This article appeared in the October issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

Given the value of cattle today, feedyard death loss is more costly than ever, and in spite of the preventative measures and treatments available, death loss percentages seem to have increased in recent years.

Speaking during the recent Cattle Industry Summer Conference, Tom Brink, founder and owner of Top Dollar Angus, presented data showing the margin-busting losses associated with feedyard mortality and illustrating the value of effective preconditioning. Brink has vast experience in cattle feeding after years of helping manage the cattle-ownership branch of JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, the nation’s largest cattle-feeding company.

Brink says that in his years with JBS Five Rivers, a 1 percent mortality rate was a long-term average for yearling-age feedyard cattle. Citing data from Professional Cattle Consultants (PCC), he says the mortality rate has increased to around 2 percent over the past three years, and death losses can run much higher in some feedyards and some lots of cattle, especially in lighter in-weight groups.

PCC analyst Shawn Walter agrees, saying his company’s data show death loss in feedyards has increased significantly in the last 10 years, and most of the increase has occurred in the last three to four years. “We first noted an increase in feedyard morality around four years ago,” he says. The general assumption at the time was that the severe drought in the Southern Plains was related to stressed, immune-deficient calves coming into feedyards. However, the trend has continued as moisture conditions have improved across much of the country. In 2014, heifer death losses made another substantial increase, and death losses this year are running about double those of five years ago. “We’re seeing about a 2 percent average mortality rate among most pens of steers, and closer to 3 to 4 percent in high-risk groups. This makes me believe that something else is driving above-normal death,” Walter says.

Sickness, naturally, relates closely to death rates. “We looked at death loss and treatment costs, and they tended to correlate closely,” Walter says. “Pens with higher-than-average treatment costs also tended to have higher-than-average mortality rates.”

Interestingly, mortality rates during the first 60 days on feed have remained relatively stable, and much of the increase has occurred in pens on feed for 100 days or more. Walter speculates that, with the high value of cattle, cow-calf and stocker producers are doing a good job of keeping sick calves alive prior to arrival at the feedyard, and feedyards are doing a good job of keeping respiratory cases alive through the receiving period. Eventually, though, the effects of disease and damaged lungs “catch up” with them as they reach heavier weights.

The PCC database also shows a relationship between processing costs and mortality rates, with higher processing costs correlated with higher death loss. This suggests that weaned, preconditioned calves arriving with verifiable records, which save on processing costs, are more likely to stay healthy and alive. Unknown, high-risk calves typically require higher processing costs, sometimes including metaphylaxis, or mass treatment, upon arrival.

Walter also notes the higher mortality rates actually increased after Zilmax was taken off the market, suggesting if the beta agonist feed additive has any role in mortality rates it is small.

Feedyard mortality tends to peak between April and June, which Walter says corresponds with fall-placed calf-fed cattle, although placement weight does not appear to correlate with increased mortality rate in the PCC database.

Walter also adds that while there is some variation in mortality rates between feedyards, there does not seem to be any significant “feedyard effect,” with most yards in the database experiencing similar mortality rates.

Seeking explanations for higher mortality rates

In analyzing or interpreting feedyard data, Kansas State University veterinarian Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, says the first step is to define the population of animals involved. Were the majority of cattle in the data set high-risk or low-risk animals, or a representative mix of both? Were in-weights skewed toward calf-feds or yearlings?

Thomson suspects that grain prices, which have fallen in recent years after peaking in 2008, are a key factor in feedyard morbidity and mortality trends. High grain prices keep cattle on grass longer, while lower grain prices improve the economic feasibility of placing lighter calves on feed. Lighter in-weights tend to correlate with more sickness and death loss.

Thomson also believes the historically high calf values of the past few years could contribute. When cow-calf producers can sell 500-pound non-weaned calves for close to $1,500, without any vaccination history, at least some will jump at the opportunity. Weaning calves on the ranch for 45 days adds value and reduces health risk later but requires labor and creates some risk for the producer, so it seems possible that more calves have shipped to feedyards without true preconditioning in recent years.

Thomson notes that the primary reason feedyards see higher rates of bovine respiratory disease in the fall is not so much because of the weather but because that’s when most lightweight calves arrive. Likewise, the highest rates of bloat cases occur in the spring, partly because of the weather but mostly because those fall-placed calves are reaching 140 to 150 days on feed and transitioning to high-energy finishing rations. Again he refers to defining the population, saying veterinarians can look at records on pens of cattle and predict the likely health problems based on whether they have been on feed for 0 to 30 days, 30 to 60, 60 to 90 or more than 90 days.

