Cattle Today

Cattle Today

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Dr. Steve Blezinger

At one time, years ago, getting cattle into the marketing “pipeline” was a simple task. The farmer or rancher calved his herd, raised his calves to weaning and carried them to the auction barn. As time has gone by we've done tons of research into how to make this process more profitable and able to compete more with other protein sources (i.e. chicken, pork, fish). Time and time again we've heard the same mantra: “we have to have animals that will perform in the feedyard and on the rail and we've got to reduce production costs.” Genetics continues to play the largest role in development of cattle that will perform on pasture, in the feedyard and at the packing plant. Sound nutrition and management plays a significant role in reducing cost and maximizing efficiency. An area of particular interest over recent years has been that of preconditioning and/or backgrounding cattle between weaning and entry into the feedyard. Backgrounding describes a management system where recently weaned calves or yearling cattle are grazed or fed a high fiber ration for a period of time before they are placed in the feed yard. After they reach a desired size, or at the end of the "grazing" season, they are sorted into uniform loads or pen-size lots and placed in a feedlot. Preconditioning is a process requiring a shorter period of time (usually 30 to 60 days) where freshly weaned calves are brought into a preconditioning facility, adapted to a feedbunk, waterers, and the lot environment. They are given a ration usually high in fiber products (hay, cottonseed hulls) and balanced to meet their nutrient needs (protein, energy, minerals, vitamins) in preparation for being transported to the feedlot.

We are finding more and more feedyards that are looking for cattle that have been preconditioned. One reason for this is the information reported by programs such as Texas' Ranch to Rail Program or other similar programs in other states. These extensive studies which examine the productivity of cattle from the time they leave the ranch all the way through the packing house have identified many factors which play a role in the productivity and profitability of the animal. Having the animal “preconditioned or backgrounded' was one of the more effective management practices used. It significantly reduced deathloss as well as medicine costs from various treatments. At the same time these cattle started on feed more quickly resulting in superior gains and improved overall yard performance. In general, these animals exhibited less stress effects.

Why does this not always appear to work?

We are finding that a trend is developing in which feedyards are searching for cattle that have been managed in this way. Over the past years, various “special sales” and marketing programs have been developed in which preconditioned cattle were show-cased. The premise was that cattle managed in this way were worth more and would therefore bring a premium. This may or may not be the case. In many cases, preconditioned cattle in these sales brought no more or only slightly more than their non-preconditioned counterparts. This has been a source of puzzlement to many cattlemen. Upon examination, however, it was determined that in many cases these cattle did not perform significantly better than cattle that were not managed in this way. A large reason for this was the variability of HOW they were preconditioned. As you look at this, in many cases, the cattle coming into a preconditioning sale are managed in many different ways. Probably in as many different ways as there were producers bringing the cattle into the sale. Many cattlemen will argue, “but I gave them the injections and vaccines I was told to!” With this argument I would agree. For a given sale or if the cattle are being marketed through a marketing program or group, a fairly strict regiment of vaccinations is outlined, normally overseen by a veterinarian. Along with these instructions they also received directions concerning implanting, deworming and management in general. Having read a number of the protocols for these programs, the next instructions are where, as a nutritionist, I have a problem. Typically, cattlemen who are involved in these programs are then told they are to have the cattle on feed for a specific amount of time but are typically given no guidance regarding what type of feed should be used, what type of nutrient intake is required and so on. What you end up with, then, is cattle coming into the sale or marketing program that have been vaccinated the same, have been castrated, dewormed, dehorned, etc. more or less the same but have been fed anything and everything under the sun meaning that their nutritional status has little or no consistency. Experience has shown that cattle may very well be brought in having been feed everything from the best preconditioning feed there is to old must prairie hay and chicken litter. Blood work on a cross section of these cattle will show wide variations in minerals and other metabolites. This variability results in variability of blood chemistry which effects immune response meaning there is no way to predict how the cattle will respond as a group to the various viral and bacterial challenges they may encounter in the process of marketing, shipping and receiving. Yes, they were given the appropriate injections but these vaccines exhibit limited usefulness when used in animals without a fully functional immune system created by nutritional depression. So what's the answer? Not only must cattle be given the appropriate vaccinations and managed appropriately, they must also be fed consistently and appropriately as well.

What's the future?

Without a doubt, preconditioning and backgrounding are practices that are here to stay. In fact, for any cattle operation, it will become an economic necessity. The reason for this is several fold:

1) The demand for preconditioned cattle will continue to increase. Feedyards want cattle that will perform as soon as they get to the yard. They want less deathloss and fewer sick pulls. They also want cattle that will start on feed faster and are not as stressed out upon arrival.

2) These cattle may not receive a premium. Instead, cattle that are not preconditioned may be discounted to the point that at least some preconditioning or backgrounding may be required to remain profitable. It has been said that the cattle marketing chain is simply one long series of discounts. This may simply become one more if not accounted for.

3) As the cattle industry is required to become more efficient in order to compete we have to take all the necessary steps to reduce costs and/or improve performance. It has been proven that these programs can effectively meet this need.

