Diet energy, consistency keys to raising market steers

Ray Mueller
Dan Schaefer

Waldo - Paying attention to the energy value of feeds, consistency in management practices, gradual changes in ration contents, timely finishing of market steers, and meeting the expectations of buyers are the keys to success for cattle feeders today.

That was the message from University of Wisconsin – Madison animal scientist and beef production specialist Dan Schaefer to attendees at the 2017 cattle feeder clinics sponsored by the Extension Service. While his presentation was based on standards for “native cattle” (colored breeds), he also indicated how they could be tweaked for the Holstein steers which were being raised by a number of those in the audience here.

If there's one practice that needs to be carried out at all times, it's to avoid abrupt shifts in feed, animal grouping, or other factors, Schaefer stated. “Allow time to adapt.”

Holstein hints

To the raisers of Holstein steers, many of whom were former dairy farmers, Schaefer cautions against too heavy a reliance on corn silage and alfalfa or grass hay in the diet. He said they have nutritional value but they also slow the rate of weight gain and can make the animals too heavy at finishing.

Carcass weights are going up across the board but this creates a special problem with Holstein steers because most meat packers prefer not to buy animals that are too heavy, Schaefer pointed out. The feeding of too much corn silage can easily make Holstein steers too heavy at finishing, he warned.

A finishing weight of 1,415 pounds for Holstein steers with a dressing percentage of 61 for a carcass weight approaching 900 pounds is acceptable but 1,000 pounds is not with most packers, Schaefer indicated. Start the finishing phase of feeding at a body weight of 800 pounds for steers with a body condition score of 5 and at 750 pounds with a score of 4, he advised. At finishing, that score should be 7, he said.

Feeding fundamentals

With the native or colored breed cattle, Schaefer proposed a goal of 1,300 pounds with 28 percent body fat. He also referred to a long-standing rule of thumb that the genetic potential on weight for a steer is equal to the mature body weight of its mother cow.

To achieve his stated finishing weight and body fat goals in a timely fashion, Schaefer emphasizes that the density of nutrients in the diet is one of major keys. Including Holsteins started on feeding once they surpass 700 pounds, he said gaining 3.3 pounds per day or 100 pounds a month is the ideal but he suspects that a daily average gain of about 2.8 pounds is still “too common.”

Schaefer prescribes an energy dense diet and consistent feeding practices – both in content and timing – to reach his suggested goals. He noted that the use of growth implants can increase frame size, thereby adding 30 to 90 pounds to the acceptable finishing weight.

The total digestible nutrient (TDN) calculation is proper for beef cow diets but not for steers, Schaefer continued. For the steers, he pointed out that ideal daily dry matter intakes will gradually rise from 2 to 2.8 percent of body weight.

Feeding supplements

In all cases, don't ramp up the energy value of the diet too fast when going into a new feeding phase, Schaefer stressed. Similarly, introduce such products as Bovatec and Rumensin over about three weeks and consider providing Holsteins with Rumensin after they are weaned, he stated.

The timing of the transition from the growing to the finishing phase of feeding should be linked to the animal's frame size, body condition score, and gender, Schaefer advised. Allow two to four weeks for the complete change in diet in smaller steps made over three to five days and look for daily dry matter intake of 2.5 percent of body weight at that time, he added.

Of the two beta agonist products in the commercial market, Schaefer reported that no markets accept cattle that have received Zilmax. The other product, named OptaFlexx, can add up to 20 pounds to the carcass when fed for the last four to six weeks for a return of up to $18 on a cost of $12, he indicated. A man in the audience told Schaefer that the buyer of his cattle is advising him not to use OptaFlexx.

Nutrition basics

Body weights are closely linked to the nutritional needs, which Schaefer refers to as the “net energy for gain” or “Mcal per pound.” What the energy density ought to be goes down as the weight increases and the dry matter intake increases, he noted. “Energy determines the growth rate.”

Although they can play a valuable role in a diet, their low rating on energy are why alfalfa hay, grasses, and corn silage should make up only a small portion of the dry matter intake for the finishing feeding of steers, Schaefer stressed. “The weight gain is too slow with corn silage.”

