,” he says. “If it’s a straight forage operation or winter annual program where calves aren’t going to eat a lot of additional feed, the receiving period will likely be short; almost a ‘get ‘em rested, get ‘em out’ situation.”

Craig Scarmado works with Scarmado Cattle Company, a cattle dealer in Caldwell, Texas. He and his crews see thousands of stocker and feeder calves a year.

The company’s buyers buy cattle for customers throughout the South and Midwest. They also buy cattle for their own operation, Scarmado Ranches.

“At least 95 to 100 percent of the calves we buy for customers arrive here and aren’t bunk broke,” he says. “We set up troughs for free-choice feeding in the middle of the pens,” he adds.

“It’s easier for the calves to find and we put fresh feed out every day so we can observe how much they’re eating.”

If you’re going to feed a large volume of feed, it’s worthwhile to consider extending a receiving program, suggests Sawyer.

“The most important thing to do is to plan that lengthened program,” he says. “Stocker operators have access to multiple advisers, such as extension specialists, technical service advisers from different organizations, corporate and independent nutrition consultants.

These professionals are very willing to help plan a receiving strategy that meets an operation’s goals and unique situation.”

Processing is considered part of the receiving program. How it’s executed is a site-by-site decision.

“Whether it’s done right off the truck or within 24 hours depends on each owner, but for certain, calves should be processed with vaccinations and metaphylaxis, if needed, within 48 hours at the latest,” Sawyer says. “Remember, risk increases as arrival weights decrease. Arrival weight, transit time and transit shrink should also be considered.

“With today’s cattle prices, if there’s reason to believe that more than 25 percent of a load will need doctoring, metaphylaxis can pay for itself.”

Sawyer adds vaccination should be second nature. He says that even with the highest-level vaccination program, product cost might run $3.50 to $5 per head. Even after adding labor and equipment costs, it is a small investment to protect a calf that will likely be worth about $1,300 at sale time.

While Scarmado’s incoming protocols vary depending on the time of year, vaccination is standard.

“We’ll administer a five-way, modified-live vaccine and a seven-way clostridial that includes haemophilus somnus,” he says. “We’ll add seasonal vaccines when needed, such as pinkeye and foot rot.

“As for metaphylaxis, we’ll use it during the fall and when it’s needed in the spring, but we’ll use a different antibiotic then,” Scarmado adds.

Overall nutrition
Following his straightforward approach to nutrition, Sawyer says the business goal drives what is fed.

“Generally, a stocker operator’s primary goals are to improve cattle, manage health and produce pounds,” he says. “In the context of a nutrition program, these goals translate to meeting protein needs, managing energy intake and ensuring everything else.

“The first thing to think about is calories. If they’re all coming from forage, evaluate the forage resource, then consider supplementing some energy.

Delivering an ionophore with that supplement will provide about 10 percent more effective energy at very little cost. Even feeding a pound of feed a day to get the ionophore in the calves is well worth it.”

If forage is short and you want to reduce demand, feed more than 0.5 percent of bodyweight daily. You can assume that for every pound of feed calves eat, forage demand is reduced between 0.75 pound and 1 pound. If you want to increase stocking rate, feed closer to 1 percent of bodyweight or even higher.

This decision should be driven by the cost of additional gain relative to the value of that added production.

Don’t forget protein, Sawyer cautions. If you dry winter on native grass or dormant warm-season pastures, you’ll likely need to add it. Performance will suffer without it.

“Feed a mineral supplement, too,” Sawyer says. “With stocker calves, we typically pay attention to the calcium levels in the mineral supplement and want to ensure that we meet trace mineral requirements. You’ll see a growth response and potentially mitigate some health issues.”

Scarmado ensures that cattle on their operation receive minerals.

“If cattle are going outside and will be fed a ration, they’ll get minerals in it,” Scarmado says. “If they’re going to be turned out on grass, they’ll have either loose mineral feeders or molasses tubs with mineral packs in them. And if we’re caking them, there’ll be a mineral pack in that.”

No matter which step of the process, Sawyer and Scarmado agree that health and nutrition are top priority.

“The name of the game is to try and keep calves we buy for customers healthy during the time they spend here,” Scarmado says. “If we can get them eating high-quality fresh feed and drinking clean water, we’ll make the job of the next person we sell them to easier. We handle all the cattle here the way we would our own – at processing and during daily routines.”  end mark

Rick Purnell is a freelance writer based in California.

PHOTO 1: Whether fed a ration or turned out on grass, stocker cattle should be able to rely on mineral supplements. Photo by Sal Gomez.

PHOTO 2: Jason Sawyer, a stocker and feeder cattle management specialist with Texas A&M University. Photo courtesy of Jason Sawyer.