Terry Engleken, DVM, IowaStateUniversity describes what ISU vet students learned on this summer’s stocker tour. The road trip, known as “Grass Cattle 101,” was part of the college’s Beef Production Immersive Knowledge Experience (BPIKE) program. Read an article about the tour in the Fall 2009 Gentle Doctor, titled "Pasture to Plate."

Bovine Veterinarian: You’ve been on “field trips” with veterinarians in the past – how valuable to do you think these types of trips are for both students and veterinarians to actually visit different types of operations than they are accustomed to?

Terry Engelken: When dealing with all the different types of production systems that affect cattle prior to their arrival at the feedyard, I think it is extremely helpful to actually view these operations. You begin to get a feel for some of the obstacles that producers face prior to having their calves get off the truck at the feedyard. It may be management issues, forage availability such as fescue or ryegrass, or the genetic makeup of the cattle. 

Some feedyards may not particularly like Brahman influenced cattle coming off of fescue pastures, but there are some very good reasons why those types of production systems exist at the cow-calf and stocker levels. Trips like this just give students a better feel for the industry as a whole and what they will be facing once they graduate.

BV: What do you think the two to three biggest takeaways from the stocker trip were for the students?

TE: I think the most important thing that the students learned is why the stocker industry exists. Those light weight calves coming out of small cow-calf operations don’t arrive at the feedyard in bunches of three to five head. There is a highly efficient part of the industry that takes these calves, straightens them out into uniform groups, and then utilizes forage to put weight on them. They really transition the calves to be ready for the feedyard by getting them healthy and heavy enough to thrive.

Another important thing they learned is that there is incredible diversity in these operations. There is no such thing as a “cookie cutter” approach to stocker production. Differences in cattle genetics combined with differences in environmental conditions, forage base, cattle procurement, and supplemental feeding systems mean that you see something different on every operation. We visited a number of operations on the trip and no two were exactly alike.

Finally, understanding that stocker operations are really margin driven is essential for the students to begin to see the economics of production. It also gave them some insight as to how a practitioner might work with stocker producers.

(They also got to learn what really good BBQ and sweet tea tastes like!)

BV: Do you think understanding how these operations operate and are managed, what their purpose, goals and businesses are, is just as important to know as the animal health aspects of being a bovine veterinarian?

TE: Absolutely!! I don’t think you can manage the animal health program adequately unless you understand the business end of the operation. Every one of these units that we toured had different strengths and weaknesses due to management and cattle. Basic protocols that involve metaphylaxis or implant programs or receiving vaccinations or drug selection are all impacted by how the cattle are managed and how big the economic margin is. We really tried to get the students to understand that part of the equation.

Our plan is to make the “Grass Cattle 101” trip an annual event as part of our Beef PIKE program (Read more here). We have had very good support from Elanco Animal Health, Bayer Animal Health, and Ft. Dodge Animal Health in the past. We will continue to look for support for the program so that we can continue providing our students with this type of opportunity.