Cattle Today

Cattle Today

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Dr. Steve Blezinger

In the last issue we discussed many of the basics concerning preconditioning and backgrounding of newly weaned cattle or cattle preparing to go from the ranch to grass or to the feedlot. We have found, as discussed last time, that the greatest antagonist to this process is the stress that these animals are subjected to. We identified a number of the sources and how they contribute to the increased incidence of sickness.

One thing that we need to remember is that when we discuss the different types of stress that several variables exist in level and type. For instance, not all cattle are as susceptible to stress. Just like humans, certain individual animals can withstand the rigors of this process much better than others. Next, stress levels different depending on where the cattle are coming from. Cattle coming straight off the ranch will have endured much lower levels of stress by the time they reach pasture or the preconditioning operation than cattle which are purchased at the auction barn. The auction process can be very rigorous on cattle. I've had the opportunity to work with groups of cattle that have gone through several sale situations over a period of days and by the time they reached the PREBACK operation they were pretty “wrung-out.” This tells us that when preconditioning cattle it is very important to know where these cattle are coming from. This helps us determine what we need to expect and what is needed to compensate.

Reducing stress is the key

All that said, how do we reduce stress? A number of common-sense practices can easily be implemented. Some of these should take place on the ranch and others at their final destination. However, it's been shown that the more we can do before the cattle ever get onto a truck the better they will handle the transportation process. Castrate, dehorn, brand, and process cattle months before they are to be shipped. Adjust or familiarize cattle to commercial feeds before shipment. Reducing the parasite load in or on animals will also reduce stresses and internal and external parasite control is a must for cattle even while on the ranch. The commingling of cattle is built into the marketing system and will not change. This is where healthy cattle are exposed to the various diseases carried by other cattle. Once again, however, properly prepared cattle handle the commingling more successfully and will not succumb as readily to the disease challenge. Anyone who has handled fresh cattle, especially those which have been stressed significantly has had to deal with problem situations. The commercial backgrounders have learned to live with this scenario: they hope for the best, but expect the worst. If they have been in the business for any length of time, they have experienced a "wreck" in a load of calves such as 40 to 50 percent of a load of calves getting sick and four to five percent deathloss. Both are not very pretty and are extremely expensive. Most successful backgrounders have a "plan" for handling newly-arrived, purchased cattle. They have a plan to keep calves alive, for getting the resistance level above the disease challenge level, and for preventing or getting out of a wreck. All such plans revolve around adequate preparation. One of the major errors in stocker operations, especially new operations, is lack of preparation. Important items to be considered in preparation are listed.

•Facilities and equipment

•Training of personnel


•A receiving program

•Management of sick animals.

Let's quickly review a few of the items that many new comers to the backgrounding business learn the hard way.

1. Upon arrival, calves should be inspected as they are unloaded. In many cases, the truck driver is required to carry back a check for the load of cattle; to pay for an unacceptable load would be a disaster. If they are unacceptable, they should be reloaded or the seller notified immediately for a price renegotiation.

2. Calves should be batch weighed upon arrival to determine shrinkage. Shrinkage of 7 to 8 percent or more is generally indicative of problem cattle. They have been in the marketing system too long and will probably require more intensive management during the receiving period.

3. Once accepted, the calves should be placed in small drylots with free access to good quality grass hay and fresh water, and allowed to rest overnight.

4. Processing begins at daylight the next day. Processing includes vaccinations, vitamin injections, parasite control, neutering, horn tip removal, branding, and implanting.

5. Sick calves will need to be identified at processing, treated, and assigned to a "sick" pen.

6. Sick calves need to be examined and treated daily.

7. The "non-ill" calves should be maintained in small lots until they have straightened out. Separating calves into 25-head groups and dryloting them for up to three weeks is often necessary to allow recovery from stress-related diseases occurring during the receiving period. Calves kept in drylots have lower sickness and death rates, improved gains, and lower labor costs than calves kept in pastures. Pastures allow calves too much room to walk fences, causing more physical stress, and allowing them to stray too far from feed bunks and water sources. Water tanks with water running from a hydrant will often encourage calves to drink. I realize that some of this sounds a little elementary but never underestimate the lack of intelligence on the part of newly weaned calf. Also, calves are not very competitive at the feed bunk, so a minimum of 1.5 feet of bunk space per animal should be provided.

