Like many producers, Montana rancher Greg Gardner has worked hard at improving the genetics and health of his cattle. But because he always sold his calves at weaning, he has been unable to observe or evaluate their performance in the feedyard or at the packing plant.

This year is different though, at least for the 94 steer calves he sold to Tom Holtorf at Schramm Feedyard, Yuma, Col. An arrangement with the feedyard and consulting veterinarian Lynn Locatelli will provide Mr. Gardner with extensive individual performance and carcass data on his calves. Combined with his ranch records, the information will assist Mr. Gardner in making objective genetic and management decisions and improve the value of his calves.

Mr. Holtorf took delivery of the calves on Oct. 18 in northwest Montana, loading them onto trucks for the 19-hour haul to eastern Colorado. The set of 94 calves consists of steers primarily sired by Charolais bulls on an Angus-based cowherd.

The preconditioned calves arrived at Schramm Feedyard on Oct. 19. After letting the calves rest overnight, the Schramm crew, assisted by Dr. Locatelli, ran them through the processing chute. Calm, methodical handling kept stress to a minimum. Initial processing consisted of vaccinations and deworming. Crews also fitted each calf with a feedyard ear tag and an electronic radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag to replace their ranch tags. As each calf came through the chute, Dr. Locatelli entered the ranch-tag number, feedyard tag number and a description of the calf into the computer. The automated system adds the calf's weight to the record. Then she scanned an electronic eartag before the crew placed it in the animal's ear.

A computer software system from AginfoLink integrates all of these records as it creates an individual record for each animal. Later additions to each record will include performance and ultrasound data collected at re-implant time, closeout information and carcass data collected at the packing plant.

How do they look?

Initial records illustrate considerable variability, even in this relatively uniform set of steers. Mr. Gardner sorted this group off at the ranch based on their similar genetic background. All the calves at Gardners' ranch come from a tight, 45-day calving interval. Nevertheless, in-weights, which averaged 602 pounds, ranged from 465 pounds to 730 pounds. Five calves weighed less than 500 pounds at processing and four weighed more than 700 pounds. The majority entered the feedyard weighing between 550 and 650 pounds.

The calves arrived at the feedyard in good condition in spite of a summer-long drought in northwestern Montana. The Gardners fed mineral supplements, used a pasture creep-feeding system and preconditioned the calves prior to shipment.

Delays during shipping resulted in about 6.7 percent shrink, but the calves exhibited good health in spite of the long haul from northwestern Montana. During the first two weeks in the feedyard, crews pulled only two cattle from the Gardner pen for signs of respiratory disease. Dr. Locatelli notes that another set of non-preconditioned Montana calves that arrived around the same time suffered pull rates approaching 20 percent over the first two weeks.

Due to their good health coming into the feedyard, consumption picked up quickly. On day one, the pen consumed an average of 7.5 pounds of as-fed ration. A graph generated by Feedyard Information System software shows a steady upward slope with average consumption reaching 16 pounds per day on day seven and more than 24 pounds per day on day 14.

The Feedyard Information System software package, from eMerge Interactive, links the feedyard's health, accounting and bunk records, providing easy-to-read graphic displays illustrating day-to-day trends in health and performance. Dr. Locatelli notes that an especially useful feature of the program is a consultant interface that allows her to log on from her office or from the field and track health trends on a daily basis.

Two weeks later

At revaccination 16 days after arrival, Dr. Locatelli conducted initial ultrasound measurements for backfat and marbling. Even at this early stage, these measurements indicated significant variation. She notes, however, that the initial scans generally provide a baseline only with weaned calves usually showing very little backfat or marbling. Later ultrasound scans at re-implanting, will show enough variation to allow the feedyard to objectively sort them into outcome groups and set marketing dates based on optimum performance and carcass value.

The feedyard crew also implanted the calves at this time. For shipped calves, Dr. Locatelli prefers to delay implants for about two weeks after arrival. Implanting at arrival, she believes, sacrifices some of the implant's value during a time when calves are likely to lose, rather than gain weight.

Records collected at revaccination show that these calves are off to a good start in terms of health and performance. After 16 days in the feedyard, weights averaged 677 pounds for an average weight gain of 75 pounds.

Our next article in this series, at re-implant time, will document animal health and performance to that time and explore management and marketing strategies based on ultrasound scanning.