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

Every cattle operation is affected by sickness and or even death loss in some manner. At this time of the year, when many producers are weaning and “transitioning” large numbers of calves, this is especially true. As cattle are being weaned from the cow, shipped from one location to another, received to go onto pastures, preconditioning or backgrounding operations or if they go directly to a feedyard, animal morbidity (sickness) and mortality (death) is at a high point. Even with all that science and practice have taught us over the years, these conditions continue.

Obviously when you lose an animal there is a high cost involved. Given what cattle prices have been and potentially where they will remain based on supply, loss of productivity and especially the animal itself is a VERY expensive proposition. If an animal is initially sick and has to be treated for any period, medicine and vet expenses are high. Given the cost per dose of many of the modern, technologically advanced antibiotics, it is not uncommon to have medicine expense that may reach $50.00 to $100.00 (or more) on a morbid animal. Then, in some cases, the animal will still die or become a “chronic” and never gain economically and return the dollars that have been put into it. If the calf dies, these input costs are lost since no payback is possible from that animal. Obviously all these things are very detrimental to the bottom line. The producer must take an aggressive position in planning for and dealing with these situations.

The following will revisit identifying and managing sick cattle, skills every producer who deals with transition cattle must have and be able to teach to those who work for him. Many of these ideas and concepts have been developed in backgrounding and preconditioning operations as well as feedyards where the concentrations of these types of cattle are the greatest.

Some Basics

In a study by Griffin et al at the University of Nebraska, it was reported that pneumonia is still the biggest killer of newly weaned cattle. In many cases the onset of disease is facilitated by the stress these cattle encounter, which depresses or weakens the immune system. Concurrently there are many factors that influence the outcome of the disease. And while stress is pretty much an expected condition, one of the most important tools in minimizing the effect is identifying sick cattle and starting treatment early.

Another condition which often affects newly weaned or newly received cattle is BRD or Bovine Respiratory Disease. Bovine Respiratory Disease commonly refers to infections of the lungs caused by bacteria that normally inhabit the nose and throat of cattle. Healthy lungs will have adequate resistance against the bacteria. Animals with lungs damaged by viral infection or animals stressed by management or environmental factors, however, will have a lowered resistance level.

Some of the stresses that contribute to BRD include exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration (often associated with shipping), weaning, ration changes, castration, dehorning, overcrowding, chilling, overheating, confinement in poorly ventilated quarters, and social adjustments associated with commingling cattle from different sources. The bacteria strains primarily involved with BRD are Pasteurella haemolytica, Pasteurella multocida, and Haemophilus somnus.

Finding sick cattle early in the course of the disease can be one of the toughest jobs any producer has. However, necropsy reports and treatment records from thousands of cattle have shown that appropriate treatment started within the first 48 hours of the onset of pneumonia will improve a sick feedlot animal's chance of survival so efforts to locate sick cattle as soon as possible are vitally important.

One of the most important early symptoms associated with pneumonia as well as many other diseases is appetite depression. In order to effectively observe this symptom, cattle must have protection from the environment, plenty of pen and bunk space, and individuals monitoring the cattle must have plenty of time early in the morning to observe cattle. When cattle are not feeling well in many cases they simply won't feel like getting up and eating, even when the feed is fresh and very palatable. This is one step that must be taken with sick cattle or those which appear to be coming down with something is making sure the feed is fresh at all times and that it is as palatable as it can be. Be sure to use long-stemmed grass hay and that it is of very good quality. If possible, spread hay out in the bunks or troughs and spread the feed over the top of the hay so they must eat through the feed to get to the hay. Use little or no fermented (haylage, silage, wet distillers grains or corn gluten feed or brewer's grains) feeds which may have an odor cattle are unfamiliar with. They are also higher in moisture and less nutrient dense. If the cattle are freshly weaned or newly received AND have become sick, getting them to eat is an even greater challenge. Just remember – FRESH, PALATABLE, NUTRIENT DENSE. Nutrient intake must be adequate in order to support medicinal treatments given to offset disease.

Give Them Time, Take Your Time

From a management standpoint, rule No. 1 is to be sure that you have all the time necessary in the early morning to observe the cattle. Griffin, et al, recommend that you need to be finished feeding, identifying sick cattle, sorting sick cattle, treating sick cattle, and returning sick cattle to their pens before 11 every morning. This is especially true in the Southern United States where temperatures can begin to climb by 8:00 am or even before. It is very stressful to work sick cattle past late morning when the weather is reaching temperatures over 80 degrees.