8. Newly arrived, stressed calves have special nutritional problems. Inadequate or stress-induced nutritional practices compound health problems. On the average, the feed intake of newly arrived cattle is low. It is essential that the ration be palatable and that the nutrient densities in the ration be of sufficient level to compensate for low intake. Pounds of nutrients consumed during the receiving period are of greater importance than percentages of nutrients in rations. Concentrate levels above 55 percent during the receiving period usually cause more cattle to become sick, resulting in higher medication costs; however, average daily gain and feed efficiency will be improved. We'll discuss these nutritional issues more below.

9. Coccidiostats in the receiving program provide effective control of both clinical and subclinical coccidiosis. The use of Rumensin® or Bovatec® after the calves leave the receiving period is recommended to not only enhance feed digestion but also to continue the control of coccidiosis. Other products such as Deccox® also help reduce or control coccidiosis but do not provide the enhancement of feed efficiency or gains.

10. After the calves are straightened out, they should be moved to grass or small grain pastures to complete the stocker phase. Adequate feed and mineral supplements, as well as frequent observation, is required throughout the grazing period.

Once the animals have reached the desired weight or the grazing season is over, they are shipped to feedyards for finishing. These heavier stocker cattle do quite well in the feedlots because they have been castrated, dehorned, vaccinated, de-wormed, and treated for external parasites previously. This does not prevent the receiving crew at the feedyard from revaccinating, administering parasite controls, and re-implanting. Revaccination will immediately raise the resistance level in previously vaccinated cattle; that is the intent of the feedyard.

Nutritional and Feeding Considerations

In addition to the management processes, strong evidence has been shown that the nutritional plane on which the calf is kept all the way back to the point of birth can have an effect on the animal's lifetime performance. Of particular importance is a mineral supplementation program for the cow herd. This improves the overall mineral status of the cow and subsequently the calf and is probably one of the most widely overlooked areas of beef cattle nutrition at the producer level.

An important consideration to remember is that in designing a nutritional or feeding program to best manage calves the marketing channel in into PREBACK programs one needs to maximize usage of available resources whenever possible. In other words, make use of locally grown forages and feeds wherever available and utilize those ingredients that make economic sense. However, in doing this, a basic set of guidelines needs to be followed.

1) During weaning and during the period of backgrounding to follow, when cattle are subjected to stress, balance the diet based on nutrient requirements which will offset the stress effects. Table 1 provides a set of nutrient recommendations (dry matter basis) which may be used in accomplishing this. Intake of all nutrients is essential but energy and protein consumption is vital. Non-protein nitrogen (NPN) may be fed in small amounts (not exceeding .5%). High levels of fat should also be avoided but moderate levels should be fine. In calves preconditioned or backgrounded on the farm, reduction of rumen function is normally limited so feeding of NPN and fat should not be a problem although as always, it must be handled judiciously.

2) Whatever feed ingredients or feeds in general are used, they must be palatable. Remember, the biggest concern with cattle of this nature is to get them eating as quickly as possible. Form of feed is a consideration. A high quality textured feed or a pelleted feed is probably best. Limit use of by-products which tend to be variable in terms of palatability and nutrient density.

3) Cattle may be full fed or fed a supplement to a forage program that meets the nutrient needs. Consideration must be given to a host of factors including the capabilities of the manager, facilities, current markets, feed and ingredient prices, forage availability and so on. A complete evaluation must be given to the situation to determine what is the most cost effective and produces the optimum return at the time and through a given period.

4) Research has shown that calves going through this period perform better in later stages in the feedlot if they gain at least 1.3 lbs. or better. Lower gains during this period result in good gains in the feedyard due to compensatory effects but unfortunately also produce lower feed conversions. Manage cattle to gain well but not to start finishing too early.

Preconditioning and backgrounding programs are one of the keys to successful management of cattle through the marketing pipeline and are here to stay. The main factor to building a program that works is study and planning. Taking the time to design the program properly in advance will save countless dollars and many hours of crisis management.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He can be contacted at P. O. Box 563 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at


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