Educators Corner
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Nutrition at every stage

Fuel your cattle’s potential from start to finish.

Good nutrition starts with your cows and creates feedyard-ready calves. Although the feeding stage is a critical time, it’s not the only place that matters where calf nutrition is concerned. For those with quality in mind, planning should begin before the calf is even born. The Best Practices Manual details strategies from pre-birth to post-weaning.  

Here, we’ll take a look at a few of the critical points of nutrition cattlemen can focus on to improve beef quality:

  • Fetal Programming
  • Creep Feeding
  • Weaning
  • Stocker Nutrition

Fetal Programming

Cow nutrition = calf performance

Cow nutrition in the months before calving can determine their progeny’s future production. Supplementation during this phase could make a defining difference: there’s a positive effect on heifer fertility, weaning weights and quality grade.

University of Nebraska research* found offspring of supplemented cows graded 86% Choice, compared to 71% in the non-supplemented group. However, the premium-Choice percentage dropped 18 points without the added protein, 39% vs. 21%. Yield grade was virtually the same.

“The increase in percent Choice, without an increase in yield grade, translated to a $47 advantage in carcass value,” says Nebraska animal scientist Rick Funston.

Other highlights from that research:
  • Cows received 28% crude protein supplement during the last trimester of pregnancy
  • Most of an unborn calf’s growth (75%) occurs during the last two months of pregnancy.
Effect on calving:
  • Supplemented cows weaned 5% to 9% more calves than cows without supplement
Effect on steer-calf performance:
  • Steers born to supplemented mothers had a 48-lb. advantage in weaning weight; carcasses were 42 lb. heavier at harvest.
Effect on heifer-calf performance:
  • Heifers born to supplemented cows had higher overall pregnancy rates (93% v. 80%) and a higher percentage delivered their first calves early in the calving season.

*2009 “Winter grazing system and supplementation during late gestation influence performance of beef cows and steer progeny ,” by D. M. Larson, J. L. Martin, D. C. Adams and R. N. Funston, University of Nebraska

Creep Feeding

Extensive studies at the University of Illinois have shown that getting nursing calves to consume a high-energy creep diet as early as possible will enhance marbling deposition.

In one trial, 27 percent more calves graded Mid-Choice or higher as a result of a corn-based creep diet (55% v. 28% in control group). Calves on the corn-based creep also had significantly greater carcass weights.

To achieve that increase in marbling:
  • Calves need to be on creep feed for at least 80 days.
  • The diet should be based on corn or other high-energy grains.
  • As in the case of early-weaned calves, shelled corn can work well in these diets.

Targeted Daily Gains:
  • Target daily gains of 2.0 – 2.5 lb./day for small- to medium-frame calves
  • Target daily gains of 2.5 - 3.0 lb./day for medium- to large-frame calves

% Protein:
  • 16% for calves less than 600 lb.
  • 13.5% for calves more than 600 lb.


There are two important variables in weaning nutrition: what calves eat and how it’s delivered. Calves should have easy access to trace minerals and vitamins to prime their immune system prior to weaning. They should also have experience with automatic waterers and eating out of a bunk.

Silage mixtures or good-quality free-choice hay are two options for getting them accustomed to a new feed source, but ranch resources might dictate what’s fed. Here are some tips to follow:

  • It has to be highly palatable to drive intakes.
  • It needs to be nutrient dense, since calves won’t be eating much for the first few weeks.
  • It needs to be well-balanced between highly fermentable energy and roughage to avoid digestive problems.

The goal should be average daily gains (ADG) around 2 to 3 lb. Passing weaning history along to subsequent owners helps calves stay on a level plane of nutrition throughout the feeding period.

Stocker Nutrition

Nutrition in the stocker/backgrounding phase can make or break a calf’s profit potential.

The first two or three weeks after procurement are a critical time to get the calves nutritionally ready to be on their own for grazing. Proper nutrition is the foundation for good health; including copper, zinc and selenium in a starter ration can help keep calves healthy throughout the grazing period.

Here’s a checklist to follow for the best stocker nutrition:

  • Avoid extended periods of weight maintenance or loss
    • Cattle bought a month or two before optimal grazing should be supplemented to maintain a minimum gain of 1.5 lb. per day.
    • Calves moved from a high-energy diet to a lower-gain growing diet targeting less than 2 lb. per day will not continue to develop marbling at a high rate.
  • Avoid excessively long grazing periods, especially for large-framed cattle.
  • Consider adding starch early in the diet. Research shows a quality grade advantage for cattle fed at least an intermediate level of starch in the growing phase.
  • Work with your nutritionist to develop an effective mineral supplementation program. Trace mineral programs can aid immune function.

Add an ionophore in your supplementation program to maximize gain and prevent or control coccidiosis.