About to tip over

We've all misread a few trends in life, some of which evolved into forces that drastically changed lives and entire industries.

Thirty years ago, who would have thought that the roughest, most mismanaged, cedar-infested grassland in the Flint Hills of Kansas would bring as much or more at auction than well-managed parcels? A lot of this market pressure results from the spillover of disposable income from urbanites looking for recreational ground, combined with some pretty reasonable interest rates.

And what about the increasing effect of energy costs on agricultural production? We used to just shake our heads at the cost of fuel, but now we're witnessing the effects of society's need for SUVs competing with our need to feed livestock (ethanol).

Why do I ramble about these things in a column on cattle health? It's because I see just as dramatic a change in store for how your cattle will be valued.

Health-based marketing

Programs linking cattle buyers and sellers on the basis of health are our future. More than just a way to add a few dollars per head, health status is about to tip over to a dominant factor in selling cattle to stockers, backgrounders, and feeders.

I'm talking about more than a preconditioning program or using the right vaccines in cattle. It's about producing cattle that can maintain health in the face of production pressure.

Just because your calves stayed healthy on the ranch during a preconditioning period, doesn't mean they can maintain that health during a more intense feeding period. Sure, we can mess things up in the feedlot with the wrong feed program, commingling, inadequate facilities and bad weather, but what about the cattle that still maintain their health in the face of such challenges?

Historically, our industry has focused on health in the form of production loss and treatment costs. It's been demonstrated that being treated for respiratory disease can knock an average of 0.2 lb./day off of gain; and it's easier than ever to get lots of money tied up in treating cattle. Treating sick cattle also requires labor, which we all know is expensive and hard to find these days.

But, more importantly, the factor that will really tip the issue of calf health into a dominant factor is that health will dictate the ability of cattle to fit into production programs where the consumer (actually the marketer) has dictated that certain disease-control or treatment practices are unacceptable. Do you think these programs will remain a small portion of the industry, or that different forms of these programs won't evolve?

Another factor is the attempt at legislation that seeks to limit our ability to treat ill animals by drastically reducing our choices for antibiotic therapy. We've watched these bills course around Congress the last few years as if we were perched high on a safe ledge watching the wolves below. History shows we can get run over if we assume that logic and science will dictate the actions of Congress.

This column's take-home message is that paying attention to how your cattle stay healthy after they leave your place will prepare you for the next generation of the cattle industry.

Selecting for health

What about adding evaluation of health history (both direct and of progeny) to your breeding stock selection criteria? I've watched people dismiss the health data from bull tests as: “Oh, they just happened to get sick.” Well, why did they get sick when others didn't? Is that heifer that survived a severe case of scours or respiratory disease really the one you want to keep in your herd, regardless of her other genetic attributes? Can you ask about health history when purchasing replacements?

Buyers are looking for more than cattle that are apparently healthy at the time of sale; they're looking for cattle that stay healthy the entire feeding period. Preconditioning programs are just the beginning. Don't live under the illusion we now have the vaccines and antibiotics to make all cattle equal, and that cattle buyers aren't keeping track of health by source. The ability to link origin and health performance is rapidly evolving.

I predict that the gap between cattle with demonstrated health performance and the “others” will dramatically increase over the coming years. Think back to when you first heard about these trends through comments like:

  • “Did you hear what that scrub ground brought at auction?”

  • “Did you see the new gasohol pump at the Handymart?”

  • “Look at what the cattle brought at the preconditioned sale.”

Don't miss this one.

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is an associate professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.