Cattle feeder Mike Drinnin has seen the results of preconditioning programs on the health and performance of his customers’ cattle over the years. Now he’s helping them take the concept a step further, by incorporating targeted mineral supplements to help support vaccines through the weaning and receiving periods.

Preconditioning plus

Drinnin owns and operates Drinnin Feedlots Inc., near Columbus, Neb. In monitoring the health and performance of retained-ownership cattle from the same ranches over the years, he has seen improvements as his customers adopt weaning vaccination programs, and as the ranchers and feedlot work together to coordinate health and vaccination programs. He’s also seen that if the vaccination program is not supported by an appropriate nutrition program at the ranch, particularly mineral supplementation, the vaccines simply do not work as well. The two go hand in hand, he says.

Some customers have retained ownership through the feedlot for years and, in the past, had higher pull rates than they would like to see, Drinnin says. Initially, he worked with them to coordinate their vaccination programs with those in the feedlot and over the past few years has, in several cases, supplied customers with mineral tubs formulated to the mineral needs at the ranch. Through the process, they have experienced a dramatic reduction in pulls and re-pulls and improved performance.

This year, as the drought has wilted pastures across cattle country, the effects of nutritional deficiencies on calf health are becoming more apparent than ever.

Veterinarian Dee Griffin, at the University of Nebraska’s Great Plains Veterinary Education Center, has monitored the health and condition of cattle coming into feedyards for 37 years and says he has never seen as many problems as he has in the past two. Cattle shipped into Nebraska from drought-stressed areas in the South last year often did not respond well to vaccines and experienced higher-than-usual sickness and death loss. “I’ve necropsied dozens of animals that succumbed to disease without a fight,” he says. In many cases, animals have died of milder cases of pneumonia than normally would be lethal. The same issue has developed this year, with an even larger slice of cattle country affected by severe drought. Poor nutrition is a primary cause of these breakdowns in health, he says.

If a calf’s nutritional status is compromised, Griffin says, its chance of staying healthy through weaning, marketing and the transition into backgrounding or finishing is diminished, regardless of vaccination programs.

And while Griffin favors calf supplementation through weaning, he stresses that the calf’s nutrition begins with the cow. You can’t have a healthy calf without nutrition for the mother, he says, including adequate protein, energy and minerals. The cow needs ample reserves to transfer nutrients to the calf in utero, and to produce the quality and quantity of colostrum required to give the calf a good start. What happens during the first six hours of a calf’s life can determine whether the calf stays healthy throughout its life or experiences chronic illness.

Support your vaccines

Connie Larson, PhD, is a cattle nutritionist with Zinpro Corporation. She says pharmaceutical companies have done a good job of developing effective vaccines and vaccination programs. Nutrition, however, sometimes is the limiting factor in how well those programs work, as the calf’s trace-mineral status at weaning plays a critical role in its immune response.

Dietary zinc, copper, manganese and cobalt influence development of the animal’s immune system, she says, and sometimes are at low levels in soils and forages. Antagonistic elements, such as sulfur or iron in feed or water, can also contribute to mineral deficiencies in cattle.

Larson says calves often have marginal mineral deficiencies, which do not manifest as direct symptoms but result in compromised immune systems and reduced performance. This year, she says, calves coming off drought-stricken pastures where quality and quantity of forage have been limited, the chance of mineral deficiencies increases even in areas where mineral levels in forage are usually adequate.

Several research trials have shown that incorporating mineral supplements in a preconditioning program results in improved gains in the feedyard, Larson says. Providing a supplement through a 28- to 45-day weaning period can make up for deficiencies as calves come off depleted pastures, and optimize levels of critical minerals in tissues. Larson adds that producers have flexibility to design programs that fit their management system, as supplementing minerals prior to weaning, after weaning or both can benefit calves through the transition.

In a Colorado State University trial sponsored by Zinpro, animal scientist Terry Engle, PhD, evaluated the effect of mineral supplementation during a 28-day post-weaning preconditioning program on the ranch and continuing through a 28-day feedlot receiving period.

