Editor’s note: Last in a four-part series.

It’s hard to treat your way out of a chronic cattle situation, so are there ways to prevent chronics in the first place? Feedlot veterinarians will tell you that ideally the first line of prevention will occur back at the ranch of origin.

“Anything we can do upstream is good,” says Shawn Blood, DVM, staff veterinarian at Hitch Enterprises, Guymon, Okla. “Occasionally, we have the opportunity to influence the cow-calf level. It’s all about conditioning the immune system.”

Kynan Sturgess, DVM, Amarillo, Texas, agrees. “I think the only way we can reduce morbidity depends on what is done at the ranch. Antimicrobials, metaphylaxis, etc. in the feedyard improve treatment response and mortality, but maybe not morbidity. Managing the immune system prior to arrival has the only real impact on reducing morbidity.”

Pre-conditioning and backgrounding can often help, but only if done right. Doug Hilbig, DVM, Hilbig Veterinary Services, Lakin, Kan., says, “Some of the people who start cattle for us do a great job, but they’re not economically effective. We make less money on those cattle when we find we have all kinds of problems with them.”

“There are a lot of circumstances where we feel we can do as good as or a better job than what some of the backgrounders we’ve hired can do,” says Sturgess. “Some of the feedlots have opted to do it themselves and spend those dollars with themselves.”

Arrival programs

Depending on the cattle, metaphylactic treatment on arrival helps prevent morbidity. “Using feed-grade antibiotics at a therapeutic level has a high return on investment, especially on higher-risk cattle,” says Hilbig. “Your treatment costs of feed -- CTC or whatever -- isn’t very high and can substantially decrease your health problems. It’s not a subtherapeutic level. It is a therapeutic level for a short period of time.”

Looking at databases over the last five years of large numbers of calves, Scott MacGregor, DVM, MS, Livestock Consulting Services, Idaho Falls, Idaho, has observed that in calves grown for 45 days, morbidity might be reduced as much as 70%. “We’ve looked at in-house studies with water-based CTCs and can reduce morbidity by 20%. An antibody spray, which is a new technology, can have as high as a 40% reduction in the North, but in the Southeast we reduced morbidity by only 8%. The metaphylaxis I’ve seen on numerous products will substantially reduce morbidity.”

The question, he adds, is what are the cost-benefits and ratios. “I think the hotter feeds on calves will tend to drive up morbidity, but the conversion rates are lower and, therefore, we pay for the higher health costs, get better conversions and make more money. It’s not what veterinarians like to hear, but it’s reality.”

MacGregor says it’s somewhat perplexing to be asked by management to discontinue metaphylaxis because ofthe cost. “It’s one of the few things that impact morbidity. If it impacts morbidity, then deads and chronics should follow.”

Sturgess would like clients to stop commingling cattle on arrival. “We have several customers who feed their own cattle and buy them from everywhere and anywhere they can for the lowest price,” he says. “The ones who are trying to manage financial risk on those animals tend to buy smaller groups but from many different places, so they can hedge them. We have to build pens of cattle once they arrive.” Cattle are sorted by lots, but they may take a load of cattle from 400 to 800 lbs. and feed them in the same pen for 30 days just to get things going. “Otherwise, we just keep adding to more pens, and it’s a domino effect. We have to focus on managing this commingling problem and figure out a way to make their system work better if we can’t change it.”

Keeping the groups of cattle separate as long as possible can help to minimize problems. “We still end up having some problems putting them together later on, but not at the same level if we commingle them as we get them,” Sturgess says.

Pen management

Pen management plays a key part in the comfort, welfare and health of cattle. Hilbig’s feedlots that do the best job with arrival pens have a good and plentiful source of water, clean, well-bedded pens and personnel able to deal with high-risk cattle.

Blood agrees that animal husbandry is a lost art. “Good people doing a good job shows in cattle performance and in morbidity/mortality. Their hospital pens and feedbunks are in better condition, their water tanks are clean, they are timely in evaluating the animals and in treating and re-treating when needed. They do a good job of riding pens, and they have early detection. It’s just plain old animal husbandry.”

Sturgess has had a difficult time getting his feedlots to allow more pen space per animal, but he has been successful in convincing some yards to make capital investments in creating smaller pens and he sees better results. “We don’t have to commingle as many, and it allows us to utilize the pen space we have more effectively. That way I can start to put limits on how many days they can put cattle together, and they can fill a pen quicker. In time, they may need to sort those cattle, and there’s a performance cost to doing that -- of mixing those cattle even at 70 days. But, at least they’re still alive. We feel that live cattle over decreased performance is a better result.” Sturgess had a customer who bought another feedyard with 20 600-head pens. “Right away we split those up. We have no 600-head pens left.”

Sturgess says smaller pens have less of a disease incidence. “It’s hard to recreate the disease in smaller pens when you’re doing studies,” he says. “Since we’ve set up a lot of 50-head pens, it’s harder to get the morbidity rates we typically see, and I think it has to do with pen size. You can buy the same cattle you were getting 50% morbidity with, stick them in these small pens and you’re hustling to get 25 to 30% morbidity.”

Hilbig also likes the idea of smaller pens because the cowboys can evaluate cattle much better. “It’s easier to pull out of a 50-head pen than a 300-head pen.”

