Feeding and caring for incoming feedlot cattle


Source: University of Minnesota Extension

Hugh Chester-Jones, professor, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resource Sciences and Alfredo DiCostanzo, Extension animal scientist

Quick facts

  • Vaccinate, deworm, implant, eartag and weigh cattle within 72 hours from arrival.

  • Use and clean receiving and sick pens as needed.

  • Have access to water within 3 to 4 hours from arrival. Make slow diet changes.

  • Feed a high energy concentrate with 12 to 14 percent preformed degradable protein within one day from arrival.

  • Watch cattle at least twice a day, especially at feeding time. Pull and treat sick cattle.

  • Each percent of death rate increases paid price by 77 cents per cwt and breakeven by 35 cents per cwt.

Poor cattle performance during the first receiving period often means sub-optimal performance throughout the growing-finishing period. Proper feeding and care can lead to optimal cattle performance.

Evaluating cattle

Cattle sources

The cattle’s source affects their stress and care needs upon feedlot entry.

Highly stressed calves from sale barns need mass medication upon entry to reduce outbreaks.

Cattle from closed-herds have low immunity to respiratory disease. These cattle have little contact to outside cattle prior to the feedlot. They typically do well for the first feeding period but later break with respiratory disease, which cause high death and disease rates. Modified-live vaccines prior to shipping and quick processing with like products can calves from closed-herds.

Examine incoming cattle

Consider the following questions discussed by Pollreisz et al. 1996.

  • Are the cattle coughing excessively when unloading?
  • Are there nose or eye discharges? If so, is it clear and watery or pus-like?
  • Are the cattle calm or excited?
  • Are any cattle away from the bunch with arched backs and heads down?
  • Do any of the cattle have a fever?
  • How long have they been on the truck?
  • How many sources are they from?

Keep detailed records of these answers to help you fit a health conditioning program. Dehorning, castrating and vaccinating cattle before shipping reduces death and disease in the feedlot. Always assess the cost-benefit relationships.

Transit weight loss and disease risk

Cattle lose 0.61 percent of their BW for every 100 miles during transport. Fifty-three percent of that loss comes from the body and 47 percent from digestive tract water loss.

Lack of feed and water accounts for 66 percent of weight loss during transit. But pre-shipment feed and care differences plus handling stresses also add to these weight losses. Calves weaned and then shipped to a new place will lose more weight than calves weaned and given time to adjust to their new diet.

Overnight weight loss is higher for calves fed grass or silage diets than those fed a concentrate diet.

Calves are more prone to disease in the feedlot if they lost a lot of weight during transport. Cattle losing more than 7 percent BW during transport are highly stressed and at high risk for disease.

The time of day you unload calves at the feedlot may affect disease rate despite transit time. Cole et al. 1988 found that calves fasted, hauled for 12 hours and unloaded at 8:00 p.m., had greater disease and death rates than calves fasted, hauled for 24 hours and unloaded at 8:30 am. Calves unloaded in the morning rested and recovered from transit during the day. Calves unloaded in the late evening remained restless and stressed more.

Poor calf health will add to upset rumen function caused by fasting during transit. Rumen function can remain poor for five to seven days after re-feeding, which is why it’s hard to get incoming cattle started on feed.

Care tips for incoming cattle

  • Place feed bunks and water tanks along pen fence lines so the cattle must walk past them. Cattle usually aren‘t familiar with feedlot settings, especially calves weaned and pulled from pasture. Cattle tend to circle the pens to find a way out and won’t find water tanks or feed bunks placed in the center.
  • Clean the feedlot building, feed bunks and water tanks before the cattle arrive.
  • Provide clean bedding where it’s needed.
  • If possible, place receiving pens around grassy areas to reduce stress and illness in the cattle.
  • Allow incoming cattle 1 foot of bunk space and 200 square feet of pen space per head.
    • Once adjusted, give cattle 6 to 9 inches of bunk space and 150 square feet of pen space per head.

Feeding newly received cattle

Quickly getting new cattle on feed is key to health conditioning programs. Feeder and breakeven costs increase 77 and 35 cents per hundredweight, respectively, for each percent of disease rate. This doesn’t consider feed, medicine, veterinary service, labor, or yardage invested prior to death.