Ideally it works well to handle only the number of newly weaned cattle two people can feed, sort, and treat easily and without rushing from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. each morning. Also, it's a good idea to stagger the receiving periods so that no more than 200 animals per person are being started at one time.

Allow Adequate Spacing in Pens and at the Bunk

Pens should provide cattle the opportunity to rest, eat, and be treated easily and in a low stress manner. Pens should provide approximately 150 square feet of dry space per animal. Bunks should provide at least 12 inches of linear space per weaned calf and it is best if the calf has 16 inches of space to eat in the sick pens. Remember that if a calf is not truly inclined to eat to begin with, they will not fight or push their way through other cattle to get to the bunk. This results in a downward spiral for the animal which, in many cases, is very difficult to recover from. Finally, and this can't be over emphasized: provide plenty of clean, fresh, cool water at all times. Waterers should be provided with a minimum of four inches of linear space per animal.

Designing and Managing the Environment

Sometimes we discount the effect that the environment has on cattle. This is a mistake. Temperature fluctuations greater than 30 degrees per day are very stressful to cattle. If the hair coat becomes wet and that insulation factor is lost, the effect is increased. If at all possible, provide protection to newly weaned cattle from both dampness and severe temperature fluctuations. Windbreaks provide relief from cold winter winds but can prevent air movement when the weather is warm. Design windbreaks to meet both conditions. If overhead shelter is provided it should be designed to allow air movement, protection from radiant heat, and allow for drying under the shelter by permitting sunlight to contact the entire covered surface during the day. Overhead shelters should be at least 10 feet high and provide about 200 square feet of covered area per animal. Finally shelters of this nature should be rectangular in shape and oriented north to south to allow sunlight to shine on all areas under the shelter.

Eating Patterns

Another rule for treatment is to pull any newly weaned or received calf that is slow to come to the bunk to eat. Sick cattle are generally slow to come to feed if they come at all. A rule of thumb states that an animal that is eating seldom is sick. This can be a challenge if, as noted above, the cattle have not been adapted to eating at a bunk or eating a feed of any type before. The best time to look for sick cattle is when you put out feed. If you don't have too many cattle to look after, make a note of the ones that were slow and come back and pull them for treatment later.

You need to know the first day cattle are slow coming up to eat. Research by Hutchinson and Cole, Texas A&M Experiment Station and USDA documented that the feed consumption in cattle exposed to viral respiratory disease starts to drop 48 hours before a rise in body temperature can be detected. In fact, the consumption will drop by 50 percent 24 hours before the animal's temperature starts to rise. By carefully observing feed consumption the producer can get ahead of most cases of typical respiratory infections in weaned calves. So noting depressed feed intake is a first sign that a calf may be getting sick.

As noted, the best time to spot and sort sick cattle away from healthy cattle is after they have just been fed. As soon as the feed is in the bunk someone should be watching for the cattle that are slow to come to feed. Have someone stand quietly in the pen with them, and identify the animals that will be treated later in the morning. If from the first day cattle are received you start this procedure and let cattle get used to having someone in their pen with them, soon the cattle will let the producers or other individuals walk among them without getting excited.

In addition to coming to the bunk more slowly other symptoms that may be noted in sick cattle may include:

1) Sick cattle will be a little depressed and will hold their heads a bit lower than normal.

2) A “distant” attitude; they will be less interested in the things going on in their environment and not quite as curious as they would under normal circumstances.

3) Tendency to try to hide behind other cattle or in the corner next to the end of the bunk.

4) Less gut fill than normal. They may appear slab sided, and their abdomen will shake slightly when they walk. They have a “gant” appearance.

5) Presence of soft, repetitive coughing and an increase in breathing rate.

6) Watery, dull eyes, a clear nasal discharge and will not be cleaning their noses as often as normal.

7) Movement will be a bit stiff and weakness will cause them to shorten their stride and drag their toe or knuckle slightly. Tails may be tucked slightly between their hocks.


Managing transition cattle that may become sick can be a full time job, especially some during some periods when it appears all the cards are stacked against you. With patience, practice and attention to details, identifying sick cattle earlier becomes easier and it definitely pays off in the end.

Dr. Steve Blezinger in a management and nutrition consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at [email protected] For more information check out

Don't forget to BOOKMARK  
Cattle Today Online!