This article appeared in the October issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

During my first 20 years in the feedlot consulting business — 1965-1985 — if I asked feedlot managers what their death loss and medicine costs were, the answer was probably 0.5 to 1.0 percent death loss on yearlings and 2 to 3 percent on calves. Medicine costs in excess of $10 to $20 per head were the exception rather than the rule.

In recent years, we’ve seen substantial improvements in feedlot performance and carcass traits, but simultaneously, animal health problems have escalated.

Not unexpectedly, health and death loss problems are greater in “put together” sale-barn cattle, and the magnitude of the challenge with these calves is mindboggling. Medical costs exceeding $50 per head and death losses of 5 to 10 percent, and in some cases even greater, are not unusual. When you consider the improvements in procurement procedures, heavier calf weights, shorter distance hauled and other improved factors, current problems are incomprehensible.

In the 1960s and ’70s when Arizona and California were major feeding states and Texas feedlots were growing rapidly, it was not unusual to bring calves from Florida and the Southeast that weighed 200 to 400 pounds. They were collected and commingled from several sale barns, then shipped 1,000 to 2,000 miles, and we had less health trouble than we do today. Purchase weights over 500 pounds were considered heavy, and loads of calves weighing less than 250 pounds were not unusual. Furthermore, many vaccine and preconditioning programs prior to feedlot arrival didn’t become popular until the 1990s.

This article is an attempt to identify the current problems and improvements that can be made. Nutrition and pre- and postpartum cow and calf feeding programs are implicated.

When I started our first confinement cow operations many people commented calf health in confinement would be a major problem. I didn’t disagree, but the results are just the opposite. In reality, calf health has been a strong point of these programs. I suspect this is because our cows received a prescribed amount of a balanced diet, program-fed at levels determined by the stage of gestation and lactation.

In many areas we also have a manpower shortage at all levels. Good pen riders have left for the oil fields, good large-animal vets have gone to a companion-animal practice, and scientists and many drug companies would rather concentrate on companion-animal products than development of new products for large animals. Fortunately, we have a pool of employees who will stay with the cattle business because that’s where their heart is. However, others will “follow the money.”

Obviously, there are additional factors to be considered in our current health crisis. I’ve asked Dave McClellan and Jim Simpson, who are active in feedlot consulting in the Northern and Southern Plains, to provide their first-hand assessment of current health challenges in their areas.

Dave McClellan, Nebraska

The progression of feeding more calves and put-together cattle without health histories (or regression, as the case may be) has obviously increased our death loss, pull rates and animal health costs. We’ve moved from highly predictable results to uncertainty as we try to evaluate whether or not any buy is a good risk.

All of that is to say much of the industry now finds itself filling pens with whatever cattle we think might work.

A good place to start might be a classification system for newly received cattle:

  • Low risk — Known source, preconditioned, weaned, Vac 45 or better, complete health history and 700 pounds and above
  • Moderate risk — Preconditioned, weaned, or 700 pounds and above
  • High risk — Unweaned and/or 700 pounds or less
  • Ultra-high risk — Put-together, unweaned, no history, and/or 700 pounds or less
  • Oh s***! — Put-together, unweaned, no history, mixed sex, stale, ugly, sick off truck

We will all struggle to do much for the Oh s***! cattle, but here are some things we are doing or considering, to meet the health challenge facing all these cattle.

Receiving considerations

1.      Receive into a clean, dry pen that is wider than it is deep. (This may cause us to remodel.)

2.      Adequate bunk space — 2 feet per head.

3.      Freshly cleaned, unshared water tank with running water that the cattle can hear, smell and see.

4.      Offer 2 to 3 pounds of good-quality grass hay per head at penning. (Good potassium source.)

5.      Rest 12 hours for each 500 miles of haul prior to processing. We also try to account for the standing time prior to trucking. Therefore at 50 mph, 10 hours standing is equal to another 500 miles. Shrink of 6 percent or greater generally indicates fluid loss at the cellular level and will change cattle classification!

6.      Refeed the hay when it is cleaned up, adding 1 pound of receiving ration per hundredweight of bodyweight.

7.      Observe often, pull if needed, refeed to appetite but do not exceed 2 percent of bodyweight in dry matter prior to day seven. Decrease the hay as intake increases.

Processing considerations

1.      Preconditioned animals receive no 7-way vaccine; others, no 7-way prior to days 21-28.

2.      Do not implant prior to vaccine boostering. (Implanting is a stressor, and if we’re going to have death loss, the implant would add an additional cost.)

3.      Give 5-way viral, deworm and tag at initial processing. We often also give a nasal vaccine.

4.      With high-risk or higher, assessment-temp each animal and use a quick-acting metaphylactic antibiotic on those over a veterinarian-set threshold.

5.      At booster time give a 7-way if needed, implant, pour if needed, booster 5-way viral.

6.      In most cases we do not use metaphylaxis. Instead we feed Stress EZE, which is a bundled product designed to enhance immune response at less cost.

Facility considerations

1.      Provide a dedicated water tank to each receiving pen. If fence-line waterers are the norm, consider turning the tank 90 degrees, adding a tee and another waterer, then sheet the space between the tanks.

2.      Sheet or tarp the fence between adjoining pens to discourage nose-to-nose contact.

3.      Use panels or hot wires to modify the shape of existing pens to keep cattle closer to feed and water and easier to observe. Wide and short is better than narrow and long. Unless it’s wet, 100 square feet per head works well.

4.      Process new cattle through a thoroughly cleaned facility. Power-wash and disinfect if possible, and do not process after treating sicks without cleaning up first.

5.      Interact with new cattle physically two to three times a day by going in the pen and spending quality time with them.

Products to consider

1.      Chromium: An insulin precursor

2.      Chostat: A feed-grade anti-clostridia

3.      Multimin: An injectible selenium, zinc and copper source

4.      Nasal vaccines: For a jump-start

5.      Yeast cultures

6.      A commercial starter feed

7.      Brown sugar: For low intakes, grab a fistful and crumble on top of feed. Cattle will see you and smell the sugar.

8.      Stress EZE: A bundled yeast, yucca, chromium, chelated trace minerals, and targeted microbial

9.      Chelated trace minerals: Improve bioavailability and uptake

10.  Feed-grade medications: Aureomycin, AS700, Deccox, Amprovine (Exercise caution with Aureo (CTC) to get used to the upcoming VFDs.)

11.  Direct-fed microbials

Other worthwhile things

Higher-roughage receiving diets reduce bovine respiratory disease incidence, but not enough to offset the economic value of the lost average daily gain and feed-to-gain from a higher-concentrate diet. Roughage at 30 to 50 percent works well.

Any historic information that can be captured about the cattle, such as vaccinations, hauling and standing time, products used, prenatal nutrition and temperament are all valuable.

Know your order buyer and develop a relationship that leads to a mutual understanding of what you want.

Do not hesitate to pull! Better too deep than not deep enough, and you cannot be too early. If in doubt, pull.

It has become increasingly apparent that feedlots would benefit greatly if cow nutrition were better. A healthier cow will wean a healthier calf, and vaccines are not the total answer. Much cow/suckling calf nutrition is done by feed company reps, and having been one at one point in my career, I realize that convincing a cow man he needs anything other than “the best d*** grass on this planet” is not easy to do, but that’s the low-hanging fruit if we are going to make much headway.

See Jim Simpson’s perspective on Southern Plains health issues, plus an overall summary in our November 2015 issue.