University of FloridaSolutions for Your Life

Download PDF
Publication #AN335

Nutrition at Early Stages of Life Determines the Future Growth and Reproductive Performance of Beef Calves1

Philipe Moriel2

Introduction

Nutrition can influence future health and performance of calves. The process by which nutrition during the early stages of a calf’s life may permanently change calf development and performance is called “metabolic imprinting” (Lucas 1991). The metabolic imprinting concept has substantial economic implications for animal agriculture, and it should be explored to improve the performance of animals bred for food production. This fact sheet will summarize some of the research conducted in beef calf nutrition and nutritional impact on growth and reproductive performance of beef calves.

Suckling Beef Calves Weaned Between 7 and 8 Months of Age

The major nutritional factors affecting preweaning calf growth are the milk production of the dam, and the quantity and quality of nutrients from pasture and supplements provided before and after birth (Greenwood and Cafe 2007). However, limited information is available regarding the effects of nutrition at an early stage of life on suckling beef calves and their subsequent growth performance.

In general, calf average daily gain, weaning weight, ribeye area, backfat thickness, and marbling scores at weaning increased as milk production of the dam increased. Days on feed in the feedlot linearly decreased as dam milk production increased. This is likely due to the greater body weight of calves at feedlot entry (Stuedemann et al. 1968). Grazing pressure (number of calves per acre) on rangeland by Brahman cow-calf pairs also affected calf body weight at weaning, with increasing grazing pressure linearly decreasing weaning weights (Phillips, Holloway, and Coleman 1991). However, milk production of cows and grazing pressure did not affect calf weight at slaughter, carcass weight, dressing percentage, and marbling scores in numerous studies (Stuedemann et al.1968; Phillips, Holloway, and Coleman 1991; Abdelsamei et al. 2005). Likewise, forage type provided during the preweaning grazing period had little effect on finishing performance of calves.

Creep-Fed Calves

Beef calves’ weaning weights may be increased if limited or unlimited access to creep-feeding supplements is provided (Faulkner et al. 1994; Sexten, Faulkner, and Ireland 2004; Moriel and Arthington 2013a, b). Creep-fed calves may also experience enhanced dry matter intake (Moriel and Arthington 2013a, b) and weight gain during the feedlot receiving period (Arthington et al. 2008), which is the period with the greatest frequency of health problems in newly received feedlot calves. Beef calves with access to creep-feeding have decreased incidence of morbidity and mortality than calves with no creep-feeding supplementation (Fluharty and Loerch 1996). However, most studies did not observe long-term effects of creep-feed supplementation on finishing growth performance and carcass traits of beef steers (Tarr et al. 1994; Myers et al. 1999; Shike et al. 2007).

In addition, creep-feed supplementation has been shown to affect future milk production of beef heifers (Hixon et al. 1982; Sexten, Faulkner, and Ireland 2004). Beef heifers given free-choice access to creep-feeding supplements for 90 days before weaning had greater weaning weights and similar milk production at 60 days of first lactation, but experienced decreased milk production at 120 days of lactation compared to heifers that did not receive creep-feeding supplementation (Hixon et al. 1982). Likewise, beef heifers provided free-choice access to soybean hull-based supplements (14% or 18% crude protein, CP) for 84 days before weaning were, on average, 55 lb heavier at weaning, but produced 12 to 21% less milk from day 52 to day 164 of their first lactation compared to heifers with no creep-feeding (Sexten, Faulkner, and Ireland 2004). However, both studies reported that weaning weights of calves were similar whether the heifers received creep-feeding supplementation or not. This response suggests that beef calves compensate for decreased dam milk production by increasing their forage intake. In addition, beef heifers that received creep-feeding supplements containing 18% CP had greater milk production than heifers fed supplements with 14% CP. Thus, increasing the dietary concentrations of CP may alleviate the negative effects of enhanced weight gain on mammary gland development and subsequent milk production of beef heifers (Sexten, Faulkner, and Ireland 2004).

Early-Weaned Beef Steers

Early weaning is a management practice consisting of permanent calf removal at ages often younger than 5 months. Normal weaning traditionally occurs when calves are between 7 and 8 months of age. Early weaning usually occurs during periods of forage shortage. However, early weaning may also improve weaning weights of calves (Thrift and Thrift 2004; Moriel et al. 2014a, c), feed efficiency of cows and calves (Arthington and Minton 2004), and reproductive performance of cows (Arthington and Kalmbacher 2003).

