If you travel by air these days, you know the feeling. After waiting in long lines, you shed your shoes and belt, empty your pockets and take your laptop out of its case. You display your 1-quart plastic bag full of liquids and gels in containers of 2 ounces or less. Then, after being herded through security, x-rayed, patted down and scolded for leaving a paper receipt in your shirt pocket, you gather your belongings and try to restore some sense of order.
If you travel through Billy Mitchell Field in Milwaukee, the place to do that is called the “Recombobulation Area.”
As cattle arrive in the feedyard, possibly after multiple trailer rides, commingling and all the stresses of transport, that’s just what they need — recombobulation.
The receiving period always offers challenges for feedyard veterinarians, nutritionists and crews, and this year raises the stakes with more cattle arriving light, undernourished and susceptible to disease due to the drought, says Kansas State University beef veterinarian Bob Larson.
Larson says feedyards will need to manage more pens as “high risk,” providing extra care to protect calf health as they acclimate to the new environment. He stresses attention to detail, noting the importance of protecting the investment in high-priced calves, high-priced transportation and even higher-priced feeds, by taking all possible steps to keep these stressed cattle alive and get them up on feed. Coordinate animal husbandry, nutrition, vaccines and other health protocols toward those goals, he says.
Larson emphasizes the importance of the receiving ration, saying veterinarians and nutritionists need to work together to develop rations that encourage intake for newly arrived cattle, improve their nutritional status and avoid health problems as they step up to higher-energy rations.
Mass treatment upon arrival might be necessary and beneficial for some loads of cattle, depending on their condition and level of risk. Larson encourages feeders to work closely with their veterinarians to determine whether mass treatment is justified for disease control.
Feedyard nutritionist Dave McClellan operates McClellan Consulting Service, Inc. in Fremont, Neb. He describes most of his clients as “feeder-farmers,” as they operate sizable farming operations but are passionate and professional in running their small to mid-sized feedyards. With corn prices as high as they are, he is somewhat surprised these feeders, who typically own most of the cattle they feed, are filling pens this fall rather than selling their corn. But, he says, they’re cattle feeders; that’s what they do, so he’s working closely with them to reduce risk and control cost of gain.
The first step in reducing health and performance risk is to know your order buyer, McClellan says. Maintain a working relationship and develop a mutual understanding of the cattle you want and the information you want about them. This is not a time to be feeding commingled groups a buyer put together over a week from various sources with no background information. An assurance they’ve “had all their shots” is meaningless. McClellan says he and his clients want to know as much as possible about the origin, management and health history of calves before they reach the feedlot.
Once they arrive, he says, feedyard crews need to do everything possible to minimize stress. This always is important, but as cattle arrive nutritionally challenged and in poor condition, the first priority is to encourage feed and water intake. Calm handling is critical, and McClellan encourages cattle feeders to consider delaying some typical receiving activities. Rather than implanting, vaccinating, deworming and possibly dehorning or castrating calves the first time through the chute, consider changing the timeline. Perhaps just apply eartags, deworm and administer a nasal vaccine on arrival, and delay more stressful procedures such as seven-way vaccines until later. If the forecast calls for hot weather, schedule all processing for early in the morning.
McClellan stresses a team approach in making these decisions and carrying them out. Involve the nutritionist, veterinarian, feedyard manager and key crew members such as the head cowboy and head feeder. This ensures everyone understands the reasons behind decisions and modified protocols. “We’re looking at everything we do,” he says, “and asking how we can reduce stress.”
In some of his client feedyards, crews measure body temperatures in all incoming cattle. Those registering 104.5° or higher on arrival receive an eartag, dewormer, five-way vaccine and a low-cost antibiotic, and are sorted into separate holding pens. The key then, he says, is to stimulate intake with high-quality rations and clean water, as appetite often is suppressed in marginally sick calves.
In some in-house trials with his clients, McClellan has seen some benefits in using an injectable mineral and vitamin E product, to improve immunity in newly arrived calves with suppressed feed intake.
Larson notes that cattle feeders in many areas will face challenges in finding enough good-quality forage for use in receiving rations. They’ll likely turn to various alternative feeds, requiring extra vigilance on the part of nutritionists, veterinarians and crews to monitor intake, health and performance.
McClellan agrees, citing sky-high hay prices and even shorter supplies of distillers’ grains as ethanol production scales back in response to corn prices. These are challenging times for cattle feeders and their consultants, requiring flexibility and creativity, he says, as he works to help clients find and utilize feedstuffs that meet nutritional needs and control costs.
One alternative feed that’s widely available this fall is corn silage. McClellan says he sees silage piled up in yards that haven’t fed it in 20 years or more, as growers with poor-yielding crops are chopping their corn rather than harvesting grain. His clients cut silage from dryland fields and pivot corners, and many other farmers who do not even have cattle are piling silage in their fields and looking for buyers.
Most of the silage McClellan has tested scores well for net energy, even though the grain content is low. He says, though, that silage content in receiving rations needs to be limited for several reasons. First, most new arrivals probably have never eaten corn silage or any other fermented forage and can find it unpalatable. Also, he wants receiving rations to contain 64 to 72 percent dry matter. The high moisture content of corn silage requires mixing with some kind of dry roughage. McClellan says he limits silage content to 12 percent or less in receiving rations.
Native grass hay is extremely scarce in Nebraska and other areas, he says. Some of the hay cut from CRP land is of adequate quality, especially if CRP fields were previously burned.
Some of McClellan’s clients have used a calcium hydroxide treatment to improve the digestibility of wheat straw in rations. The process is labor intensive, he says, but enables feeders to utilize a lower-cost forage.
Several of McClellan’s clients began using corn hominy in their rations when corn prices first spiked in 2008 and have continued to do so. The price is linked to corn, but the product is available and they have learned how to optimize its use in rations and minimize cost of gain.
Once calves are acclimated and up on feed, McClellan says, feeders should take full advantage of their ability to gain weight efficiently. When forage was cheap, feeders sometimes would grow calves on a forage-based ration from around 550 pounds to 850 pounds, at a slow rate of gain of about 2.5 pounds per day. With today’s forage prices, even those gains are costing $1.20 to $1.50 per pound and are not cost effective. You just cannot afford to give up the feed efficiency and compensatory gains inherent in lightweight calves. “Some of the things we’ve historically done,” he says, “just don’t make sense anymore.”