Incoming cattle tend to eat poorly during the first few days in the feedlot. These cattle often eat less than 1 percent of their body weight (BW), especially if they have high disease rates.

Make sure the cattle eat enough to maintain their weight. You can adjust diet nutrient content for different intakes and expected gain, see table 1.

Right away, work to repair cattle health and strength and improve rumen function. Cattle will regain normal feed intake only after a 21-day receiving period, especially long-haul cattle.

Table 1. Needs of a 400-lb calf at different rates of gaina

Gain, lb/day Protein, % NEm, MCal/100 lb DMb NEg, MCal/100 lb DMc Calcium, % Phosphorus, %
Calf consumes 1% BW (4 lb)
0 15 95 0 0.3 0.3
0.5 21.2 128 61 0.55 0.5
Calf consumes 2% BW (8 lb)
0 7 48 0 0.16 0.16
1 13 76 46 0.31 0.29
2 15.2 105 70 0.59 0.46
Calf consumes 3% BW (12 lb)
1 9.2 32 0 0.11 0.11
2 10.5 65 20 0.31 0.28
2.5 11.1 80 49 0.48 0.35
a Adapted from Hucheson 1993.
b Net energy for maintenance.
c Net energy for gain.

Receiving diets

Feeding good quality grass hay with a 50 to 75 percent concentrate mix is the basis for a receiving diet. You can feed calves and yearlings a relatively high-energy receiving diet. You must feed free-choice grass hay during the first week to stimulate eating.

You can feed 1 to 2 pounds of concentrate per head on day one. For the next two days, increase this amount by 1 pound per head daily. Thus the grain intake on the third day will be 3 to 4 pounds per head.

Whole corn fed with a protein supplement (3:1) and long hay works well as a basic receiving diet. Top dressing a grain mixture over the hay in the feed bunk can enhance energy intake.

Pritchard 1993 described an alternate system to start yearling cattle on a finishing diet. He suggests feeding the finishing diet the second day after arrival at 2.3 times maintenance level. Increase this to 2.5, 2.7 and 2.9 times maintenance, respectively, at weekly intervals. He used an ionophore in this system. This system reduces roughage handling and uses simpler feed batching.

Feeding newly received cattle

Quickly getting new cattle on feed is key to health conditioning programs. Feeder and breakeven costs increase 77 and 35 cents per hundredweight, respectively, for each percent of disease rate. This doesn’t consider feed, medicine, veterinary service, labor, or yardage invested prior to death.

Incoming cattle tend to eat poorly during the first few days in the feedlot. These cattle often eat less than 1 percent of their body weight (BW), especially if they have high disease rates.

Make sure the cattle eat enough to maintain their weight. You can adjust diet nutrient content for different intakes and expected gain, see table 1.

Right away, work to repair cattle health and strength and improve rumen function. Cattle will regain normal feed intake only after a 21-day receiving period, especially long-haul cattle.


  • Lofgreen 1988 proposed that a receiving diet with 15 to 16 percent protein meets the needs of newly received cattle.

  • Wagner 1993 and Hutcheson 1993 recommends 12.5 to 14.5 percent protein.

  • Steen et al’s 1979 report suggests 20 to 24 percent protein helps cattle adapt to high-grain diets without severe acidosis problems.

  • Goodrich and Meiske 1979 suggests feeding a preformed protein during the first 2 to 3 weeks.


Fluharty and Loerch 1991 looked at the effect of crude protein (CP) level, ruminal bypass protein sources and added fat in receiving steer calf diets. They compared soybean meal (SBM) and blood meal (BM) at 12 versus 14 percent with 0 or 2 percent added fat. A gain response occurred with higher protein levels in BM-based diets during the first 28 days in the feedlot.

Research in New Mexico shows that newly arrived calves fed 14 percent protein diets with SBM, BM or fish meal for protein had no benefit to higher ruminal escape protein. In that study, calf feed intake was 1.5 percent of BW during the first 2 week, which cancelled any good from escape protein.