Long-term effects of calf management following early weaning on growth and carcass quality of beef steers have been reported by numerous studies. Although 12 of 18 studies reported that average daily gain of early-weaned calves was equal to or less than that of normally weaned calves during the feedlot phase, 10 of 14 studies reported equal or greater feed efficiency for early-weaned calves (Thrift and Thrift 2004). Calves given a high-concentrate diet starting at 177 days of age had 11% greater overall feed efficiency during the feedlot phase compared to calves provided the same diet starting at 231 days of age (Myers et al. 1999). Furthermore, calves weaned at 89 days of age and supplemented with concentrate at 1.0% of body weight on ryegrass pastures for 211 days had greater average daily gain (1.92 lb/day versus 0.88 lb/day) and feed efficiency (gain:feed, 0.15 versus 0.08) during the receiving period in the feedlot than calves weaned and introduced to the feedlot at 300 days of age (Arthington, Spears, and Miller 2005).

Intramuscular fat deposition (deposition of fat responsible for marbling scores) can be enhanced if cattle are placed on high-energy diets starting at young ages. In a 2-year study, Myers et al. (1999) reported that providing high-concentrate diets to beef calves starting at 177 days instead of 213 days of age increased the percentage of carcasses grading average Choice or better (87% versus 63% for early-weaned and normally weaned calves, respectively) as well as marbling scores (1,183 versus 1,128 for early-weaned and normally weaned calves, respectively). Thereafter, numerous studies proposed that feeding high-concentrate diets to calves starting between 3 to 6 months of age rather than at 7 months of age or older could be an alternative tool to enhance carcass quality and marbling scores. However, this approach did not yield consistent results. Of 13 studies comparing carcass characteristics of early-weaned and normally weaned calves (Thrift and Thrift 2004), only 4 studies reported greater percentages of carcasses grading Choice or better, and only 6 studies reported greater marbling scores for early- versus normally weaned calves. Reasons for the inconsistent results among those studies may be attributed to differences in common end point at slaughter (weight, age, or backfat thickness), calf age at the start of the study, diet composition (e.g. starch concentration), timing and number of steroid implants, and interactions among those factors.

Early-Weaned Beef Heifers

Nutrition at early stages of life also has significant effects on reproductive performance of beef heifers. The amount of body weight gained after weaning was negatively associated with age at puberty (Gasser et al. 2006a, b). Gasser et al. (2006a) demonstrated that enhancing the average daily gain of heifers after early weaning (2.80 versus 1.87 lb/day) decreased the age at attainment of puberty by approximately 100 days (262 versus 368 days of age) and increased the percentage of heifers achieving precocious puberty before reaching 300 days of age (100 versus 0%) in British breed cattle.

Body weight gain after weaning is a major variable that influences age and weight at puberty. Across multiple breeds, heifers that were fed to achieve the greater average daily gain (1.76 versus 0.88 lb/day) starting at 7 months of age tended to be younger (372 versus 387 days of age) and heavier at puberty (709 lb versus 663 lb) than heifers fed to achieve lower growth rates (Ferrell 1982). In contrast, early-weaned heifers with faster growth rates beginning at 70 days of age achieved puberty earlier, but at similar (Gasser et al. 2006b) or lighter body weights (Gasser et al. 2006a) compared to heifers on a lower plane of nutrition. These differences in body weight at puberty between heifers that were normally or early-weaned are likely an indication of metabolic imprinting effects of nutrition during early stages of life.

In summary, those results indicate the existence of a critical time in which nutritional management may induce early activation of the reproductive axis and have long-term consequences on age at puberty achievement.

Early Weaning Studies at UF/IFAS

Despite the aforementioned positive effects of early weaning on growth and reproductive performance of beef calves, few beef producers are willing to adopt early weaning practice because of the limited amount of information on management of early-weaned calves and increased labor associated with feeding calves daily. Therefore, 2 studies were conducted at the UF/IFAS Range Cattle Research and Education Center to evaluate different calf management systems for early-weaned beef calves and their long-term consequences on calf performance (Moriel et al. 2014a, c).

Experiment 1 evaluated the growth performance and carcass characteristics of Brangus crossbred steers, while experiment 2 evaluated the growth and reproductive performance of Brangus crossbred heifers. In both experiments, calves were either normally weaned at 250 days of age (day 180 of the study) or early-weaned at 70 days of age (day 0 of the study) and randomly assigned to 1 of 3 early-weaning calf management systems. In the first system, calves were early-weaned at 70 days of age and grazed on ryegrass and bahiagrass pastures for 180 days (EWPAST). In the second system, calves were early-weaned at 70 days of age and limit-fed a high-concentrate diet in drylot for 180 days (EW180). In the third system, calves were early-weaned at 70 days of age and limit-fed a high-concentrate diet in drylot for 90 days, then grazed on bahiagrass pastures for an additional 90 days (EW90; Figure 1). When the early-weaned calves were in drylot, they were limit-fed the high-concentrate diet at 3.5% of body weight (as-fed). When the early-weaned calves were on pasture, they were supplemented with the same high-concentrate diet at 1.0% of body weight (as-fed). Calves that were kept with the mothers until weaning (250 days of age) did not receive supplementation from birth to 250 days of age.

