It would be an idyllic world if all cattle entering the feedlot have been pre-conditioned, weaned, healthy and ready to perform with no problems until harvest. If we truly had an “industrialized system” where all cattle came from the same mold and had the same genetics and inputs, perhaps that could happen. But we don’t, and because of our independent natures (including those of the thousands of small family farms) I don’t anticipate we will have cookie-cutter cattle any time soon.

Therein lies a conundrum wrapped in an enigma inserted into a riddle. The beauty and the curse of our cattle industry is that it takes so many forms from the guy in south Georgia who has five head of mixed-origin steers grazing 10 acres in the backyard, to the rancher in Montana with 600 purebred mama cows, and every conceivable type of operation in between. That’s what makes this industry great — cattle can be raised in a multitude of systems that provide food for consumers.

Some cow-calf producers see the benefit in pre-conditioning calves through increased pounds when they go to market or later benefits in retained ownership programs, some see it as an added cost that doesn’t give them a benefit, and all too many, especially very small or backyard producers, don’t even know what pre-conditioning is, and don’t really care.

At the August Bovine Respiratory Disease Symposium held in Colorado Springs, one of the breakout sessions addressed this issue. Dan Grooms, DVM, PhD, Michigan State University, led the discussion that included feedlot and cow-calf veterinarians and others. “What has undermined health at the feedlot?” Grooms asked. “What can we do to mitigate it? How do we drive pre-conditioning and make it a win-win on both ends? Will consumers eventually drive it for welfare reasons?”

The answers were varied. One veterinarian said, “When consumers go to the supermarket, their behavior changes as far as what they are willing to spend their money on. When they go to the polls and vote on potential welfare legislation, however, it doesn’t.”

Another said that on the dairy side, con-trolling BRD starts early, but we’ve failed to address that on the cow-calf side if we are going to make a dent in it, from marketing, nutrition, colostrum, trace minerals, etc. “There has to be an incentive for producers to want  to work on that,” he said.

Another veterinarian agreed: “Cow-calf producers can’t be the ones who do everything for free.”

So where do we go?

As discussions do, this one ended up touching on a multitude of issues including traceback, animal welfare, consumer issues, antimicrobial use, novel vaccination approaches and more. One suggestion to help close the information loop was for more outreach from feedlots to have producers come and see what happens to their cattle when they go on feed, and for the feedlots to do a better job of giving feedback to producers when they are able. Of course that means that feedlots have to have some sort of relationship or contact with those producers which can be a problem with auction-derived calves.

This certainly wasn’t an issue that could be solved in a breakout session, but definitely one that still needs talked about. Several years ago we just talked about it in the context of who pays for it, the cow-calf producer or the feedlot. Now there are a whole lot more variables thrown in including welfare, consumers, retailers, traceback and more. Whichever side of this hot-wired, barbed-wire fence you sit on, get involved in the discussions.

Next issue: October 2009