Being transported and then arriving at a feedlot is a stressful time in a calf or stocker animal’s life. Feedlots are increasingly fine-tuning their receiving programs to help cattle adjust to their new environment. “The receiving program should be  based more on the type of cattle received than the employees or the type of feedlot,” says Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, Kansas State University. “In other words, receiving programs are focused primarily on the cattle.”

Receiving programs are important because that’s the first chance for preventive medicine, notes Thomson. “The most important part of processing is doing it gently with proper cattle handling. That might be more important than the vaccines we give them.”

Receiving programs are garnering more attention these days, thanks in large part to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and beef quality assurance programs. “There are also frequent implant checks by industry representatives and a greater awareness of animal welfare brought to light by consumer interest, regional cattlemen’s organizations such as the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) and the NCBA Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle,” says Bob Smith, DVM, MS, Veterinary Research & Consulting Services, Stillwater, Okla.

High risk versus low risk
Most feedlots will tailor their receiving programs to the background and needs of the cattle instead of having a “one size fits all” program. “Obviously, the design and scope of the program must be simple enough to avoid confusion,” says Smith. “Most often, a program for high-risk cattle and one for low-risk cattle is sufficient. If there is only one receiving program used, you either spend too much on the low-risk cattle or fail to take advantage of some very useful processing products for the high-risk cattle,” Smith says. “I have been unable to define a comfortable compromise with only one program.”

Different veterinarians have different definitions for incoming high- and low-risk cattle. “High-risk calves are generally younger, were weaned on the way to the sale barn and often have had little disease-prevention management in their background,” says Thomson. In many cases, high-risk calves are bought as singles or in small groups. “Cattle of a particular age and size from specific origins generally develop a pattern of health problems, good or bad, which helps us designate them as high or low risk.” 


Giving calves a chance to acclimate and rest after a long transport can help reduce stress before processing.

Thomson looks at length of haul, end weight of the cattle, shrink, if they came from an auction barn, country of origin and whether they’ve been handled. “Examples of high-risk cattle coming into the feedyards I’ve worked with would be auction barn calves or cattle that have been shipped a long way and are naïve,” Thomson says. “Low-risk cattle would be yearlings and preconditioned calves.”

Smith defines low-risk cattle as those that have been weaned 45 days or more, had previous vaccinations, were bought in larger groups rather than one or two at a time and male cattle arriving as steers rather than bulls. “Low-risk cattle can originate from auctions, but those usually presenting the lowest risk come from pasture or a backgrounding yard.” 

Lessen the stress
Feedlots vary in their arrival strategies, but low-stress handling should be a part of all of them. “Calves should be unloaded off the truck at their own pace,” says Smith. “There’s no need to use cattle prods and yell and scream at them.”

Some feedlots process cattle immediately, others let them rest. Thomson says he prefers to generally let newly arrived cattle rest one hour for every hour they have been on the truck before they are processed. “If it’s a 15-hour haul, they should be allowed to wait 15 hours. If it’s a one-hour haul, they can usually be processed upon arrival.”

He adds that it’s been documented that once animals have been hauled and standing for 15 hours, they want to lie down. “They might be a little dehydrated at this point, also. You want to at least let them rest and get their legs underneath them before you run them through the chute and stress them.”

Stressors are additive, adds Smith. “Because stress has a negative impact on the immune system, anything we can do to reduce stress should help the calf adapt to its new environment.”

When new calves are introduced to pens, Smith looks for ways to make them more comfortable (see sidebar). “Make sure pens are clean so that cattle have a comfortable environment to live in. At certain times of the year, temporary bedding can benefit light-weight, high-risk calves, while extra water tanks may be beneficial for a few days in hot weather.”

To keep health problems and stress at a lower level, Thomson likes to knife-castrate lighter-weight calves and band those over 500 pounds. Pregnancy checking and aborting is also recommended and done on a routine basis. He also adds that tipping the cattle, not dehorning them, results in less stress.

Train crews on handling
One of the most valuable services veterinarians can offer is employee training, and the feedlot provides an excellent opportunity to make sure employees are trained in proper cattle handling, animal welfare and medical treatment.