Zinn and Owens 1993 fed 435-pound calves a base diet of:

  • 18 percent alfalfa hay

  • 10 percent sudangrass hay

  • 61 percent steam flaked corn

  • 2.5 percent yellow grease

  • 2.5 percent supplement, which contained either urea with or without ruminal escape protein (REP) blend

In that study, the dietary treatments included:

  • The base diet (12.2 percent CP)

  • The base diet and 2 percent REP blend of 1/3 BM, 1/3 meat and bone meal, and 1/3 feathermeal (13.4 percent CP)

  • The base diet and 4 percent REP blend (14.6 percent CP)

  • The basal plus 6 percent REP blend (15.8 percent CP)

The 2 percent REP blend had the greatest response with 13.4 and 8.4 percent increases in daily gain and feed efficiency, respectively, over calves fed the base diet. There were no performance gains for feeding higher protein. Table 2 shows an overview of diet options.

These diets show the need to feed 14 percent CP from preformed protein sources. But the need for bypass protein isn’t well proven. With extreme feed intake depression, you may need to increase protein levels as high as 24 percent to adapt to the low intake.

Table 2. Samples of percent as-fed starter diets for newly received calves,sup>a
Ingredients Diet 1 Diet 2 Diet 3 Diet 4 Diet 5
50% concentrate
Oats 21.9
Barley 22.1
Corn 43.2 15.4 22.9 22.7
Ear corn 50.5
Grass hayb 24.6 11 19.8 24.8 24.8
Alfalfa hayc 25.4 11.4 20.5 25.6 25.6
Corn silaged 55.4
Supplemente 6.8 6.8 9.2 4.6 5
60% concentrate
Barley 26.7
Corn 51.9 25.7 27.4 27.3
Ear corn 61.6
Grass hayb 19.7 9.4 13.4 19.8 19.8
Alfalfa hayc 20.4 9.8 13.8 20.5 20.5
Corn silaged 47.4
Supplemente 8 7.7 11.2 5.4 5.9
70% concentrate
Barley 31.2
Corn 60.7 37.5 32.3 32
Ear corn 72
Grass hayb 14.8 7.6 7.4 14.9 14.9
Alfalfa hayc 15.2 7.9 7.7 15.4 15.4
Corn silaged 38.2
Supplemente 9.3 8.8 12.9 6.2 6.8

a  Adapted from Wagner et al. 1993

b 88% DM, 11% CP

c 85% DM, 17% CP

d 35% DM, 8% CP, 50% concentrate

e Supplements for oats and barley diets contain about 32% CP, 5.0% calcium, 2.5% phosphorus, 1.5% potassium, 1.2% magnesium, 9.0% salt and 48,000 IU/lb vitamin A. Supplements for the other diets contain 36% CP, 3.6% calcium, 2.0% phosphorus, 1.7% potassium, 0.8% magnesium, 6.3% salt and 32,000 IU/lb vitamin A.

Vitamins and minerals

Table 3 outlines suggested vitamin and mineral levels. You may need to provide more nutrients to newly received cattle with low feed intakes. But Wagner 1993 noted you can feed normal levels once feed intake recovers. The FDA considers feeding higher levels for longer as an extra label use.

Table 3. Nutrient recommendations for newly received calvesa

Nutrient Suggested Range
Dry Matter, % 80 to 85
Concentrate, % 50 to 75
NEm, Mcal/lbb 0.82 to 0.90
NEg, Mcal/lbc 0.46 to 0.56
CP, % 12.5 to 14.5
Calcium, % 0.60 to 0.80
Phosphorus, % 0.40 to 0.50
Potassium, %d 0.8 to 1.40
Magnesium, % 0.2 to 0.3
Sodium, % 0.2 to 0.3
Copper, ppm 10 to 15
Iron, ppm 100 to 200
Manganese, ppm 20 to 40
Zinc, ppm 75 to 100
Cobalt, ppm 0.10 to 0.20
Selenium, ppm 0.10 to 0.20
Trace mineralized salt 0.5
Vitamin A, IU/lb 2500
Vitamin E, IU/lb 50 to 100

a Adapted from Wagner 1993 and Hutcheson 1993.

b Net energy for maintenance.

c  Net energy for gain.

d Higher levels for stressed/diseased calves.