Figure 1. 
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Experiment 1 demonstrated that overall growth performance of early-weaned steers was similar to or greater than that of steers normally weaned at 250 days of age (Table 2). Early-weaned calves provided a high-concentrate diet in drylot for at least 90 days (groups of EW90 and EW180 steers) were heavier at the time of normal weaning and shipping (day 260 of the study) than normally weaned steers and early-weaned steers that grazed ryegrass and bahiagrass pastures. However, calf nutrition provided after birth in this experiment did not affect the overall carcass characteristics and marbling score at slaughter (Table 2). Only 6 of 13 studies reported greater marbling scores for early-weaned versus normally weaned steers. Inconsistent results among those studies and our experiment 1 may be attributed to the differences related to the criteria selected for slaughter (target body weight or backfat thickness), breed, calf age at the start of the study, diet composition (for instance, diets with high or low starch concentrations), and interaction among those factors.

Experiment 2 demonstrated that early-weaned heifers limit-fed a high-concentrate diet for at least 90 days in drylot, and early-weaned heifers grazed on pastures and supplemented with concentrate fed at 1.0% of body weight for the entire study (dry matter), had similar or greater growth performance compared to heifers that were normally weaned (Table 3). From day 180 of the study until the end of the breeding season (day 395 of the study), heifers were supplemented with concentrate at 1.5% of body weight (dry matter). During this period, no differences were detected in average daily gain among treatments (averaged 1.50 lb/day). Interestingly, limit-feeding a high-concentrate diet in drylot for at least 90 days increased the percentage of heifers cycling at the start of the breeding season compared to normally weaning heifers (Table 3), in spite of body weight and average daily weight gain similar to those of heifers normally weaned at 250 days of age. This response indicates that we can anticipate puberty achievement if heifers are exposed to high-concentrate diets and high-growth rates at young ages (approximately 70 days of age).

In summary, metabolic imprinting is the process by which calf nutrition during the first few months of life permanently affects the metabolism and performance of beef steers and heifers. Early exposure to high-concentrate diets enhances growth performance of beef steers and heifers and also accelerates puberty achievement of beef heifers. Identifying strategies that can enhance calf performance during early postnatal life provides unique opportunities to optimize feed resources and increase the profitability of beef cattle operations.

References

Abdelsamei, A. H., D. G. Fox, L. O. Tedeschi, M. L. Thonney, D. L. Ketchen, and J. R. Stouffer. 2005. “The effect of milk intake on forage intake and growth of nursing calves.” J. Anim. Sci. 83: 940–947.

Arthington, J. D. and J. E. Minton. 2004. “The effect of early calf weaning on feed intake, growth, and postpartum interval in thin, Brahman-crossbred primiparous cows.” Prof. Anim. Sci. 20: 34–38.

Arthington, J. D. and R. S. Kalmbacher. 2003. “Effect of early weaning on the performance of three-year-old, first-calf beef heifers reared in the subtropics.” J. Anim. Sci. 81: 1136–1141.

Arthington, J. D., J. W. Spears, and D. C. Miller. 2005. “The effect of early weaning on feedlot performance and measures of stress in beef calves.” J. Anim. Sci. 83: 933–939.

Arthington, J. D., X. Qiu, R. F. Cooke, J. M. B. Vendramini, D. B. Araujo, C. C. Chase, Jr., and S. W. Coleman. 2008. “Effects of preshipping management on measures of stress and performance of beef steers during feedlot receiving.” J. Anim. Sci. 86: 2016–2023.

Faulkner, D. B., D. F. Hummel, D. D. Buskirk, L. L. Berger, D. F. Parrett, and G. F. Cmarik. 1994. “Performance and nutrient metabolism by nursing calves supplemented with limited or unlimited corn or soyhulls.” J. Anim. Sci. 72: 470–477.

Ferrell, C. L. 1982. “Effects of postweaning rate of gain on onset of puberty and productive performance of heifers of different breeds.” J. Anim. Sci. 55: 1272–1283.

Fluharty, F. L. and S. C. Loerch. 1996. “Effect of dietary energy source and level on performance of newly arrived feedlot cattle.” J. Anim. Sci. 74: 504–513.

