It takes concentration and a sharp eye to judge the health of road-weary calves as they’re stepping off the truck. But when the calves are black and arrive at night, it’s like trying to look for details in the shadows. Experience, intuition and even other senses need to take over as cattle producers search for other clues.
That’s the challenge Jeff Schenk faces nearly every time new feeder calves are brought onto Do-Be Farms, an 800-head per year, 3,600-acre stocker operation he manages with his brother Alan in Chickasha, Okla., about 40 miles southwest of Oklahoma City.
“We usually get our cattle in late at night, so we have to work them first thing in the morning,” he says. “But even when it’s dark, I like to be right there when they come off the truck. Usually I can see the sick ones right off the bat.”
Schenk looks at their eyes, posture, how they’re hanging their heads, the way they’re walking and overall body condition. He’ll then mark the cattle that get his attention and make them the first priority after sunrise.
‘Something I grew up with’
Schenk’s intuition is usually spot-on. He grew up on a dairy farm, where cattle always got plenty of attention. “I’ve always had a joy being around animals,” Schenk says. “When we had the dairy, my job was to stay around the dairy and look after the health of the cows. My uncle, Ed Schenk, DVM, was our veterinarian before he retired, so I learned a lot from him, too. Watching and caring for cattle was just something I grew up with. And now, I can often tell when a calf is sick long before she shows it.”
When Schenk pulled out of the dairy business in 2007 to focus on stockers, he retained his sixth sense for herd health.
“I don’t mass-medicate our cattle,” Schenk says. “I only doctor them when I think they need it. My brother and I watch them closely, though. When we get a group in, we stay with them and watch them two or three times a day or until we feel comfortable that they’re alright.”
Schenk also works closely with his veterinarian, Bruss Horn, DVM, of the Verden Veterinary Clinic, Verden, Okla. — a resource that Schenk says “brings lots of good science and technology” to his farm. But it takes two, Horn insists. “Jeff can spot a sick calf very well and he always responds to the situation quickly” with pre-determined protocols that he and Schenk developed for handling sick cattle.
They review the operation’s herd health program twice a year. “Because if a program’s broke, we’ve got to fix it right away,” Horn says, “and if it’s not broke, we’ll stay with it. We’re not hard and fast to anything. If something new comes out — a new product or technology that’s going to improve performance of the cattle and pay for itself — I want to share that with producers like Jeff.”
In the past, Schenk typically bought calves at 500 to 600 pounds. With the higher cattle prices over the past year, however, he’s been buying calves ranging from 475 to 500 pounds. The lighter weight calves come at a lower cost, but they are also more susceptible to stress and infection.
“A lot of those calves are fresh off their mamas; they’re stressed and more prone to get pneumonia or bovine respiratory disease (BRD),” Horn adds. “BRD is definitely our biggest challenge of all the diseases.”
While BRD can be a year-round concern, Schenk and Horn say the months of September and October command the most attention. “We’ll see temperature fluctuations of 40 degrees — it may be 75° F in the daytime and then 35° F at night,” Horn says. “That’s quite a temperature fluctuation on those light- weight calves; it’s really hard on them and I think that contributes to BRD.”
Schenk agrees — and says he’s got the expense records to prove it. “I think we spend more on herd health in September and October than we do the rest of the year combined,” he says. “Weather conditions can really stress young cattle. If they get a little touch of something, the stress just compounds it.”
Treat only as needed
Under Horn’s direction, Schenk vaccinates all incoming cattle for viral respiratory disease and the clostridials. He also implants them, treats for internal and external parasites, castrates the bull calves and brands all the newcomers. “That’s pretty much our protocol for 95 percent of our stocker operators around here,” Horn says.
The veterinarian recommends using a metaphylactic antibiotic to producers “who buy on the bottom end” because those are generally high-risk calves. For producers like Schenk, who buys good quality calves from familiar sources — usually local cattle through the stockyards near El Reno, Okla. — Horn recommends treating as needed.
Schenk likes Horn’s approach. “Personally, I’m not a big fan of metaphylaxis,” he says. “Right now, for instance, we’ve got 55 steers and we’ve had them a week. We haven’t treated any of them for BRD, and I think there’s a pretty good chance that we’re not going to have to medicate any of them.”
When cattle do show signs of BRD — “if they’re not coming to the feed, their head is down, neck stretched out, snotty nose, whatever,” Schenk says —he pulls the suspect calves and treats them with a broad-spectrum antibiotic based on his veterinarian’s recommendations, usually either Nuflor Gold (florfenicol) or Resflor Gold (florfenicol plus flunixin).
“We’ve always had good results with those treatments,” Schenk adds. “I know what to expect from them. I know what the calf should look like in 12 hours and what it should look like the next morning. They’re very consistent.”
Cooling them off
Horn says the addition of flunixin — a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID — to their BRD treatment programs lets producers get sick calves back on their feet and eating again. The combination kills bacteria and reduces fever, he explains. “When we reduce fever, we see less inflammation. And with less inflammation, the calves feel better. And when they feel better, they eat and drink better. It’s that simple.”
A combination product makes it possible for producers to make flunixin part of their standard program for sick calves. “They could use another antibiotic and then give Banamine (flunixin) separately, but you have to give it intravenously and some guys aren’t comfortable with that,” Horn explains.
Just good animal welfare
The way Horn and Schenk see it, making cattle more comfortable is just good animal welfare.
“Offer them food, clean feed and water and have good handling facilities, where it’s less stressful when you’re processing them,” Horn adds. “Give them the right treatments at the right time. Basically, do whatever you can to reduce stress. I think all those things help contribute to good health.”
Schenk also thinks it’s important to stay in close touch with his cattle. “We see our cattle all the time,” he adds. “We don’t just dump them out in the pasture and never see them again. We’re always out there and most cattle get used to us.”
And that close contact pays off when it’s time to round up and sell the cattle. “On some operations,” Schenk says, people “can’t wait for the big roundup, with all the horses, whips and four-wheelers out there. We do things differently here.”
Schenk favors a calmer, less stressful approach. “When we get cattle up to sell, usually when they’re about 900 pounds, just one of us could go out there and get 100, maybe 200 cattle in the lot and they’d follow you right in.”
Sidebar: Prevent secondary infections
Cattle at Do-Be Farms graze wheat pasture from November to May and are on native pasture with supplemental alfalfa hay in the other months. While much can be learned from closely observing cattle, diagnostics are also critical to successful health programs — particularly when fighting secondary infections. For example, Bruss Horn, DVM, says he’s a “big believer” in testing for PI-BVD, or persistent infection-bovine viral diarrhea. BVDV can be both a primary or secondary pathogen. This virus, however, suppresses the immune system, which allows other organisms to more easily establish an infection, he says.
Horn also considers Mycoplasma spp., like BVDV, to be both a primary or secondary pathogen — one that develops in stressed cattle or in cattle that weren’t pulled early enough for antibiotic therapy. “Many BRD wrecks are caused by either a PI-BVD calf or Mycoplasma spp. — that’s often what we find in the nonresponders, the ones that didn’t respond to antibiotics,” Horn says. “They can get joint infections from Mycoplasma and become lame. Sometimes we’ll do autopsies and find cattle with huge abscesses in their lungs from Mycoplasma. Either way, those cattle become very difficult to treat and manage. Fortunately, we haven’t seen much in a few years, but we know it’s out there.” The best way to handle disease is not to get it in the first place, which means producers need to watch their animals closely and keep all respiratory pathogens under control.