Pen riders play a critical role in the health management of newly arrived cattle. 

“The number one way to decrease death loss depends on who you have watching the calves,” says Thomson. “This is a good place for the veterinarian’s role of training, motivating and encouraging people to do the right thing. The cattle come first, and we have to have that mentality. The veterinarian has very little to do with the outcome. Our main role in receiving programs is to train people to take proper care of the animals. We need to teach prudent use of antimicrobials, and we need to look out for the welfare of the cattle.”

When processing calves, quiet handling, utilizing such things as the calves’ flight zone and point of balance, and taking advantage of their natural instincts can create an environment at processing that makes the events more pleasant, says Smith.

Like Smith, Thomson spends time educating crews on flight zones and making things easier for cattle movement, focusing a lot on Temple Grandin’s techniques.

In order to provide optimum handling, proper facilities are a must. “We can’t expect our crews to have good cattle-handling techniques if they aren’t supplied with proper facilities,” says Thomson. “Facilities are probably the most important aspect of cattle handling, and a close second is education. I don’t think there’s been enough good research to show how many dollars we step over to pick up dimes when it comes to cattle handling.”

Lameness related to cattle handling is a good example. Toe abscesses are common in flighty and mishandled cattle, because the animals are trying to get to the center of the pen or group and push off on the back legs. “Try to limit the movement of cattle as much as possible,” says Thomson. “That includes not bringing them back for re-vaccination unless increased pulls or decreased intake would dictate it.”

Monitor often
Smith and Thomson like to see pens ridden every day. Problem pens should be checked a second time for sick cattle, says Smith. “That doesn’t mean that the pen rider always has to check them with the same intensity the second time, but at least get a good look at the cattle from the drover’s alley or the feed alley. This can return good dividends when you find a calf that was missed earlier and can make the difference between a good treatment response and a poor one.”

Similarly, Thomson suggests to increase the number of pen riders on the section with high-risk calves or have the calves ridden twice. “The problem with riding calves twice is that they often arrive when it’s very hot, so it doesn’t do a lot of good when it’s 102° because they all look sick. The main thing is to ride those cattle very well first thing in the morning.”

Thomson adds that communication between the doctors and pen riders is important. “If 20 head are pulled and they all temp 105° or higher, you know you didn’t get all the sick cattle, so you might send the pen riders back right then to take another look.”

Smith agrees that if all cattle brought to the hospital have a fever, the pen riders probably did not pull deep enough. “It’s desirable to see a 10-15 percent overpull rate,” he says. Other signals that cattle are not being pulled deep enough are pen deads, cattle that die too soon after initial treatment, poor treatment response and a high case fatality rate. “Of course, there are other causes of these problems, but pen-riding intensity has to be closely evaluated, and it’s the veterinarian’s job to help them figure it out.”


Bob Smith, DVM, says stress negatively impacts the immune system and should be reduced to help the calf adapt to its new feedlot environment.

Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, says high-risk calves usually are younger, were weaned on the way to the sale barn and often have had little disease-prevention management in their background.

Aside from evaluating calves, veterinarians also have the opportunity to evaluate pen riders and hospital crews to make sure protocols are consistently followed. “When attention to processing goes south, we start to see increased chute injuries, such as fractures, leakbacks or swelling at the site of injection, and sore or lame cattle,” Smith says. “When these indicators surface, it’s not surprising to see increases in other health problems, although it is difficult to scientifically show a cause-and-effect relationship.”

One frustration Thomson has is with the lack of qualified pen riders available. “If we think we’re running out of bovine practitioners, we ought to look at how many people we’re running out of that know anything about cattle. It’s not just a veterinary problem; it’s an industry problem.”

Vaccination protocols
Arrival protocols are a place a veterinarian can have an impact when it comes to handling not only cattle but animal health products. “Good receiving programs can have a positive impact on later health,” says Smith. “If vaccinations are not administered properly, or if the vaccine is not properly handled, the calf will not be protected and is at risk of becoming ill.”

Improper implanting techniques cost the cattle owner in lost performance. Even cattle handling at processing can have long-term effects. If the calf is stiff or sore or if toe abrasions occur, feed intake will be reduced and health might be compromised.

