Beef crossbreds on dairy farms

Halfman shares information on finishing, managing steers

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NORWOOD YOUNG AMERICA, Minn. — Bill Halfman, beef outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension, shared a presentation about finishing beef dairy-beef crossbred cattle Feb. 19 at the Carver County Dairy and Beef Expo in Norwood Young America.

“It’s very important that you get them off to a good start,” Halfman said. “The more you know about them, the better.”

When purchasing cattle from another farm, Halfman said it is good to know how the calves have been raised and what kind of feed they were eating.

“If you have calves that you don’t know what they were on, the best thing to start with is long-stem high-quality hay, then have a very palatable concentrate to go with that,” Halfman said.

This background knowledge is helpful, Halfman said, so that rations and management decisions can get calves moving in the right direction.

“When you get a calf from somewhere else, the most important thing is getting them eating and drinking,” Halfman said. “It may take up to three weeks upon arrival for them to fully settle in.”

Bunk management is also an important aspect to consider. This includes rations, time of feeding, bunk space and the amount of feed.

“When you first get the calves, they like to all go and eat at the same time,” Halfman said. “So, for the youngstock, it’s not bad to have 18-26 inches of bunk space. Once they figure out their social order, they won’t all come at the same time.”

Once the calves reach 750-850 pounds, Halfman said to switch to a finishing ration. This transition should be done in a slow, organized manner to prevent issues.

“A slow transition allows the microbes in the rumen to do their population shift,” Halfman said. “There are two types of microbes in the rumen: fiber-digesting microbes and starch-digesting microbes.”

While the concentrate amount is being increased, the population of the microbes in the rumen will slowly adjust to match the intake of the new ration. Watching the cattle during the transition can also help determine if the transition is taking place too quickly.

“The animals will actually learn how to eat within their rations,” Halfman said.

However, cattle will not figure this out immediately, which is the reason farmers must watch for digestive disruptions. The most common problem caused by a feed ration change is acidosis.

“Acidosis is a pH in the rumen below 5,” Halfman said. “It’s like a bad case of heartburn. If it’s bad enough for long enough, it can disrupt the integrity of the rumen wall.”

Persistent acidosis can also lead to liver abscess development. This can cause the hot carcass weight to drop along with a 20% decrease in an animal’s average daily gain. The pH of the rumen can often be managed with grain processing.

“If we are just cracking the corn, that’s the best way,” Halfman said. “When the corn is fine-ground, there is a lot of surface area that is exposed. The larger pieces with less surface area slow down fermentation.”

A fast rate of fermentation causes the pH in the rumen to drop. Increasing the amount of roughage in the ration can also help decrease the rate of feed consumption and increase rumination time.

“Be consistent with the ration put together, the time it’s fed and, ideally, have a good estimate of what the cattle are going to eat in a day,” Halfman said. “We like to see the bunk empty only about an hour or so. Otherwise, there are going to be hungry cattle that are going to eat too quickly or too much.”

Halfman also talked about three forms of bunk management: ad libitum, which has a high feed waste and inconsistent daily dry matter intake; slick bunk, which has reduced feed waste and improves feed-to-gain ratio and monitors average daily gain; and sustainable maximal intake, a form of bunk management that follows slick bunk 50%-70% of the time.

“Another positive of slick bunk and sustainable maximal intake is they help monitor cattle health,” Halfman said. “We want to observe how much feed is left in the bunk and how the cattle are behaving. If they are trying to eat at the same time, there is something wrong, whether it’s not getting fed on time or not having a big enough ration.”

Keeping the animals in a reduced stress situation is also going to lead to better performance.

“Implement feeding management practices that minimize risk of digestive upset and disorders,” Halfman said. “Good feeding management reduces stress that can lead to additional health problems, performance and quality of the end product.”

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