Gasser, C. L., D. E. Grum, M. L. Mussard, F. L. Fluharty, J. E. Kinder, and M. L. Day. 2006a. “Induction of precocious puberty in heifers I: Enhanced secretion of luteinizing hormone.” J. Anim. Sci. 84: 2035–2041.

Gasser, C. L., C. R. Burke, M. L. Mussard, E. J. Behlke, D. E. Grum, J. E. Kinder, and M. L. Day. 2006b. “Induction of precocious puberty in heifers II: Advanced ovarian follicular development.” J. Anim. Sci. 84: 2042–2049.

Greenwood, P. L. and L. M. Cafe. 2007. “Prenatal and pre-weaning growth and nutrition of cattle: Long-term consequences for beef production.” Animal. 1: 1283–1296.

Hixon, D. L., G. C. Fahey, D. J. Kesler, and A. L. Neumann. 1982. “Effects of creep feeding and monensin on reproductive performance and lactation of beef heifers.” J. Anim. Sci. 55: 467–474.

Holloway, J. W. and W. T. Butts, Jr. 1983. “Influence of preweaning nutrition on growth of Angus calves provided a postweaning nutritional system resulting in discontinuous growth.” J. Anim. Sci. 56: 1407–1415.

Lucas, A. 1991. “Programming by early nutrition in man.” Ciba Found. Symp. 156: 38–50.

Lusby, K. S. and R. P. Wettemann. 1986. “Effects of limit-fed high protein creep feed or early weaning on performance of fall-born calves and their dams.” Oklahoma Agric. Exp. Sta. Res. Rep. MP 118: 202.

Moriel, P. and J. D. Arthington. 2013a. “Effects of trace mineral-fortified, limit-fed preweaning supplements on performance of pre- and postweaned beef calves.” J. Anim. Sci. 91: 1371–1380.

Moriel, P. and J. D. Arthington. 2013b. “Effects of molasses-based creep-feeding supplementation on growth performance of pre- and postweaned beef calves.” Livest. Sci. 151: 171–178.

Moriel, P., S. E. Johnson, J. M. B. Vendramini, M. A. McCann, D. E. Gerrard, V. R. G. Mercadante, M. J. Hersom, and J. D. Arthington. 2014a. “Effects of metabolic imprinting and calf management systems on growth performance and carcass characteristics of beef steers.” J. Anim. Sci. 92: 3598–3609.

Moriel, P., S. E. Johnson, J. M. B. Vendramini, V. R. G. Mercadante, M. J. Hersom, and J. D. Arthington. 2014b. “Effects of calf weaning age and subsequent management system on growth and reproductive performance of beef heifers.” J. Anim. Sci. 92: 3096–3107.

Moriel, P., S. E. Johnson, J. M. B. Vendramini, V. R. G. Mercadante, M. J. Hersom, and J. D. Arthington. 2014c. “Effects of metabolic imprinting on growth and reproductive performance of early-weaned beef heifers.” Accessed on October 17, 2017. http://animal.ifas.ufl.edu/beef_extension/reports/2013/docs/moriel.pdf

Myers, S. E., D. B. Faulkner, F. A. Ireland, L. L. Berger, and D. F. Parrett. 1999. “Production systems comparing early weaning to normal weaning with or without creep feeding for beef steers.” J. Anim. Sci. 77: 300–310.

Phillips, W. A., J. W. Holloway, and S. W. Coleman. 1991. “Effect of pre- and postweaning management system on the performance on Brahman crossbred feeder calves.” J. Anim. Sci. 69: 3102–3111.

Sexten, W. J., D. B. Faulkner, and F. A. Ireland. 2004. “Influence of creep-feeding and protein level on growth and maternal performance of replacement beef heifers.” Prof. Anim. Sci. 20: 211–217.

Shike, D. W., D. B. Faulkner, M. J. Cecava, D. F. Parrett, and F. A. Ireland. 2007. “Effects of weaning age, creep feeding, and type of creep on steer performance, carcass traits, and economics.” Prof. Anim. Sci. 23: 325–332.

Stuedemann, J. A., J. J. Guenther, S. A. Ewing, R. D. Morrison, and V. Odell. 1968. “Effect of nutritional level imposed from birth to eight months of age on subsequent growth and development patterns of full-fed beef calves.” J. Anim. Sci. 27: 234–241.

Tarr, S. L., D. B. Faulkner, D. D. Buskirk, F. A. Ireland, D. F. Parrett, and L. L. Berger. 1994. “The value of creep feeding during the last 84, 56, or 28 days prior to weaning on growth performance of nursing calves grazing endophyte-infected tall fescue.” J. Anim. Sci. 72: 1084–1094.

