Cattle Today

Cattle Today



by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Part 3

Over the previous two issues we have been discussing how to handle or offset potential problems on your farming or ranching operation. Things going wrong is part of standard operating procedure for everyone – its part of life. Taking steps to minimize problems or knowing how to solve these problems when they arise takes some of the pain out of the situation. And hopefully reduces some of the cost.

In this final excerpt we will continue this discussion and attempt to provide some final pointers on handling or preferably preventing problems on the farm.

The Best Laid Plans . . . .

Everyone, no matter how well planned, no matter how well financed has things go wrong on the farm. In many cases this may be even more true for those who are progressive and innovative. Those producers who are willing to try new things run the risk of having new ideas, programs, equipment, etc. backfire on them. While these people are the ones who typically sit on the cutting edge of new methodologies or concepts they are also the ones who work the bugs out of these new ideas at their own time and expense. Any time something new is adopted a greater risk is there for malfunction due to lack of experience or applicability of the application. In some cases it can be a matter of trying to make an idea or concept work where it hasn't before or where it has never been tried. In many cases we tend to look at the folks that take this new road a bit skeptically (“that's the craziest thing I've ever seen”), but EVERY idea or concept we use on the farm or ranch was new at one point in time. The process has to start somewhere.

On another hand, many producers exist who have a plan for everything, who keep it perfectly laid out and pay extraordinary attention to detail. These are the men and women who have done their homework to a fault and who know every inch of their operation and every hair on every cow they own. But even at that, things still go wrong or problems crop up when least expected. Two primary reasons create this situation. One, no one can anticipate everything, especially the unknown and we always have unknowns in agriculture. Two of the main ones are the markets and the weather. We can control our market to some degree but this takes an aggressive marketing program (both on the buying and selling side) but still we can have only a limited effect on things like fuel prices, grain prices and cattle markets. No one can affect or anticipate weather and climate. This is where planning comes in and making sure you are not caught short in the event of adverse conditions (i.e. inadequate forage supplies in the event of a extremely cold winter or drought conditions). Hoping for the best but planning for the worst is the only attitude a producer can take. The second primary reason for things going wrong even when we have dotted all our i's and crossed all our t's is biological variability. No matter where you are in agriculture you are working with a biological system. As such it is affected by countless factors (weather, disease, management, genetics, nutrition, etc., etc.). It is also not completely known or understood. While plant and animal science have revealed massive amounts of information concerning the plants and animals we produce every day, and in some cases have manipulated these production units, we do not have, by any means, a complete understanding of these organisms. And we never will.

Building Your Trouble-Shooting Team

On average, the issues most producers encounter on a day-to-day basis are handled by the people there on the operation (owner, manager, herdsman, etc., etc.). In some cases this may just be one person and as such problems issues can become very challenging very rapidly. Also, it helps to have more than one head working on some situations. Thus the reason for a trouble shooting team.

In the past, we have discussed the need and utilization of a management team – people that the producer can bring into the fold to help plan, make decisions or guide the overall direction of the operation in the optimal direction. In many cases these same individuals are highly valuable in problem situations:

1) Veterinarian. Will Rogers once said “The best doctor in the world is the veterinarian. He can't ask his patients what is the matter. He's just got to know.” Every producer should have a good working relationship with a veterinarian. Your local vet can help you design and administer your herd health program. He can help teach you specific things to be watching for in your area. Given the diagnostic skills vets use every day, they are also excellent members of your trouble-shooting team. In many cases health problems are obvious and easily diagnosed. In some cases less so. Your vet can help with diagnostic procedures that in some cases may require a post-mortem of animals which have died. He can obtain tissue samples that he may be able to analyze or if not, can certainly send off to a state diagnostic lab for more detailed analysis. Collecting as much analytical data as possible can be very important to identifying and understanding certain conditions.

2) Nutritionist. As with your veterinarian, the assistance of a qualified nutritionist can be invaluable in designing a good management program. Nutritionists can be found within various feed companies, as independents or within extension or academic institutions. Your nutritionist can help you design the correct feeding, supplementation and mineral program for your specific set of circumstances. Since he/she is in tune with nutritional issues and has an extended understanding of the digestive tract and, assuming he/she is a ruminant nutritionist, should have a good understanding of the rumen of the cow/calf. Since nutrition and animal health are so closely related, many nutritional problems can mask themselves as health issues. It is important, however, to make sure that your vet and nutritionist are on the same team – yours. An unfortunate scenario develops oftentimes with each of these professionals pointing a blaming finger at the other when they should, in fact, be working together to identify the problem or improving performance.