OK, so what's the plan?

Sounds rather simple, but in reality, the successful management of a preconditioning/backgrounding (PREBACK) operation can be rather challenging. Over the past few years I've had the opportunity to work on the development of a number of new or startup, PREBACK operations, some very simple, some more complex. All have been based on sound management, health and nutritional principles. It must be understood that these three cannot exist independently. Backgrounding is a part of the cattle industry that most cow/calf operators and many veterinarians are not comfortable with, especially when dealing with the problems of health management in backgrounding cattle.

Let's start with health management. I'll begin by saying that I am not a veterinarian and leave the truly technical issues to those who are appropriately trained. Experience, though, has taught us a number of things. First we have to ask: Why is the health management of backgrounding cattle such a problem? In general, most calves entering the PREBACK programs have been recently weaned, commingled with calves from many sources, exposed to many diseases for the first time, and "off feed" for many days. Also, many of the calves have never received a vaccination for anything. If they still have horns, and the bull calves are still bulls, you can normally assume they haven't been vaccinated. At the stocker operation, the calves must establish a new social order, adapt to different feed stuffs, adjust to new surroundings, and in some cases acclimate to new weather conditions.

All of these variables will reduce the calves' resistance levels while the disease challenge levels are rising; this results in calves rapidly becoming sick during shipment or shortly after arrival. Most of the sickness occurring in newly arrived cattle is due to "bovine respiratory disease complex." Bovine respiratory disease complex, or "BRD," refers to infections of the lungs caused by bacteria that normally inhabit the nose and throat of the sick animal. Healthy lungs will have adequate resistance against the bacteria; however, damaged lungs have a lowered resistance level. This lowered resistance level allows the bacteria to colonize in the lungs, reproduce rapidly, spread throughout the lungs, and cause severe problems. The resistance of the lung can be lowered by certain viral diseases and stresses. Thus, the age-old equation: Bacteria + Viral Disease + Stresses = BRD. When a rapidly rising bacterial disease challenge is superimposed on a lowered resistance level, sickness occurs rapidly, usually with severe intensity.

There are at least twelve viruses that attack the respiratory tract of cattle. Unfortunately, we only have vaccines for four of them:

1) infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR)

2) parainfluenza-3 (PI3)

3) bovine virus diarrhea (BVD)

4) bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV)

Each of these viruses lowers the resistance of the lungs.

The stresses that are thought to contribute to the BRD complex by reducing the animal's resistance level include:

1) exhaustion

2) nutrient and water deprivation (starvation, and dehydration - often associated with shipping)

3) weaning

4) ration changes

5) castration

6) dehorning

7) overcrowding

8) chilling

9) overheating

10) confinement in poorly ventilated areas

11) social adjustments associated with commingling cattle from different sources.

The bacteria primarily involved with BRD are Haemophilus somnus, Pasteurella hemolytica, and Pasteurella multocida. With less frequency, other bacteria and organisms have been isolated from the lungs of animals with BRD; their significance, as related to BRD, is unclear in many cases. Because of the wide spread prevalence of the respiratory viruses and bacteria, the potential for an outbreak of BRD exists in virtually any population of cattle subjected to stress. The probability that BRD will result is increased by mismanagement, which increases and compounds stresses, which result in a reduction of natural resistance. Furthermore, because respiratory viruses and bacteria are transmitted by direct contact; by breathing aerosols; and by ingestion of feed or water contaminated by nasal discharges and drool from infected animals; commingling susceptible cattle from different sources will also set the stage for BRD problems.

Signs of the disease do not usually occur until six to ten days after cattle are stressed or new cattle are mixed with a herd. The first signs are slight depression and going off feed. Affected animals often stand apart from the group, with lowered head, drooping ears, and half closed eyes.

In the early stages, the respiratory rate may increase if the animal has a high fever or it is a hot day; however, labored breathing is usually not seen at this time. The muzzle may be dry and scabby, nasal discharge may or may not be observed, and coughing (if present) is usually soft. The rectal temperature may range from 102°F to 108°F. Treatment is essential at this time! If treatment is delayed, or the wrong treatment is given, the disease progresses and the lungs become more involved and consolidated. The animal becomes markedly depressed, won't eat, has labored breathing, stands with neck and head extended, and breathes with an open mouth. Treatment at this time may only "save a life:" a major portion of the lung damage is permanent, and the animal will generally be a "poor doer," a "chronic," a "realizer." Animals of this sort are usually sold to some unsuspecting sole or just turned out to pasture to be added to a group at a later date.

Even though many cow/calf producers do not think that their cow herds are challenged by the viruses and bacteria that are involved with BRD, it is imperative that the cow/calf operators (the sellers of cattle) adequately prepare their cattle for the trip ahead. Remember, stress lowers the animal's resistance. Reducing stresses will not raise the resistance; reducing stresses will keep the resistance from dropping.

In the next issue we will continue our discussion of reconditioning and backgrounding starting with steps that can be taken to minimize stress. Then we get into a discussion of other management practices and some specific nutritional program design than can be effective.

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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