All calves are not created equal. And when calves come into the feedlot setting, an eye needs to be kept on meeting each group’s individual needs, whether they are ranch-direct or a group of put-together sale-barn calves.

“I think with any class of calves we have to be prepared for their arrival, which includes things like cleaning pens, having the proper feedstuffs available and clean  water tanks,” says Bob Smith, DVM, MS, Veterinary Research and Consulting Services, LLC., Stillwater, Okla. “Calves off the truck will be tired, hungry and will explore their new environment for a while.”

Basic needs for all calves           

A program should be in place to manage the stress and welfare of the calves. Practices will vary in different times of the year. Bedding can be critical during cold, wet seasons. “Newly arrived calves haven’t eaten since loaded on trucks, therefore they are not generating body heat, so providing bedding will help reduce heat loss when they lay down to rest,” Smith says. Smith prefers wheat straw, but says wood shavings and cotton burrs can also buffer the calves from the cold damp ground and provide a more comfortable environment for them. Smith adds that new calves should be given high-quality grass hay, such as blue stem or short-grass hay common in Kansas, Oklahoma or Texas. Hay will provide fill and reestablish rumen function, but doesn’t necessarily provide adequate protein for the calves. “We use good hay then top-dress with the starter ration prepared in the mill,” Smith says.

However, he cautions that it’s important to not overfeed new, lightweight calves. “We like to leave them
a little bit hungry so they are interested in the feed when the truck comes by,” Smith notes. “I don’t want their hunger totally satisfied because I want to keep them moving around the pen. At the same time we don’t want to starve them back to the point where they are receiving inadequate protein or are so hungry they are climbing all over each other when the truck comes by. In our experience, we have found that morbidity can be reduced significantly if we manage the amount of ration that is fed to these calves. They simply do better when we don’t feed them all they will eat.”

Processing calves

As a general rule, Smith doesn’t believe there’s any benefit to processing calves sooner than 24 hours after arrival. “We want calves to take that time to eat, re-establish rumen function, rehydrate and rest to allow the immune system to recover from the stress they’ve experienced. If they arrive in the morning and look rested the following morning, that would be an opportune time to process them. If they are delivered in the afternoon or evening, we’d wait until the second morning to process them, which would be closer to 36 hours in most cases. If you delay processing too long it decreases many of the benefits we get from using vaccines.”

The initial processing program for auction-market, ranch calves or natural calves is similar. “We need to vaccinate against viral diseases and treat for internal parasites,” Smith suggests. “For higher-risk calves that haven’t been weaned for 45 days or are commingled, we’ve found a very positive benefit from vaccinating against Mannheimia hemolytica infection. High-risk calves of auction origin will benefit from metaphylactic treatment in most cases. This will be the vet’s call on a case-by-case basis for many ranch-origin calves. Those entering natural programs don’t have that option.”

Smith believes coccidiosis control is important for incoming cattle. Because coccidiostats have been commonly used for so many years, it is easy to assume that coccidiosis is not a threat. Most natural-programs can only use non-ionophore products for coccidiosis control, such as decoquinate or amprolium.

Auction-market calves

Most incoming calves will behave in a similar manner. They are tired, hungry and curious about their new environment. Many calves walk and bawl for a period of time as they adjust to their new environment. “It’s often difficult to predict whether or not these calves will have significant health problems based on how they look at arrival,” Smith says. A more reliable indicator of how to manage the health of these calves is the health history of calves from this particular origin, and whether they are commingled auction-market calves vs. single-source. “Typically calves that are commingled will experience more health problems. We plan for disease outbreaks in these calves earlier in the receiving period than we do with ranch calves. The primary tool to control BRD in high risk commingled calves is still metaphylaxis.”

Smith notes there have been several trials published that show health and economic benefits in auction-origin calves that are metaphylactically treated during arrival processing. “This has to be factored into the overall cost of put-together calves we buy,” he says.

Ranch-direct calves

In contrast, ranch calves generally have less sickness because of less commingling and exposure, but not always. Smith says sickness in ranch calves usually occurs later in the receiving period. “This is important to consider because if they still look good after the first 10–14 days we are often tempted to move the calves up on feed, both in quantity and energy density. As a result, we can cause a respiratory break in these calves due to the nutritional management.”

Smith is more cautious with unweaned ranch calves and doesn’t like to be aggressive with feed until they’ve been in the yard 30 days. “By that time, we can safely move most groups of calves up to levels of feed intake to achieve the gain desired for their weight and projected marketing date,” he says.

Many ranch calves have not been exposed to automatic water tanks, and are accustomed to drinking from ponds and creeks. It is often helpful to place extra water tanks in the pen to provide more space and opportunity for these calves to drink. “If it doesn’t look like they are drinking enough water, there are other strategies that can be used to attract calves to the water, such as using squirters over the water tank, which makes a noise to attract curious calves, or anything else that attracts calves to the water. Even letting the tanks overflow temporarily can help attract calves to the water tank” Smith explains. “If they don’t drink they won’t eat.” 

Calves in natural programs

Calves destined for natural-beef programs have to be managed differently than conventional calves. “When we’re buying ranch calves for natural programs we have to be especially careful with management,” says Bob Smith, DVM, MS.

Most natural-beef calves have to be traced back to the ranch of origin. Some are sold in auctions and have proper affidavits to follow the calf. Many will be ranch-direct. Often these calves are naïve and never exposed to viruses and bacteria that calves in sale barns have been exposed to. “One has to understand that the risk of disease can be just as high in ranch-origin calves as auction-market calves, depending on their background,” Smith says.

Calves destined for “never-ever” natural feeding programs are generally going to demand a premium in the marketplace, therefore more money is invested in them. “If we have to intervene metaphylactically, we lose the premiums we’ve invested in those calves because they cannot continue in the program,” Smith explains. “If we do things that increase the morbidity rate, the calves that fall out are a huge economic liability for the owner. That is where management  —  animal husbandry  —  is more important than things we can buy in bottles.”

Proper handling is essential for all classes of calves, but even more so for natural-program calves, Smith says. Calves should always be handled quietly and allowed to walk and not forced to run. They are not athletes! “Calves should be made to feel at home as quickly as they can,” he says. There should be good quality hay in the bunk at arrival, starter ration top-dressed on the hay, fresh water, clean pens and bedding provided if needed. “Then we need to leave them alone for a while to recover from the stress of gathering and shipping.”

In “never-ever” natural programs, the cost of disease is much bigger than in conventional calf programs, Smith adds. “Through feeding, proper handling and general animal husbandry, we can reduce stress and maximize the opportunity for natural calves to go through the feeding period without experiencing illness. This is our goal because the calf that is sick, treated and then removed from the natural program is an economic liability.”