Stressed cattle lose essential minerals during transport. Diseased cattle also lose trace minerals related to a good immune system. Feed programs aim to regain adequate mineral levels of incoming cattle. You can supplement potassium to 1.2 to 1.4 percent if transit weight loss is greater than 7 percent.

Chang and Mowat 1992 found that feeding 4 milligrams of chromium daily increased daily gain by 30 percent in stressed calves than without supplement. Chromium had no effect on disease rates in calves.

Vitamin E and selenium

Vitamin E with selenium can help in stress situations. Supplement receiving diets with at least 0.1 ppm of selenium with 100 IU vitamin E per head daily. Wagner et al. 1991 suggests that feeding 25 to 30 IU vitamin E per pound of dry matter is enough for most cases.

Wagner et al. also reported on Kansas research. This work showed receiving calves supplemented B-vitamins and vitamin E had a positive response compared to calves not supplemented vitamin E or vitamin E alone.

Vitamin B3 (niacin)

Hutcheson 1990 observed a response to supplementing 125 ppm of niacin daily for healthy calves and 250 ppm for morbid calves.

Feed additives

Probiotics and yeast

Many feed additives have the potential to reduce stress in receiving cattle. Wagner et al. 1991 suggests that probiotics better helped cattle trucked over 290 miles than those hauled shorter distances. Cole et al. 1992 found that morbid calves responded well to yeast culture.


Producers often use antibiotics in receiving programs including:

  • Chlortetracycline
  • Oxytetracycline
  • Bacitracin
  • Tylosin

Wagner 1993 noted that only tylosin is approved for use with monensin, and only oxytetracycline for use with lasalocid. You can feed antibiotics at 1 gram per head daily for 21 to 28 days.

Studies discussed by Wagner 1993 showed that feeding aureomycin-sulfamethazine for 14 to 28 d gave consistent results in a few trials.


You can use the following coccidiostats to control coccidiosis:

  • Amprollium
  • Decoquinate
  • Lasalocid
  • Monensin

Wagner 1993 noted that cattle must get enough medication to control coccidiosis. This may be a concern for newly received cattle with low feed intakes. Hutcheson 1990 reported decoquinate (0.58 milligram per kilogram BW) in receiving diets increased the cattle’s appetite.

Ionophores can control coccidiosis but may reduce feed intake. Any reduced feed intake lessens after 14 days and doesn’t harm overall calf performance. Ionophores also enhance feed efficiency in growing-finishing cattle.

Ionophore may interact with potassium levels in receiving diets. Hutcheson 1989 observed that high potassium levels fed with lasalocid cancelled the feed efficiency effects. In that study, cattle responded well to 0.5 percent potassium and 0.25 percent sodium fed with lasalocid (30 grams per ton).

Hutcheson also noted that ionophores enhance absorption of macrominerals, which may alter the cattle’s mineral needs.

Supplementing fat

Energy is the first limiting element for newly arrived feedlot cattle. Supplementing fat can increase energy in the diet. Cole and Hutcheson 1987 found that 4 percent fat blend added to 13.4 percent CP diets increased feed intake of stressed newly arrived cattle for only the first 14 days.

Conditioning feedlot cattle

Types of vaccination products and schedules will vary with certain diseases and cost. Mills 1990 summarized the practices of a large Mississippi farm. They vaccinated young calves scheduled for preconditioning with the following:

  • IBR
  • PI3 4-way blackleg
  • Haemophilus somnus

In this example, preconditioning also included:

  • Deworming
  • Castrating
  • Implanting
  • Giving an oral probiotic gel

They didn’t dehorn calves at this first processing.

Smith 1984 outlined a schedule for receiving cattle.

  1. Take temperatures on stale or stressed cattle upon entry or the following morning.
    • This may not be a good indicator
  2. Give IBR, PI3, BVD, Lepto-pomona and 4-way clostridia
  3. Implant, deworm, treat for external parasites.
  4. Tip horns, castrate, bob tails and brand or eartag.
  5. The author suggests revaccinating light calves and stale or green cattle with IBR, PI3 and BVD five to seven days after arriving.
  6. Reimplant following manufacturers’ directions.
  7. Evaluate how often newly arrived calves need retreatment to assess the economic benefits.

