Calf care checklist: 5 ways to manage feed shrink

Posted on April 13, 2022 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Lucas Mitchell, Vita Plus calf and heifer specialist
Managing feed shrink is nothing new to producers. However, due to the importance of managing milk cows and their feedstuffs, at times it can be easy to overlook feed shrink for what is fed to the youngest animals on the farm. With the current state of feed prices, every penny counts and the importance of managing feed shrink in all areas of the dairy has been magnified. Here are five ways to manage feed shrink of calf feed.


1. Proper storage
Most producers receive calf feed either in bags or totes or in bulk, in which case it’s often stored in either a storage bin or dumped in some sort of commodity shed. In all cases, the biggest risk of improper storage is exposure to moisture. Moisture ruins bags, degrades pellets, and may lead to moldy feed. Even if the ruined feed isn’t immediately thrown out, calves won’t consume it and their performance will be negatively impacted. Ensure that bags and totes are stored in a dry area and that storage bins and commodity sheds are free of leaks. In the case of commodity sheds, it is also important that feed is sufficiently under the roof so it is protected from blowing rain.

2. Manage pests
There likely isn’t a farm out there that doesn’t face some sort of pressure from mice, rats, ground hogs, birds and other pests. It is important to keep these pests in check as they can seriously impact feed shrink as well as spread disease. To manage these pests, it’s best to take a multipronged approach. Bait boxes are an effective way to manage mice and rats. However, you may want to consider changing the poison bait that is used occasionally. If using a poison bait, keep the safety of children and pets in mind.  Live traps can also be an effective tool for managing other larger rodents.

Placing poison bait can also be an effective way of knocking down bird populations, but this is not deployed year-round for birds in the same way it is for mice and rats.  If housing calves in barns, it is also important to consider strategies that will keep birds out of the barn altogether.

3. Proper feeding level
The most common issue here is overfeeding young calves. When too much feed is offered to young calves, particularly those less than three to four weeks of age, it is likely to go stale before the calf consumes all of it. If a calf is forced to consume stale feed, performance will suffer. On the flip side, some producers manage this risk by dumping feed pails on a weekly or twice weekly basis. The throw-away feed is often fed to older calves and this isn’t viewed as much of a loss. However, the amount being pitched should be carefully managed because the older calves can usually get by on less-expensive feed.

Another common issue with overfeeding is that it can be pushed out of the pail and spilled. This is most common in older calves that are consuming lots of feed. Often pails will be overfilled in an attempt to get by with feeding grain only once per day. Older calves are likely best off when fed twice a day to limit how much feed they spill and waste.

4. Placement of the feed pail
Consider where the feed pail is located in relation to where water or milk is fed. The goal should be to minimize contamination of the feed with water or milk. This often is best managed by placing the feed pail in a different area from where water and milk are offered. Other options include pen fronts with two holes where calves can eat feed from one and drink water or milk from the other.

5. Protection from the elements
If calves are housed outside in hutches, consider how the feed can be protected from the elements. With most hutches, feed can be stored inside the hutch, which provides good protection. However, in situations where this isn’t possible, producers may want to consider one of the numerous options for covering feed buckets stored outside. Plastic covers can be attached to the panel and provide coverage to the buckets.  Feed boxes with lids to protect feed from the rain can be used instead of buckets.

If you are concerned that calf feed shrink may be getting out of hand, reach out to your local calf specialist for a walkthrough and evaluation of current feed storage and management practices.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
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