With the much appreciated rains we received in August, available forage for grazing in the fall of 2008 is more abundant than we expected. And it couldn't have come at a better time. The cattle markets are telling us they won't pay as much for freshly weaned calves so you may want to consider preconditioning your calves on grass for a minimum of 30 days, but preferably 45 or more. Freshly weaned calves have been selling for $6-$12/cwt below yearlings of common weights. The markets are also telling us that feeders want heavier weight calves due to the increased price of grain commodities, giving producers even more reason to retain calves beyond weaning to make them heavier and more valuable. Yes, I know that feed is expensive, but, if you have a little extra grass or hay of decent quality, it may not cost as much as you think to keep your calves gaining a pound per head per day or more.
If the grass you have available for grazing is fresh regrowth since the rains in August, then I would expect its quality to be decent (>7% CP, >52% TDN). If you doubt your forage quality, then sample your pastures and send them to us for testing. If the quality of the forage is okay, then you could expect to keep 500-pound calves gaining 1-1.25 lbs/hd/day for 45 days if you supplement them with your choice of the following feedstuffs:
- 20% cubes at 3 lbs/hd/day
- 25% cubes at 2.5 lbs/hd/day
- 38% cubes at 2 lbs/hd/day
- 14% creep at 4 lbs/hd/day
- 12%-14% commodity blend at 4-5 lbs/hd/day
You can reduce the cost of feeding on a daily basis by feeding every other day.
If you are interested in reading more about backgrounding calves on grass, please see Study Looks at Effect of Forage Source on Backgrounding to read about supplementing calves on stockpiled bermudagrass. Be sure that your calves have plenty of quality forage in front of them so they can be selective while grazing. I typically like to have from 1-1.5 acres available for each 500-pound calf to optimize gain over a 45- to 60-day backgrounding period.
Stress can also be a huge factor in animal performance during the preconditioning phase after weaning. If possible, consider fence-line weaning and wean your calves in a familiar pasture. Expose your calves to the feed they will be receiving after weaning while they are still with the herd. In other words, let their mothers help teach them how and what to eat. Spend some time with your calves and let them get used to you. Hang out with them in the weaning traps the first few days so you will become their foster parent and they know your presence means more feed and not another trip through the chute.
Retaining your calves beyond weaning can be a rewarding and profitable venture. The keys to your success will be to keep the cost of gain below the value of gain for your animals and to be sure that your herd health program is current to reduce the risk of disease.
Always remember that a sharp pencil is worth your time. For more information regarding value of gain and herd health, please take some time to review the following articles What does the "Value of gain" mean? and Herd Health: More Than a Vaccination Program.