Henderson 1990 suggests that most cattle regain their health after a 3- to 5-day treatment program. Try to find chronic problems early to better manage treatment costs.


Brazle, P.K. 1993. The effect of the health and gain of calves mass medicated or not mass medicated in grass paddocks compared to feedlot pens. Proc., 25th Midwest ASAS Sectional Meeting. Abstract 27. p. 40.

Brownson, R. 1986. Shrinkage in beef cattle. Michigan State Univ. Coop. Ext. Service Bulletin E1632.

Chang, X. and D.N. Mowat. 1992. Supplemental chromium for stressed and growing feeder calves. J. Anim. Sci. 70:559.

Cole, N.A. and D.P. Hutcheson. 1987. Influence of receiving fat level on health and performance of feeder calves. Nutr. Rep. Int. 36: No. 5 965.

Cole, N.A., T.H. Camp, L.D. Rowe, Jr., D.G. Stevens and D.P. Hutcheson. 1988. Effect of transport on feeder calves. Am. J. Vet. Res. 49:178.

Cole, N.A., C.W. Purdy and D.P. Hutcheson. 1992. Influence of yeast culture on feeder calves and lambs. J. Anim. Sci. 70:1682.

Fluharty, F.L. and S.C. Loerch. 1991. Effects of fat level, protein and protein source on performance of newly arrived feedlot steers. Ohio Beef Cattle Res. and Ind. Rep. March. pp. 1-13.10

Goodrich, R.D. and J.C. Meiske. 1979. Nutrition and management of newly arrived feedlot cattle. Minnesota Beef Cattle Res. Rep. B-264. Henderson, G. 1991. “He’s given up – should you?” Drovers Journal. April. pp. 18- 19.

Hutcheson, D.P. 1989. Potassium in beef rations; requirements, effects on stress and potential interaction with ionophores. Proc., Pitman-Moore Nutr. Conf. pp. 98-106.

Hutcheson, D.P. 1990. Starting on the right track. Proc., Land O’Lakes Beef Seminar. March 5-8. pp. 3-15.

Lofgreen, G.P. 1988. Nutrition and management of stressed beef calves. Vet Clinics of North America. Food Anim. Pract. 4: No. 3 509. Mills, B. 1990. “Looking after the little fellas.” Beef Today. September. pp. 44-45.

Muirhead, S. 1993. Supplemental protein sources for newly received cattle compared. Feedstuffs. August 16. p. 11.

Pollreisz, J.P., T. Jordan, D.T. Bechtol and R.N. Ballinger. 1986. Arrival procedures for incoming feedyard cattle. Anim. Health and Nutr. November. pp. 23-27.

Pritchard, R.H. 1993. Bunk management. Land O’Lakes Beef Seminar. March 1-4. pp. 4-15. Ritter, J. 1989. “Off to a running start.” Anim. Health and Nutr. March. p. 18.

Smith, R.A. 1984. Receiving feeder cattle. Feedlot Management. pp. 20, 25 and 36.

Steen, W.W., S.D. Farlin and R.A. Britton. 1979. High protein level and rapid adaptation to high concentrate rations. Proc., 12th ASAS Midwestern Sectional Mtg. p. 101. Abstract 101.

Wagner, J.J., J.U. Thomson and R. Hanson. 1991. Feeding programs for newly arrived calves. Great Plains Beef Cattle Handbook. GPE-1608. pp. 1608.1-1608.6. South Dakota State Univ., Brookings, SD.

Wagner, J.J. 1993. Feed additives for beef cattle. Proc., Fall Vet. Conf. on Dairy-Beef Production. pp. 82-95. Univ. of Minnesota Vet. Ext. Service, College of Vet. Med., St. Paul.

Zinn, R.A. and F.N. Owens. 1993. Ruminal escape protein for lightweight calves. J. Anim. Sci. 71:1677.


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