Brink says economic factors in recent years — high feeder-cattle prices, short supplies of calves and lower grain prices — have encouraged cattle feeders to keep cattle longer and market them at heavier weights. Simple laws of probability suggest that more time in the feedyard increases the chance of an animal dying there. This effect is likely but probably accounts for just a small portion of the increased mortality rate.

Brink also points out that, historically, some pens of “high-risk” calves have performed well, with relatively low sickness and death loss, while calves from the same source, in a different year, result in an economically disastrous train wreck. Thomson agrees, saying “high-risk” calves represent an economic risk, not because they always get sick, but because they are far less predictable then low-risk cattle. Pens of high-risk calves with a projected death loss of 4 percent could actually experience mortality rates ranging from 0 to 10 percent or more, while pens of older, low-risk cattle with projected death loss of 1 percent will experience a much narrower range, probably between 0 and 2 percent actual death loss. Year-to-year differences in weather, nutrition, handlers and other factors contribute to the variation.

Thomson notes another trend that could play a role in recent mortality rates. Growing numbers of commercial feedyards have begun utilizing “grow yards” or backgrounding lots to start lightweight calves on feed, rather than managing those calves themselves. Managing lightweight, non-weaned, put-together calves is a challenging and specialized endeavor, and some grow yards are better prepared than others. He says these operations need to run like a pediatric intensive care unit for cattle, with dedicated crews practically living with the calves. And, he says, depending on the length of the backgrounding period, mortality rates in the grow yard will carry over into the finishing yard. If calves are shipped from the grow yard after 60 days, they are only halfway through the period with the greatest risk of mortality, so if the death rate in the grow yard is 2 percent, the feedyard is likely to see another 2 percent mortality rate in those calves. Thomson says 80 to 100 days in the grow lot is best, but most calves ship out much sooner.

Whether high-risk calves are initially managed in a grow yard or finishing yard, Thomson stresses the importance of people. Finding good labor is challenging for cattle operations, but the yard needs adequate numbers of skilled pen riders, hospital staff, processing crews and managers to successfully manage lightweight calves. When the fall run of calves arrives, managers need to ensure they have adequate personnel and do not overwhelm their crew with more calves then they can handle, which inevitably will lead to a wreck.

The cost of death loss

Thomson stresses that today’s high value of cattle increases the value of disease prevention. Death rate is a key driver in feedyard profits or losses, and a high mortality rate costs cattle feeders much more than investments in premiums for preconditioned cattle or metaphylaxis for high-risk calves on arrival.

Brink recalls pens of high-risk calves which, based on their purchase price, projected to close out at $150-per-head profit but actually lost close to $500 per head due to mortality rates exceeding 9 percent. Losses at that level are not uncommon. Again citing data from PCC, Brink says that among a large sample of five-weight cattle placed in April and May of 2014, average mortality was 3.6 percent for steers and 4 percent for heifers, and the likelihood of a pen experiencing 5 percent or greater death loss was 21 percent.

Among the steers in the sample, 63 percent of pens had 0 to 3 percent death loss, 16 percent had 3 to 5 percent, 12 percent had 5 to 10 percent and 8.4 percent had greater than 10 percent mortality. Also, significant numbers of these mortalities occur late in the feeding period, making them even more costly due to the feed, labor and other inputs invested in those animals.

Medical costs naturally increased in the pens with high levels of mortality, and pounds sold per pounds purchased declined, partly due to mortality and also due to lost performance in sick cattle. Using a baseline of $0 loss for pens with less than 3 percent mortality, losses climbed to $112 per head for 3 to 5 percent death loss, $318 for 5 to 10 percent and $1,431 for greater than 10 percent mortality.

Based on the likelihood of a pen of cattle experiencing these high mortality rates, and the associated financial losses, Brink calculates that non-weaned feeder calves should be discounted by about $191 per head. Market competition prevents such steep discounts from occurring, though, and buyers assume most of the price risk and health risk. He adds, however, that as available calf supplies increase, the price difference between weaned and un-weaned calves is likely to widen.