Thrift, F. A. and T. A. Thrift. 2004. “Review: Ramifications of weaning spring- and fall-born calves early or late relative to weaning at conventional ages.” Prof. Anim. Sci. 20: 490–502.

Tables

Table 1. 

Growth performance and milk production of heifers that received (Creep) and did not receive (No Creep) unlimited access to creep-feeding supplementation for 90 days before weaning (Hixon et al. 1982).

 

Treatments

 

No Creep

Creep

SEM

Weaning weight, lb

445a

482b

30.8

Milk production, lb/day

   

Day 60 of lactation

11.0

9.0

0.15

Day 120 of lactation

9.9b

7.7a

0.07

a,b Within a row, means without common superscripts differ (P < 0.05).

Table 2. 

Growth performance and carcass characteristics of beef steers developed in different calf management systems from the time of early weaning (EW; day 0 of the study) until shipping (Experiment 1).

 

Treatments1

   

Item

NW

EWPAST

EW180

EW90

SEM

P-value

Body weight, lb

           

Day 0 (Early-weaning)

189

198

203

203

9.2

0.64

Day 180 (Normal weaning)

475a

432a

652b

535c

19.7

<0.01

Day 260 (Shipping)

504a

507a

793b

610c

25.6

<0.01

Slaughter

1042

1066

1132

1119

35.7

0.22

Days on finishing diet

202bc

227c

141a

187b

14.9

0.002

Hot carcass weight, lb

650

663

707

705

22.5

0.22

Yield grade

3.12

3.14

3.15

2.98

0.196

0.91

Marbling

404

418

401

456

41.4

0.75

a,b Within a row, means without common superscripts differ (P ≤ 0.05).

1 NW = steers remained with cows from birth until the time of normal weaning (day 180 of the study); EWPAST = steers early-weaned on day 0 of the study, grazed on ryegrass and bahiagrass pastures + concentrate supplementation at 1.0% of body weight until the time of shipping (day 260 of the study); EW180 = steers early-weaned on day 0 of the study and limit-fed a high-concentrate diet (3.5% of body weight) in drylot until day 260; and EW90 = steers early-weaned on day 0 of the study and limit-fed a high-concentrate diet (3.5% of body weight) in drylot for 90 days, then grazed on bahiagrass pastures with concentrate supplementation at 1.0% of body weight until day 260 of the study.

Table 3. 

Growth and reproductive performance of beef heifers developed on different calf management systems from the time of early weaning (EW; day 0 of the study) until the time of normal weaning (day 180 of the study; Experiment 2).

 

Treatments1

   

Item

NW

EWPAST

EW180

EW90

SEM

P-value

Body weight2, lb

           

Day 90 (Early weaning)

306a

297a

361b

376b

8.1

<0.001

Day 180 (Normal weaning)

467a

392b

577c

476a

14.1

<0.001

Day 335 (Breeding season)

712a

643b

800c

720a

17.5

<0.001

Age at puberty, days

429a

418a

298b

358c

14.9

<0.001

Body weight at puberty, lb

753a

674b

629b

643b

26.2

0.09

Pubertal heifers at start of breeding season, % of total heifers

30a

40a

100b

80b

13.2

0.002

Pregnant heifers, % of total heifers

60

50

78

70

15.6

0.64

a,b Within a row, means without common superscripts differ (P ≤ 0.05).

1 NW = heifers remained with cows from birth until the time of normal weaning (day 180 of the study); EWPAST = heifers early-weaned on day 0 of the study, grazed on ryegrass and bahiagrass pastures + concentrate supplementation at 1.0% of body weight until day 180 of the study; EW180 = heifers early-weaned and limit-fed a high-concentrate diet (3.5% of body weight) in drylot until day 180 of the study; and EW90 = heifers early-weaned and limit-fed a high-concentrate diet (3.5% of body weight) in drylot for 90 days, then grazed on bahiagrass pastures with concentrate supplementation at 1.0% of body weight until day 180 of the study.

2 From the time of normal weaning (day 180 of the study) to the end of the breeding season (day 395 of the study), heifers were grouped by treatment, rotated among bahiagrass pastures every 10 days, and provided concentrate supplementation at 1.5% of body weight.

Footnotes

1.

This document is AN335, one of a series of the Department of Animal Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date October 2017. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Philipe Moriel, assistant professor, Department of Animal Sciences, UF/IFAS Range Cattle Research and Education Center, Ona, FL 33865.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.