Feedlots use different vaccination strategies based on a variety of factors. Thomson recommends that both high- and low-risk cattle receive IBR and BVDV Type I & II. “In the high-risk calves, I like a 5-way BRSV, BVDV I & II, PI3 and IBR,” he says. “I may or may not use a Pasteurella vaccine.”

If it’s known that calves have had a clostridial vaccine in the past, Thomson doesn’t recommend another one. “However, if the history is unknown or you know they haven’t had one, I like to give them a 7-way clostridial unless we band them, and at that point, we’ll give them an 8-way – a 7-way clostridial with tetanus,” adds Thomson. He also uses some form of endectocide, implants and eartags them. Depending on their background and condition, high-risk calves may or may not get vitamin A, D and E injections on arrival and meta-phylactic treatments.

Drugs and evidence-based medicine
At an ever-increasing rate, groups outside the livestock industry are scrutinizing how livestock are raised, including how drugs are used in cattle. “Across the industry, several problems have been noted in receiving programs,” says Smith. “One of the biggest, in my opinion, is the use of many products that have not been proven effective, based on either cost or reducing clinically relevant problems. Product selection should be based on risk assessment and good data on product efficacy. Unfortunately, there is not much good, practical research being done to learn what is useful and what is not.”

Other problems with receiving programs center around expecting too much of animal health products, combination antibiotic therapy, unapproved antibiotics and in some instances, over-reliance on other products in an effort to correct mismanagement that most often occurred prior to arrival. “The beef industry needs a deeper commitment to animal husbandry and health practices on the farm or ranch, such as early castration and horn management, vaccination against BRD, and good nutrition that will better prepare calves to transition to life on the stocker operation or the feedlot,” says Smith. 

“We have to move to an evidence-based medicine system,” adds Thomson. “I’m afraid that it’s easy for a lot of people to say we’re going to be evidence-based until the first customer comes in and raises Cain about death loss. They don’t care about the research, they just want the death loss to stop now. But, we have to hold our ground as practitioners and take the high road to make sure we have researched the practices that we do. We owe it to our profession to be more scientific because the word ‘wizardry’ is used a lot when talking about receiving calf programs.”

Thomson believes that before you look at receiving programs as a consulting veterinarian, you need to ask yourself if you are going to be an auditor of animal health or provide a service to clients or both. “Am I there to help the feedyards or audit the feedyards? You have to be able to wear both hats to succeed.” 

Adjust for new calves

Keeping the stress low for newly arrived calves can also be accomplished by strategic animal placement. “The first thing you want to do is have a calf alley where it’s not very noisy and without a lot of traffic,” says Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD. “If people are running up and down the alleys and the cattle are flighty, you’re scaring them off the bunk, and they spend a lot of time in the back of the pen. Try to put them in low-stress areas in the feedyard and have a calf section that has a good hospital system on that alley.”

All the low-stress and careful handling techniques in the world won’t do newly arrived small and young calves any good if they can’t get to feed and water because of their size. “Every day we look at things like small calves not being able to reach water and feed,” says Thomson. “Calves have to be able to drink and eat. If the water tank is too tall, you can fill dirt around it so the calves can step up and drink.”

Getting calves to the water can sometimes be a challenge. Thomson likes feedyard crews to open pitcocks so water will overflow the tanks, allowing the calves to hear and smell the water. “High-risk calves don’t have as much trouble finding water as yearlings do,” Thomson says. “Calves will go in, bawl and walk the pen, and they’ll finally bump into it. But yearlings will come in and stand off in a corner and not find it for a while.”

As far as enticing calves to eat, Thomson likes to put free-choice hay out in the bunk where it’s visible and the calves can see it, and also top-dress the hay with starter ration. Trace minerals and salt are put in tubs for added electrolytes to prevent dehydration. “You put it out where it’s easy for them to walk by and see it, but it’s up to them to eat,” says Thomson.

Thomson says pen space is not as important when calves first arrive. “I like to have shallower pens with more bunk space – at least a foot of bunk space per calf.”