The basic nutrient needs for steers include protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, salt, sulfur, and vitamin A, Schaefer indicated. Keep a lid on the salt because it leads to an increased consumption of water, more urine, and a requirement for extra bedding, he cautioned.

Legumes, or a limestone supplement, provide calcium while hay and silage are top sources of protein and alfalfa also provides potassium, Schaefer observed. He noted that the aroma of silage is foreign to native cattle that are probably familiar with grass, oats, and molasses.

Ration ingredients

As the primary energy source for finishing rations, Schaefer says a total of 70 percent of the ration should be in a combination of high moisture corn and corn silage. Among those two, he finds anywhere from a 60/10 to 45/25 ratio to be acceptable in terms of net energy for gain.

Fermented feeds create the risk of acidosis, thereby putting cattle off feed, stimulating excess hoof growth, and creating pain in joints, Schaefer remarked. Even without those risks, he said a heavy feeding of corn silage limits weight gain rates and is not profitable with Holstein steers.

With the shelled corn, it is essential to obtain maximum digestion of the starch, Schaefer stated. For that reason, he recommends steam flaking or dry rolling the shelled corn.

But shelled corn will vary according to the genetic traits of the hybrid, particularly on the starch digestibility, Schaefer pointed out. This is governed by the type of endosperm, which can be checked by placing corn kernels on a light table for a translucency test – light streaming through them is good for starch digestion, he explained.

Distillers grains

For another 25 percent of the ration, Schaefer strongly recommends distillers grains (wet or dry) from ethanol plants or other processors along with the possibility of bakery or pizza waste (up to 10 percent), corn gluten, grain screenings, and wheat midds.

After processing in ethanol plants, distillers grains ordinarily contained a tripled concentration of both protein and oil, Schaefer observed. More recently, however, some ethanol plants are extracting a portion of the oil for sale as another source of income, thereby reducing the energy value of the distillers grains, he reported.

Starch digestion occurs most quickly with wheat and barley, followed by high moisture corn that has been properly processed to make the starch more readily available, Schaefer pointed out. One way to monitor the quality of the diet is to check the manure to notice if it has a consistency that's neither runny nor dry, he advised.

Consistent practices

Because cattle thrive on a consistent daily routine, the feed make-up and timing should honor the need for routine, Schaefer stressed. He acknowledged that this can present challenges if different people are involved with the chores throughout the week.

A crucial daily task is to notice how well the cattle are cleaning up the feed they are provided, Schaefer remarked. He said changes are in order both if there's leftover feed or if there are signs of licking of the bunk floor in search of more feed. His standard is that a few crumbs should remain before the delivery of the next batch of feed.

In order to maintain fairly stable pH levels in the rumen, which is crucial for protecting health, cattle should not be allowed to go hungry, Schaefer stressed. To the question of using self feeders, he agreed that this is more convenient and requires less labor but added that this works only with dry feeds and doesn't easily allow for knowing how much feed is being consumed and for being able to notice if some cattle are not eating.

But in all scenarios, cattle movement should not be impaired by bars or obstructions, access to water should be easy, the area should be free of dust, and the feed bunk should allow all of the cattle to eat at the same time, Schaefer stated. Not subjecting the cattle to loud noise from people or other sources is also important, he added.

Beyond that, try to keep animals in consistent groups so they can establish their own pecking order, Schaefer continued. He noted that unnecessary activity is an unproductive use of energy.

Related observations

On other points, Schaefer remarked that “cattle have been getting bigger and bigger. That's due to the breeder selection of bulls.”

To a question about grass-fed or organic beef, Schaefer acknowledged that the annual percentage increases in volumes appear impressive but noted the numbers are derived from a small base. He observed that the Organic Valley Cooperative has tried to establish a vibrant market for organic beef but hasn't fared too well on that effort.

Organic and grass-fed beef sell for a premium, Schaefer agreed. But he wondered how many consumers are able and willing to pay the higher price for those meats.

Given the popularity of raising Holstein steers in Wisconsin, Schaefer acknowledged that the university and Extension Service have been lagging in that aspect of formal research. He said that is being addressed with a research project in which he is involved.

More information on raising and marketing steers is available on the website.