While bigger pens are easier to feed in and take less labor, MacGregor agrees that if you have a disease outbreak in a large pen, it can be a wreck.

Robert Sprowls, DVM, PhD, Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, Amarillo, says, “If you have one calf that’s shedding a highly virulent BVDV or any other pathogen and you put him in a pen of 200, you will have 199 calves that will get exposure. But put him in a pen of 50, you can man-age it better because only 49 calves get exposure to the disease from that one calf.”

Hilbig has seen more morbidity with larger pens. “It used to be thought that it’s easier to ride 300 head in one pen instead of six smaller pens,” he notes. “Now, we’ve gone through that and have found that maybe it takes more cowboys to pull more cattle while we’re having more disease in the larger pens.”


Some believe boostering vaccinations -- and the immune system -- can decrease morbidity in the feedlot, especially in lightweight calves. “Most of the papers I looked at where they boostered at 15 days didn’t work compared to positive controls,” MacGregor notes. “A study by Kee Jim and two of my own showed that boostering prior to 10 days may have a minor sparing effect on morbidity. Pen riders are saying it helps treatment response rates.” Blood says his yards don’t booster frequently, but when they do, it’s done at seven to 10 days.

Sprowls adds that it may make sense. “The first vaccination may or may not take, and if you give the second vaccination before seven to 10 days, you really don’t have much antibody response from the first vaccination. Therefore, your modified-live still can replicate and produce good immunity.”

MacGregor likes to come back at 50-60 days. Sprowls says that most of the time when serology is done at 50-60 days, and the cattle haven’t had natural exposure, antibody titers will be almost back to zero (negative). “In those calves that have been vaccinated previously, we see a rapid response to antibody production with additional stimulation from revaccination.” He adds that on lightweights, some feedlots will give boosters at re-implantation time.

Sturgess believes that boostering with IBR in his feedlots has done a lot of good, but he’s starting to evaluate it from a performance standpoint. “I’m not saying we’re going to quit revaccinating, but we’re being more critical.”

MacGregor says we really don’t know the metabolic post-vaccine cost of possible negative performance. “We’d like to run an in-house study looking at the real costs of vaccines at processing and measure dry-matter intakes and temperatures, and try four different products. We assume there’s a cost to everything we do, but how much?”

Employees are the key

Good employees are the heart and soul of feedlot operations and are important decision-makers when it comes to animal health. “Usually, chronic cattle have reached a status where they probably have had at least three and maybe four treatments if you count metaphylaxis,” says Sturgess. “When we start making decisions on what to do with them -- make a new pen and try to feed them or send cattle back to the pen -- the decisions are sometimes made by the manager, cattle manager or maybe a head cowboy. Once in a while you’ll have a doctor who is astute. If you have a key person like that, he or she develops a feel for it. But often there’s not much training. They can look at cattle and know what they can get away with. If they’re doing it right, they’re doing it almost on a daily basis. You can really train that into somebody, but people develop that instinct after they’ve been around cattle and have paid attention.”

“It’s usually someone who’s been there for awhile,” says Hilbig. “Either they pick it up or they don’t.”

And for those you have to teach, it can’t be a rush job. “A person who is too green can’t be pushed too fast or it’s a wreck,” notes Sturgess. “They end up sending cattle back to home pens that should never have gone there, and then we have angry pen riders. It’s a harsh job, and unfortunately many
people don’t stick with it.”

Blood says competition with pork production systems and geography play a part in his difficulty of finding good feedlot employees. “There are probably a lot of good cowboys working in those nice, warm pig barns in the winter. When we do find some people who think they want to ride pens for awhile, they often have zero experience, and some of them may not even be able to ride a horse very well. So, the whole training process is long and cumbersome, and they sometimes just decide they don’t want to do it anymore or they get hired on somewhere else. The training would be a lot easier if we had people to train that wanted to stay around.”

Audiovisual materials can be useful for training these employees, but there’s a lack of current materials out there. MacGregor likes digital cameras with video functions because they are easy to use and train with. “You can show it on your laptop to a new guy and talk to him about pulling for differences almost as much as for sickness.” He also walks them through the hospital to show them the sick cattle and to the home pen where can see the difference. “They either get a mentor who’s experienced, or they don’t. Some outfits have a really good training program from the managing side and a kind of internship for a month or so with one of the more experienced riders. Some just cast them adrift.”

Training new employees is only part of the story. Monitoring, evaluating and auditing employees is also a way to verify compliance and that there is no “procedural drift.” MacGregor often walks and drives the pens so the pen riders can’t see him. “You can watch a guy two rows away and he’s schooling his horse three-fourths of the time. I can walk through a pen that a young guy has just ridden and determine if he left cattle. I try to keep it positive. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that some kid who’s never been in a feedyard can walk in and catch on, although there are a few.”

Positive, constructive audits have advantages says MacGregor. “It goes back to what motivates people. I don’t think money motivates most pen riders. I think their pride does and having a manager or a cow boss notice when they do a good job and notice when they do a poor job. They need to get the feeling they’re going somewhere, that they’re on board with an outfit that’s really trying to do something rather than just being stagnant. I think the pen rider’s best work is at the home pen, not at the hospital, but you have to build a system that allows him to be there. If he’s driving trucks and doing daily treatments, he doesn’t have time to do his job.”

This information is from a Bovine Veterinarian roundtable sponsored by Pfizer Animal  Health.