3) Extension Personnel. Most states have a cooperative extension service with local offices at the county level. In addition to the county extension agent who is local contact for this organization, the extension service maintains an extensive staff of specialists who's focus is on individual areas of production such as beef cattle, dairy cattle, forages, etc. Additionally, this organization works under the umbrella of a state's land grant university system along with their experiment station who's efforts include the conduction of research in a variety of areas related to agriculture. Because of the wide body of knowledge and information these groups access, they can be valuable in developing a program or in trouble-shooting. Additionally, your local county agent's office often carries as wide and varied amount of literature that can be helpful in better understanding a particular issue.

4) Other Producers. Close relationships with your neighbor or area producers can be exceptionally valuable because the likelihood is good that they may very well have encountered the exact problem you are facing. In some cases they can explain how they handled this particular issue and save you a great deal of trial and error or, at the very least, research time. In some cases their solution will be what you may want to use. In some cases it may show you what you DO NOT want to do.

The most important part of putting this team together is to use them collectively. No doubt that in many circumstances if you discuss the issue with four people, the possibility exists that you may get four different answers!

A Case Study

Recently I received a call from a dairyman that I have worked with extensively over the years. He felt that he was having more sickness and deathloss in his herd that he should have been and once he began examining his records he found that since March he had lost from the herd about 3-4 times more producing cows than normal. A certain amount of sickness and death loss occurs in every operation and for a dairy in the southern United States, this is common-place, especially during the summer months when heat and humidity are a significant factor. In this particular case he was losing cows not only due to death loss but to culling from high levels of mastitis, feet problems and overall poor health. Understand that a moderate producing dairy cow is worth $1,200 to $1,500 each and has an annual milking potential of 18,000 to 22,000 lbs. On today's markets this is worth around $3,600 to $4,400 (gross revenues). I visited the dairy on a couple of different occasions during the next few weeks, examining the cows, looking at his health and performance records, pulling forage and feed samples (hay, silage/haylage, growing pasture, feed and feed ingredients). His local vet had visited on one or two occasions and was unable to diagnose a single specific factor that might be causing the problems he was seeing although it seemed to point to a failure of the immune system.

Once we received the assays back on the forage and feed samples some issues began to become more apparent. In many of the forage samples the sulfur content was high, very high in some cases. This was especially true of his pastures and all the cattle were on pasture at some level. Additionally, one of his main ration components was a by-product known as corn germ meal (from the wet corn milling industry, from extraction of corn oil), which, like other by-products from the wet and dry grain milling industry tends to run high in sulfur. Once the sulfur levels in all these forage and feed components were quantified, it became obvious that one of the problems was this high sulfur level. High sulfur, as we have discussed previously can reduce the absorption of certain specific trace minerals that are critical to immunity and to reproduction. Two very specific trace minerals that sulfur will depress are copper and selenium. Both of which are involved in immune response. We re-evaluated his rations and feeding program and took steps to reduce the sulfur levels and to improve the levels of copper and selenium in the diet.

Additionally, we found that his haylage samples were running drier than is advisable. He felt that this was necessary to insure that the hay did not spoil too rapidly but in this case the opposite appeared to be true. The dryness of the haylage reduced normal fermentation, as such, the forage pH did not drop as normal. This allowed mold growth in the forage that should not have taken place. Many molds produce mycotoxins under certain circumstance. The worst of these is aflatoxin (mainly produced in stressed grains such as corn) but many other mycotoxins exist that can likewise have negative effects on animal performance. While we could not confirm the existence of a single causative agent, we suspected that this has a role in this problem at some level.

Finally, we determined that the normal environmental stress present at this time also contributed to the losses he experienced. Once everything was put together it became obvious that the issues he faced were not from a single cause but from a combination of factors that, by themselves, probably would not have been of concern. But, in combination, they were highly problematic and very expensive.


Every livestock operation will encounter problems. The key is preventing as many as possible but, when they do happen, and they will, get them solved as rapidly as possible using whatever means is necessary.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulfur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at [email protected] For more information visit


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