While cattle feeders increasingly pay premiums for weaned and fully preconditioned calves, someone still takes the other ones. Steve Gabel, owner of Magnum Feedyard, Wiggins, Colo., is one who embraces the challenge of turning high-risk calves into high-performance feeder cattle.

Speaking at last week’s Colorado Nutrition Roundtable, Gabel said that about five years ago he decided to take his feedyard in a new direction. Historically, he had fed mostly custom cattle, but as the market evolved, his operation, like many feedyards, the company began owning more of the cattle it feeds. But in procuring cattle, he found it difficult for his 23,000-head operation to compete with the large, corporate feeding companies that could bid higher prices for low-risk, preconditioned calves.

In response, Gabel decided to source cattle differently, focusing more on high-stress, high-risk calves. High-risk, he says, can mean different things depending on the source of the cattle. Some are rough-looking and thin, coming off low-quality pastures and shipped long distances. Others, such as coastal California cattle, might arrive in great condition, but can experience stress in the transition from a cool, humid climate to the dry summer heat of the Colorado plains.

About the same time, he switched to a new consulting veterinarian who helped the feedyard staff develop protocols for managing incoming calves for optimum health and performance. Management shifted toward individual animals, with animal-health decisions more in the hands of crew members, he says. The veterinarian trains the crew to use stethoscopes, for example, to evaluate calves for respiratory disease at processing and determine treatment measures. The team uses mass medication with shipped calves when necessary.

The crew uses low-stress animal-handling methods to help acclimate new arrivals, and processes them within 48 hours after arrival. For those first 48 hours, the calves have access to long-stem hay and alfalfa, and plenty of fresh water. After two days, the feed delivery includes a starter ration, containing wet distillers’ grains, at 1 percent of body weight on a dry-matter basis, along with hay.

For the first 30 days, Gabel says, he limits total feed to 2.5 percent of body weight, believing that keeping calves a little hungry benefits their health during that period. The crew delivers feed three times per day, morning, noon and evening. Ideally, he says, the calves clean out the feedbunks about 30 minutes before each feed delivery. Crews provide free-choice mineral tubs in the pens for the first three weeks. They also place water tanks inside the pens, with running water to help attract calves to the tank, acclimate them to the water source and keep them drinking.

The feedyard uses bedding extensively, including corn stalks or straw, in receiving and hospital pens. The bedding is especially beneficial to calf comfort during the winter months, but Gabel says his team also beds pens during the summer, as tests show the bedded surface remains considerably cooler than the bare ground.

The additive benefits of these efforts have produced positive results with high-risk calves arriving in the feedyard. Gabel says since the first of this year, the feedyard has received about 24,000 cattle. A total of 15.2 percent were pulled once for treatment, and of those, only 17 percent needed to be pulled for a second treatment. Total processing costs averaged about $15 per head, with medical expenses accounting for about $5.60 of that. Death loss through the same period remained well below 1 percent.