Help new cattle adapt to the feedlotThere are a variety of reasons incoming feedlot cattle can get off to a slow start, including cattle with health issues, “country cattle” that are unaccustomed to feedyard traffic and new rations, inclement weather, long hauls and social interruption of the pen.

Carter King, DVM, Cactus Feeders, Amarillo, Texas, says it’s important to evaluate incoming cattle that might have some of these problems so you can assist your clients in getting them off to a good start. “For example, cattle from the big pastures of West Texas generally stay at the back of the pen,” King explains. “They don’t have any health problems and are in good condition, but are simply afraid of all the commotion.”

These cattle take a little bit more care, he says. “If you look at the intake graphs over time and you look at closeout intakes, you may not be able to tell any difference in these cattle. But these definitely have to be managed somewhat differently than the other pens.”

Four “rocks”
Cactus Feeders is the world’s largest privately owned cattle feeder with 10 cattle feedyards in Kansas and Texas with a total capacity of 520,000 head at one time. Because of the wide variety of cattle that arrive at Cactus, King uses a “rocks” system to break down certain problems or issues with different pens of cattle. These are:  

* Adaptation
* Feed
* Internal parasites
* Health

“These four major areas give us the parameters to evaluate how well the cattle are going to acclimate to their new environment,” he explains. “All of them generally will have some impact, especially on commingled cattle.  Within each group that you want to specify or look at, any one of these might apply. Sometimes it’s two or three of them.”

King says some groups of cattle will have higher internal parasite loads than others, some will have more health (such as BRD) problems than others, some will be more timid and apprehensive around traffic, people and horses than others and some will simply not like
the new feed especially in a feed bunk rather than on the ground. “Identifying these allows us to focus more on which ‘rock’ we need to approach in the arrival phase.”

This system, however, takes a team approach. “We have to ensure that there is good communication among cowboys, feed callers, tank washers, etc. on how to interact with these cattle so everyone is functioning as a team,” King adds.

It starts off the truck
The first impression new cattle get of a feedlot starts the moment they get off the truck and how they are handled. This is where King’s “adaptation” rock fits in (see sidebar). 

“That animal’s first experience at being handled after he has been unloaded and put in the pen is critical to us,” King says. “One of the things that has helped us accomplish that is the Bud Box and the Daniels alley. I think these have done more to revolutionize how we do business than many other things.”

Many cattle arrive with only a history of “they were loaded at ‘city, state’ and sent to our feedyards,” King says. “In the majority of cases we have no information on previous health programs or diet as well as how much they have been handled. Our initial observations of the cattle should guide us on how much is going to be required to adapt the cattle to the yard.” King says when his team addresses the problem areas during the arrival phase, their results are much better than when they try to catch up at a later date.

When cattle are acclimated in a very low stress environment by people who understand why an operation is doing these things, King sees much more success. “The slower, easy approach to newly arrived
cattle, when applied properly, is readily evident in the comfort level of the pen,” he says. “Cattle are moved back and forth to hospitals easier, lameness issues are reduced and generally early intakes improve.”

Certain facilities are more conducive to lower stress movement through processing barns than others. “However, when people do not understand the philosophy of what we are doing, why we are doing it and how to do it, no facility can overcome this,” King says. “Veterinarians play a crucial role in the initial training, evaluation and repeated hands-on monitoring of proper handling techniques.”

For example, King provides where they had a newly arrived alley of feeding pens where the cattle were all crowded at the back because of one guy in a welding truck. “We have to be cognizant of what we are doing with these animals,” he says. “Pipes break and we have to fix them. Water troughs leak and we have to fix them. Strays get out and we have to get them. But we have to understand that there are ways of doing it and way of adapting cattle so these things don’t become issues.”

Other “rocks”
As far as the “parasite” rock, King believes if a substantial load of internal parasites is removed at some point prior to entry into the feedyard, “we should effect an improvement in performance. However, we don’t know which animals have substantial loads and which do not. Since we can’t visually determine parasite loads of incoming cattle, we deworm every animal that enters the feedyard, because we know that a good portion of them should benefit from the deworming, we just don’t know which ones they are.”

Carter says health programs can be difficult to get your arms around because there can be many different programs as well as other people making decisions about them. “We have 10 feedyards and nine different health programs,” he says. “Our general managers have the final say on what drugs we use. We do make recommendations, which sometimes creates lively discussions. We have to manage the hospitals. We have to manage the way the cattle are handled. We have to manage how the cattle were adapted when we received them. That’s where we make our money. As long as they are administered a premium antibiotic whenever they get pulled, I think we write their history long before that point.”

Carter believes in identifying priorities for incoming cattle that will help them have a successful growing phase at the feedlot. They are: 

* Low-stress handling of cattle

* Facilities (i.e. Bud boxes and Daniels alleys)

* Feed and bunk management

* Health programs

* Minimal movement (i.e. fewer trips for re-implanting, etc.)

* Continuous training of employees

“The variability of the cattle we get is tremendous,” Carter notes. “What we try to focus on is adaptation because our health programs are pretty well set. We know what we are going to administer and when we are going to do it and how long we are going to leave those cattle alone after we administer those medications. Handling the cattle correctly while we are putting them through processing barns, cleaning out and managing the hospitals are the areas where our focus has to be.”

Six ways to help cattle adapt
Acclimating new cattle the feedlot takes good management and animal husbandry skills. Carter King, DVM, offers these suggestions for helping new cattle get off to a good start:

1. Train your employees on what  low stress handling is, how to implement, and the importance of it
2. Evaluate cattle for attitude/disposition characteristics in addition to health
3. Handle cattle slow and easy through receiving and processing
4. Work with cattle on foot for the first few days to gain trust, if possible
5. Pen timid cattle in low traffic areas if possible
6. Communicate with other departments (i.e. feed delivery, maintenance) on requirements of cattle

Adaptation — what to look for
In Webster’s Dictionary, adaptation is defined as: “… the evolutionary process whereby a population becomes better suited to its habitat.” Carter King, DVM, believes adapting new cattle to the feedlot environment as soon as you can is critical to good performance during the feeding period. But adaptation involves more than the cattle, it also involves the people working with them.

At Cactus Feeders, Amarillo, Texas, King says adaptation includes focusing on these areas:

Type of cattle Holsteins vs. crossbreds vs. Mexican calves vs. ranch calves — you have to know what type of cattle you are dealing with.

Social structure in the pen “Social structure is critical to how that pen performs,” King says. “It’s what we do that screws up that social structure.”

Gawkers and traffic Feed trucks, loaders, tank washers, feed callers, doctors, processors and  every kind of vehicle and piece of equipment running in and out of the pens, in front of cattle, behind them, etc. “Some handle it fine,” King says. “Another set runs to the back of the pen every time a vehicle goes by. Those animals take a little bit different approach.”

Philosophy/experience of feed callers King says to determine how they are trained. Do they transition cattle much faster than a lot of feedlots? Do they feed a lot of hay? Do they push calves from the start? Do they have different feed calling models for a 500-lb. sale barn calf and 700-lb. yearlings? Or is it one-size-fits-all?

Pen riders King says labor is one of his biggest issues, and he continually gets a younger pen riding cowboy, processor, doctor and labor force. How do they manage their pens? Do they take pride in their home pens? How much animal husbandry do they exhibit with calves? It’s our responsibility to do the training on these individuals.