Every cattle-feeding operation experiences animals that fail to perform (health or performance) within standard production expectations. This may be the result of illness and a failure to respond to therapy, an aversion to environmental conditions, or a low pecking order within the hierarchy status of the pen, said Tom Edwards, DVM, Midwest Feedlot Services Inc., Kearney, Neb., at the 2010 AABP-AVC meeting.

Edwards said a degenerative state of health and performance can occur in these animals, resulting in movement to a convalescent or long-term recovery pen. These animals may be classified as a “chronic”, “realizer” or “railer”. It is typically accepted that a realizer has increased the amount of labor, medicine expenses and mortality within a pen, and there are losses associated with decreased feeding performance and carcass quality. 

“Managing cull animals in the feedlot is an essential part of a feedlot marketing strategy that maximizes health, welfare and performance of feeder cattle, while minimizing death and economical losses,” he said. “As veterinarians, our responsibility is to assure realizers are handled within animal welfare standards, and the quality of the end product is safe and wholesome for the consumer.”

In a 2009 KansasStateUniversity study, veterinarians revealed four common methods producers used to market culls/realizers:

  • Option #1: Slaughter – Cattle that recover from a health and/or performance issue, are lighter in body weight and body condition compared to the pen average. These cattle are cleared of all pre-slaughter withdrawal restrictions, and sell with the rest of the pen to maximize sale potential.
  • Option #2: Sale – Cattle are sold to a “Realizer buyer” at a heavily discounted price; usually $0.15 to $0.35 per pound live-weight. These cattle meet all pre-slaughter withdrawal clearances and USDA/APHIS pre and post-harvest requirements. 
  • Option #3: Renderer – Cattle that die, are euthanized or condemned due to terminal disease processes are eligible for rendering.
  • Option #4: Sale Barn – Selling culls and realizers through the sale barn is similar to option #1 in that cattle may have recovered from a health or performance issue, but are grossly behind in weight compared to their penmates. These cattle may have an acceptable outward appearance, but are a liability for future morbidity, mortality and performance. Like purchasing a used car – buyer beware.

If facilities are available, an option to early marketing (salvage) of cull cattle is to place them in a rehabilitation program — essentially, a “re-start” program. This can be applied on a grass trap or pasture, or within a feeding pen in the feedlot. Health and nutritional management within the re-start program is similar to standard operating procedures. Cattle can later be marketed as they reach acceptable market weight.