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Minimize Losses on Shipped Calves

20:17PM Sep 02, 2008

Stress places demands on calves that can result in performance losses. To minimize losses, reduce as much stress—on the immune system and in the environment—as possible on the calves. Anyone who's ever run stockers or backgrounded calves knows the potential for a major wreck lurks in every truckload. So while the answer seems simple enough, a reminder of the basics will help you roll out the welcome mat for your next shipment of cattle.

Before shipping. You can do a great deal to minimize losses in calves by making good choices when buying the cattle. First, identify the types of cattle you want and establish a set of goals for your stocker or backgrounding program.

"Every cattle buyer needs to identify his competitive advantage," says Jon Angell, tri-owner of Eastern Missouri Commission Company. For example, a large feedyard buyer may have the economy of scale or access to cheaper feed, and that's his advantage, so he can afford to pay more up front for the cattle and purchase preconditioned animals to reduce some of the health risk. "His competitive advantage may be in time, attention and labor," Angell says.

Someone with fewer cattle, however, may be buying high-priced feed and be willing to take a chance on the calves. That person is looking to improve his or her margin by buying the cheaper cattle that have been mismanaged and adding value, Angell adds.

Regardless of the type of cattle you decide to buy, go through a reputable sale barn or order buyer to ensure you get what you pay for. Terrill Lane, who backgrounds and feeds 3,500 head in four different feedyards in Missouri, says to use a reputable order buyer that provides invoices from the sale barn.

In addition, Lane prefers to buy calves that have been weaned for 45 days and have at least one round of shots. "Anything less than that can cause a problem once they reach us," he says. Those cattle have already gone through the stress of weaning and recovered before having to undergo the stress of a truck ride to their new destination.

Before those cattle are delivered, you also need to prepare for their arrival to help reduce stress. Make sure adequate and clean water is readily available to the calves. Have high-quality palatable feed and hay on hand to help the cattle make the adjustment. Also, work with your veterinarian beforehand to determine the best vaccination program and treatment protocol for these calves.

On arrival. You want to build immunity as soon as possible upon arrival, advises Brad White, veterinarian at Kansas State University. That's why you need to administer vaccines to help the cattle build immunity against numerous diseases.

While it's important to give vaccines on arrival, you may need to make adjustments for animals that just came off a long haul. In those cases, let them rest overnight, then work them first thing in the morning before it gets too hot, White says. For those cattle traveling a short distance, avoid the heat of the day for processing.

White also recommends using modified live vaccines in stockers because, he says, the animals generate faster immune response. Vaccines to give include those for IBR, BVD, PI3, BRSV and clostridial disease. Also tag cattle, castrate and dehorn, even though it may cause additional stress. You want to get the processing out of the way when you give the vaccine and get the calves in front of feed and water.

Bovine Respiratory Disease is the most frequent disease affecting calves. Depending on the risk level of the cattle bought, you might need to consider metaphylaxis, or mass medicating the cattle on arrival. See the sidebar "Metaphylaxis: A Valuable Tool for High Risk Cattle."

In the protocol that Lane has developed, in addition to vaccinations he makes sure to provide chlortetracycline, an oral antimicrobial, in the feed for five to nine days. "We want to get them to keep eating and gaining weight, and keep them from getting sick," he says.

In addition to animal health protocols, keep nutrition in mind when cattle first arrive, Lane advises. "Quality feed and hay also help boost the animals' immune systems," he says.

Speaking of quality feed: "Weaning and shipping stress do not seem to increase the total requirement for most nutrients," explain University of Arkansas beef specialists Keith Lusby and Tom Troxel. "However, because feed intake is usually reduced for the first week or two after arrival, the concentration of key nutrients must be increased to ensure that total requirements are being met."

The weight of the cattle also determines feedstuffs needed. For young, lightweight calves (less than 400 lb.), provide a complete mixed ration, which includes concentrate feeds and roughage.

"Trying to receive and grow very light calves on supplement and free-choice hay programs, you run the risk of offering so much concentrate that the calves may not eat the hay," Lusby says. That results in accidsosis, or bloat.

Larger calves weighing 400 lb. to 550 lb. recognize and consume hay. Since a high rate of gain is not critical during the receiving period, provide high-quality hay and a supplement feed that contains about 25% protein and fed at a rate of 2 lb. to 4 lb. Lusby's specifications for a 25% protein supplement include the following:

  • a minimum of 25% crude protein (all natural)
  • a minimum of 0.7% phosphorus
  • a maximum of 1% calcium
  • up to 20,000 IU supplemental vitamin A per day when needed (probably not needed in summer)
  • ionophore, coccidiostat or antibiotic based on label recommendations

You might want to consider adding vitamin E to the ration. According to Lusby, research shows that vitamin E in receiving diets can improve gain and sometimes reduce sickness in stressed cattle. Generally include 300 to 400 IU per head per day of vitamin E.

Lusby says a feed company nutritionist or Extension specialist can assist in designing economical rations using ingredients available in your area, as well as provide help with mineral supplements.

Going forward. The seven- to 14-day period after arrival is critical since that's the most likely time for respiratory disease to appear.

From arrival until immunity builds, watch for disease symptoms. It's best to observe cattle at feeding time, says White, staying at a distance with flighty cattle.

Disease symptoms include depression (an animal hanging toward the back of the pen; one that doesn't eat) and mucous from the nose. If you detect any of these signs, pull the animal for further evaluation and possible treatment.

Once pulled, take the animal's rectal temperature. If it's 105° F or higher, there are probably more sick cattle in the pen or pasture.

"In the feedyard, most managers and vet like to see 5% to 10% of the pulls not having a rectal temperature of 104° F or higher," White says.

Separate sick cattle from the rest. Doctor them with good nutrition, quality hay, clean water and a noncompetitive environment. Re-evaluate the sick animals often. BT

Metaphylaxis: A Valuable Took In High Risk Cattle

Metaphylaxis is the mass medicating of a group of cattle to eliminate or minimize an expected outbreak of disease, in this case Bovine Respiratory Disease. Research shows that using metaphylactic antimicrobials reduces BRD-related death losses and sickness rates compared to cattle that receive no treatment, says Brad White, veterinarian at Kansas State University.

This practice should be used in addition to a complete health program including vaccinations, not in place of vaccinations, White says, with the goal to reduce the incidence of acute-onset BRD in highly stressed and newly arrived calves. There are a number of options in delivery systems for antimicrobials: injections or in feed. Talk to your vet about the best option given your management style and the risk level of cattle you purchase.

High risk calves include:

  • Lightweight calves
  • Bawling calves
  • Calves of unknown origin 
  • Calves that have been hauled 10 hours or more
  • Calves that are dehorned and castrated
  • Calves that came from or are going into severe weather

Low risk calves are those:

  • Vaccinated, dehorned and castrated
  • Weaned 45 days prior to shipping
  • Cattle of known origin, local cattle
  • With third party verification/preconditioning certification