The researchers sourced calves from three different ranches at varying distances from the university feedlot. They sorted the calves into weight groups at weaning and randomly assigned them to treatment groups, which included a control group receiving no mineral supplements, a group receiving standard sulfate forms of zinc, manganese, copper and cobalt, and a group receiving a supplement containing more bio-available organic sources of the same minerals. The minerals were formulated in alfalfa pellets for daily feeding.

Following a 28-day post-weaning ranch program, al l calves were weighed and shipped to the CSU feedlot, with shipping distances from the ranches ranging from 45 miles to 120 miles and 450 miles.

Preconditioning plusDuring the 28-day post-weaning period on the ranch, the groups receiving the mineral supplements showed a 6.3 percent improvement in average daily gain compared with the control and standard-mineral groups. The researchers continued the same treatments through a 28-day receiving program in the feedlot, and the calves receiving the supplement posted daily gains averaging 9.4 percent higher than the control group and 13.2 percent higher than the standard-mineral group.

Another recent Colorado State University trial involved 10 ranches over a two-year period, following their calves through finishing. The data revealed correlations between the addition of organic mineral supplements and decreased pulls and re-pulls in the feedyard. A better mineral balance helps calves stand up to stress, Larson says.

Supplement as needed

Mineral levels differ from one location to the next, so Griffin stresses the need to sample forages and work with a nutritionist to formulate supplements. There is no single mineral program that works for everyone. Larson agrees, saying producers should work with a nutritionist to determine which minerals are in short supply, then identify a source that is most available to the animal.

Drinnin and his team work closely with their ranch customers to help them identify problems and evaluate mineral needs. It’s not always easy, he says, as mineral intake can vary widely even on the same ranch year-to-year depending on forage quality, quantity and intake levels. On rugged western rangeland or mountain environments, mineral availability can vary depending on where cattle are grazing at any particular time. Drinnin says his team at the feedlot can get minerals into calves through their receiving rations, but the results are better if they receive the supplements earlier, to support their weaning vaccines and optimize immunity through the critical period of weaning, marketing and acclimating to the feeding environment. Customers who have used information from the feedlot to fine-tune their mineral programs have seen big differences in performance, morbidity and mortality of their calves.

Drinnin believes a sound preconditioning program including targeted nutritional supplements improves returns for his retained-ownership customers and also for ranchers who sell their calves after weaning. Cattle feeders, he says, quickly recognize which cattle stay healthy and perform well in the feedlot and which do not. They identify the sources of the best cattle and make efforts to buy from the same herds in following years, boosting the value of those well-managed calves.

Drought feeding, plus minerals

If the primary pastures run out of forage in late summer, cows go backward in condition and calves wean lighter. Griffin suggests working with a nutritionist to develop a supplemental ration at a reasonable cost that meets the nutritional needs of calves during the 60 to 90 days prior to weaning. Affordability is the bottom line, he says, but supplementation during that time can replenish calves whose growth potential outpaces the cow’s ability to provide milk on depleted pastures.

If a producer can put together a highly digestible forage-based ration for calves, they then have the opportunity to include mineral supplements to protect calf health through weaning. Griffin also suggests including an ionophore in the ration to improve efficiency and gains during that period. He recommends using structures that provide calves exclusive access to the pre-weaning feed supplement, such as a creep feeder or panels with openings just large enough for calves to have access to a bunk.

Feeding calves during this time requires extra labor, but the additional contact with humans provides an added opportunity to acclimate them to handling, which will reduce stress during later transport and production stages.

A full round of vaccines eight weeks prior to weaning, coupled with good nutrition and re-vaccination at weaning, will help ensure calves are ready for transport and acclimation to the feedyard. Buyers of these calves, Griffin says, will come back.

The data are pretty straight-up, Griffin says. Pre-weaning vaccines alone, without proper nutrition and boosters, will not adequately protect calves from disease. You can’t separate health and nutrition, and if you ever needed a nutritionist, it is at times like these when pastures are depleted.

Drinnin agrees and stresses the importance of communication across production stages, saying he and his team work to inform ranchers from whom they purchase cattle, as well as retained-ownership customers. Health and performance information from the feedlot helps ranchers improve their vaccination and nutrition programs. They all want to do the best job they can, he says, and information from downstream helps them make adjustments.