The goal should always be to produce the healthiest cattle

Beef 911: We need to get rid of the notion that high-risk cattle are the most profitable

I’ve heard it said on the feeder side that high-risk cattle are the most profitable.

The argument is that when you run the numbers and take into account morbidity, mortality and all other costs, these cattle have the potential to make the most profit at the end of the day. Of course the big factor is that the price of these high-risk cattle is considerably less.

As a clinical practitioner dealing primarily with the cow-calf sector, my goal was to help the client market anything but high-risk cattle.

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Here is where there has always, at times, been a great disconnect between the different parts of the cattle sector. One is raising calves and trying to achieve a healthy calf that grows well and has the minimum amount of stress in its life. This includes doing things such as pre-immunizing, deworming and (in most cases on commercial cattle) implanting. They will also ensure cattle are dehorned when necessary and castrated at as young an age as possible.

These cattle are worth the extra cost to purchase them and, more importantly, they should generally outperform their higher-risk counterparts in the next pen and have better health parameters. Metaphylactic antibiotics should not be necessary, so treatment costs, morbidity and mortality should be lower. Also, gains and feed efficiency should, on average, be better.

The true preconditioning methods on farm are where calves are pre-weaned ahead of time. Ideally, the longer the better, as calves will be gaining substantially. They wean much better at home, and if vaccinated and other procedures are done, the only thing left is to load up and haul them to the feedlot.

There was an actual program for preconditioning in the 1980s that became very successful but was disbanded because feedlots quit paying a premium for these better-quality cattle that had extra input costs.

If the producer can combine preconditioning with a direct-marketing concept through something like DLMS livestock marketing (as an example), stress is further reduced. Calves are marketed fairly and then can go directly to their final destination. This eliminates one trucking, long stays at auction markets, and commingling. These decreased stresses substantially decrease the risk of respiratory disease. In some cases electrolyte amino acid (DeStress) or probiotic-type products are given to calves on long hauls to reduce shrink and have cattle arrive in better shape.

High-risk calves are pretty much just the opposite of this.

Now the distance transported to the final destination is out of the producer’s hands. The vast majority market their calves through the local auction market system. Direct marketing of calves or using the internet has increased substantially in recent years and these methods alone could considerably reduce the risk level of calves. Transport occurs from producer to feeder and bypasses the extra hauling, loading, unloading, standing, sorting, commingling and long periods off feed and water that can happen to the recently weaned calves in the fall run.

The vast majority of cattlemen who retain ownership on cattle use some sort of pre-immunization or low-stress weaning (such as fenceline weaning or nose flaps). That tells me they are happy with the process and see the tangible benefits to this process when backgrounding their own cattle.

To help improve the health of feedlot cattle, I would like to see all of the cow-calf sector produce lower-risk calves through preconditioning, full vaccination and pre-immunization before, and marketing through a reputable direct-marketing program — and be paid a premium for them. Then if the cattle industry looks at further usage of electrolyte-type products for long transport and in stressful weather, we may be able to collectively work on significantly lowering BRD without using more antimicrobials.

If this was done, feedlot owners don’t need to do anything other than acclimate the cattle, get them on feed, and perhaps later implant them. Otherwise producers are going to continue to wean and ship calves directly to the auction market and we will need to treat vast numbers of them for bovine respiratory disease, digestive disorders, inappetence, and other conditions.

If we increase communication between the cow-calf sector and the feedlots, a lot of good should happen with higher-quality product, less sickness and less antimicrobial use. As well, vaccines are getting more comprehensive.

The answer is right at our fingertips — we only have to help implement it. We want to get away from the idea that high-risk cattle are the most profitable. It is not something I am comfortable with when there are better ways to do things.

About the author

Columnist

Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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