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.