From the November issue of Drovers CattleNetwork. 

Editor's note: Last month, Kenneth Eng and Dave McClellan introduced ideas for dealing with dramatically higher morbidity and death loss in feedlots and stocker/backgrounder operations. This month, Hereford, Texas-based consultant Jim Simpson takes his turn, followed by a summary from the trio

I will echo the comments and observations by Ken and Dave in the October edition of Drovers CattleNetwork: The industry on the South Plains continues to pour more money and resources into calf and yearling health with fewer returns than ever before.

It is also worth noting that these issues are no longer the sole domain of the “high risk” sale-barn, put-together calves from distant states. We are also struggling with ranch-raised calf crops that have been appropriately managed at the ranch. So, what factors are contributing to this and what can be done to improve our results?

Adding more tanks and making water more available could help a lot with tired calves. 

First, I believe we are dealing with calves that are much heavier per day of age than ever before. Genetic selection of traits for growth and efficiency has resulted in very high growth rates in these calves, compared with calves of yesteryear. Our ability to fatten cattle to the extreme weights we are currently seeing only confirms that our selection criteria for growth have worked. However, we may have given up some other desirable traits like immune development and response in the process.

During the recent extended drought, a case could be made that marginal cow nutrition played a significant role in the lack of immunity passed on to calves. If that theory is plausible, then I have no explanation why we continue to have problems after pasture conditions have improved with adequate rainfall. It is also a noteworthy reminder that we struggled with calf health before the drought and that it was an escalating issue even with good pasture conditions.

So what can we do to improve our success rates with tough-to-handle cattle? Dave makes some very good suggestions on management of facilities, particularly where water availability is concerned. Many long-haul calves simply do not have the strength to be competitive at a restricted-length water trough. Adding additional troughs to decrease the effort to drink after arrival is critical and only requires creative plumbing.

Running water also helps calves find the trough and is, again, simply a matter of plumbing.

Running water can help draw cattle to water and thereby encourage them to drink.

In the South Plains, summer daytime temperatures are routinely high. Shades can provide relief to stressed calves provided that they are properly constructed to prevent mud accumulation.

Conversely, winter conditions can be mitigated with windbreaks and the use of cotton-burr or corn-stalk bedding to provide a drier, more comfortable environment and lessen stress.

Specialized receiving rations or top dresses which focus on key nutrients — those involved in developing the immune system — are recommended. These could include but are not limited to:

  •  complexed trace minerals
  •  various yeast or yeast culture products
  • highly soluble, natural protein sources
  • ration palatability enhancers such as molasses or artificial sweeteners.

It is also important to note that while low-energy starting rations reduce sickness at the expense of overall efficiency and cost of gain, judicious use of long-stem, high-quality grass hay has improved health responses in many cases. I think sometimes we put too much emphasis on getting calves up on increased energy rations before they are really ready for that challenge, resulting in delayed health breaks.

Finally, the issue of realistic projections needs to be discussed. Cattlemen, even the most astute ones, are routinely overly optimistic about their abilities to manage high-risk cattle. Today, after the last several years of dismal success with shipped-in cattle, more producers project at least 10 percent death loss and $60 to $80 per head medicine and processing costs. Naturally this means that they may not get many calves bought.

Considering that a 500-pound calf costing $2.40 per pound, with a 10 perecent death loss and $60-per-head medicine cost breaks even at $1.63 at 1,300 pounds in June, using a $90-per-hundredweight cost of gain, I can’t fault them.

To be clear, this is not intended to point fingers at anyone or any segment of the industry. It is simply the reality of our current industry-wide health issue.

Shades can decrease stress in hot environments but must be managed to avoid mud.


In spite of rapid improvements in feedlot production areas such as performance and carcass quality, animal-health problems have increased. In some instances, they have reached unsustainable levels.

To combat these problems, the metaphylactic use of powerful and expensive injectable antibiotics have become standard operating procedure. Yet problems persist.

Is it possible that current management practices and selection programs have compromised the immune system? If so, can the immune system be improved via selection and management changes?

It’s apparent we need to “think outside the box” and develop a new “game plan.” To continue with our same programs that are obviously not working and expect improved results fits the classic definition of insanity.

Read Part One from the Drovers CattleNetwork October issue.