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Feeding and caring for incoming feedlot cattle

Quick facts

  • Vaccinate, deworm, implant, eartag and weigh cattle within 72 hours from arrival.

  • Use and clean receiving and sick pens as needed.

  • Have access to water within 3 to 4 hours from arrival. Make slow diet changes.

  • Feed a high energy concentrate with 12 to 14 percent preformed degradable protein within one day from arrival.

  • Watch cattle at least twice a day, especially at feeding time. Pull and treat sick cattle.

  • Each percent of death rate increases paid price by 77 cents per cwt and breakeven by 35 cents per cwt.

Poor cattle performance during the first receiving period often means sub-optimal performance throughout the growing-finishing period. Proper feeding and care can lead to optimal cattle performance. 

Evaluating cattle

Cattle sources

The cattle’s source affects their stress and care needs upon feedlot entry.

Highly stressed calves from sale barns need mass medication upon entry to reduce outbreaks.

Cattle from closed-herds have low immunity to respiratory disease. These cattle have little contact to outside cattle prior to the feedlot. They typically do well for the first feeding period but later break with respiratory disease, which cause high death and disease rates. Modified-live vaccines prior to shipping and quick processing with like products can calves from closed-herds.

Examine incoming cattle

Consider the following questions discussed by Pollreisz et al. 1996.

  • Are the cattle coughing excessively when unloading?

  • Are there nose or eye discharges? If so, is it clear and watery or pus-like?

  • Are the cattle calm or excited?

  • Are any cattle away from the bunch with arched backs and heads down?

  • Do any of the cattle have a fever?

  • How long have they been on the truck?

  • How many sources are they from?

Keep detailed records of these answers to help you fit a health conditioning program. Dehorning, castrating and vaccinating cattle before shipping reduces death and disease in the feedlot. Always assess the cost-benefit relationships.

Transit weight loss and disease risk

Cattle lose 0.61 percent of their BW for every 100 miles during transport. Fifty-three percent of that loss comes from the body and 47 percent from digestive tract water loss.  

Lack of feed and water accounts for 66 percent of weight loss during transit. But pre-shipment feed and care differences plus handling stresses also add to these weight losses. Calves weaned and then shipped to a new place will lose more weight than calves weaned and given time to adjust to their new diet.  

Overnight weight loss is higher for calves fed grass or silage diets than those fed a concentrate diet.

Calves are more prone to disease in the feedlot if they lost a lot of weight during transport. Cattle losing more than 7 percent BW during transport are highly stressed and at high risk for disease.

The time of day you unload calves at the feedlot may affect disease rate despite transit time. Cole et al. 1988 found that calves fasted, hauled for 12 hours and unloaded at 8:00 p.m., had greater disease and death rates than calves fasted, hauled for 24 hours and unloaded at 8:30 am. Calves unloaded in the morning rested and recovered from transit during the day. Calves unloaded in the late evening remained restless and stressed more.

Poor calf health will add to upset rumen function caused by fasting during transit. Rumen function can remain poor for five to seven days after re-feeding, which is why it’s hard to get incoming cattle started on feed.

Care tips for incoming cattle

  • Place feed bunks and water tanks along pen fence lines so the cattle must walk past them. Cattle usually aren‘t familiar with feedlot settings, especially calves weaned and pulled from pasture. Cattle tend to circle the pens to find a way out and won’t find water tanks or feed bunks placed in the center.

  • Clean the feedlot building, feed bunks and water tanks before the cattle arrive.

  • Provide clean bedding where it’s needed.

  • If possible, place receiving pens around grassy areas to reduce stress and illness in the cattle.

  • Allow incoming cattle 1 foot of bunk space and 200 square feet of pen space per head.

    • Once adjusted, give cattle 6 to 9 inches of bunk space and 150 square feet of pen space per head.

Feeding newly received cattle

Quickly getting new cattle on feed is key to health conditioning programs. Feeder and breakeven costs increase 77 and 35 cents per hundredweight, respectively, for each percent of disease rate. This doesn’t consider feed, medicine, veterinary service, labor, or yardage invested prior to death.

Incoming cattle tend to eat poorly during the first few days in the feedlot. These cattle often eat less than 1 percent of their body weight (BW), especially if they have high disease rates.

Make sure the cattle eat enough to maintain their weight. You can adjust diet nutrient content for different intakes and expected gain, see table 1.  

Right away, work to repair cattle health and strength and improve rumen function. Cattle will regain normal feed intake only after a 21-day receiving period, especially long-haul cattle.

Table 1. Needs of a 400-lb calf at different rates of gaina

Gain, lb/day Protein, % NEm, MCal/100 lb DMb NEg, MCal/100 lb DMc Calcium, % Phosphorus, %
Calf consumes 1% BW (4 lb)
0 15 95 0 0.3 0.3
0.5 21.2 128 61 0.55 0.5
Calf consumes 2% BW (8 lb)
0 7 48 0 0.16 0.16
1 13 76 46 0.31 0.29
2 15.2 105 70 0.59 0.46
Calf consumes 3% BW (12 lb)
1 9.2 32 0 0.11 0.11
2 10.5 65 20 0.31 0.28
2.5 11.1 80 49 0.48 0.35
a Adapted from Hucheson 1993.
b Net energy for maintenance.
c Net energy for gain.

Receiving diets

Feeding good quality grass hay with a 50 to 75 percent concentrate mix is the basis for a receiving diet. You can feed calves and yearlings a relatively high-energy receiving diet. You must feed free-choice grass hay during the first week to stimulate eating.

You can feed 1 to 2 pounds of concentrate per head on day one. For the next two days, increase this amount by 1 pound per head daily. Thus the grain intake on the third day will be 3 to 4 pounds per head.

Whole corn fed with a protein supplement (3:1) and long hay works well as a basic receiving diet. Top dressing a grain mixture over the hay in the feed bunk can enhance energy intake.

Pritchard 1993 described an alternate system to start yearling cattle on a finishing diet. He suggests feeding the finishing diet the second day after arrival at 2.3 times maintenance level. Increase this to 2.5, 2.7 and 2.9 times maintenance, respectively, at weekly intervals. He used an ionophore in this system. This system reduces roughage handling and uses simpler feed batching.


Conditioning feedlot cattle

Types of vaccination products and schedules will vary with certain diseases and cost. Mills 1990 summarized the practices of a large Mississippi farm. They vaccinated young calves scheduled for preconditioning with the following:

  • IBR

  • PI3 4-way blackleg

  • Haemophilus somnus

In this example, preconditioning also included:

  • Deworming

  • Castrating

  • Implanting

  • Giving an oral probiotic gel

They didn’t dehorn calves at this first processing.

Smith 1984 outlined a schedule for receiving cattle.

  1. Take temperatures on stale or stressed cattle upon entry or the following morning.

    • This may not be a good indicator

  2. Give IBR, PI3, BVD, Lepto-pomona and 4-way clostridia

  3. Implant, deworm, treat for external parasites.

  4. Tip horns, castrate, bob tails and brand or eartag.

  5. The author suggests revaccinating light calves and stale or green cattle with IBR, PI3 and BVD five to seven days after arriving.

  6. Reimplant following manufacturers’ directions.

  7. Evaluate how often newly arrived calves need retreatment to assess the economic benefits.

Henderson 1990 suggests that most cattle regain their health after a 3- to 5-day treatment program. Try to find chronic problems early to better manage treatment costs.

Hugh Chester-Jones, professor, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resource Sciences and Alfredo DiCostanzo, Extension animal scientist

Reviewed in 2018

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