Tips For Handling Drought-Stressed Calves

Drought-stressed calves bring a lot of baggage with them when they clatter off the truck at your feedyard.

Burt Rutherford, Senior Editor

September 24, 2012

6 Min Read
Tips For Handling Drought-Stressed Calves


No, that is not a secret code. Nor is it written in government-speak, where acronyms run rampant. As such, perhaps interpretation is in order:

  • TLC is tender loving care, but you probably figured that out.

  • ROI is return on investment. Same deal.

  • HHC is happy, healthy calves. Which is every feedyard’s overriding goal with every load of calves that clatter off the truck.

For many feedyard or stocker-bound calves this year, however, widespread drought has changed the game. Which is why adding a little octane to the TLC in your receiving and starting protocols for drought-stressed calves might be the best audible to call.

“We’re doing things a little bit differently in our processing program,” says Wes Bonner, a veterinarian and manager of Nolan County Feeders, a starting and backgrounding feedyard in Roscoe, TX. “The cattle are coming in under different circumstances, certainly a lower state of nutrition and their immune systems could be compromised even more than before.”

As such, Bonner is adding injectible vitamin A, D and E to the receiving process. And he’s running some trials on injectible minerals to see if that helps the calves better respond to vaccinations and therapy.

It takes 30 days to correct nutritional deficiencies when vitamins and minerals are consumed orally, Bonner says. If he can get an immediate effect with injectibles, he can get incoming calves to better, and more quickly, respond to vaccines.

Nolan County Feeders specializes in high-risk calves, “So we expect to have trouble with them. And I’m not sure we’re having that much more trouble from a morbidity standpoint than in the past. However, how these cattle respond to therapy is very different,” Bonner says.

He thinks that’s partly a function of the higher-than-usual daytime temperatures this summer. They take a temperature on every animal that goes to the hospital and they’re usually running from 103.5°-107° F.

“After studying a lot of animals and wondering why we can’t affect treatment outcomes more effectively, if we have ambient temperatures of 103°-105° F, the animal has no way to get body temperature down to normal levels, even if you’re effective at treating the disease challenge,” he says.

If this is a long-term weather cycle, Southern and Central Plains feedyards may need to look at shading the pens like those in South Texas and the Southwest do, he says.

Nutritional background important

“We know with grass being a problem, calves are going to be short on energy,” says Larry Hollis, Kansas State University Extension DVM. “So the first thing is, what kind of body condition are they in coming in?” Hollis says feedyards don’t normally body condition score calves and that’s not what he’s suggesting. He is advocating, however, an analytical look at the calves on arrival.

“You’ve got to consider body condition,” he says. “If they’re short on energy, you must assume they’re short on protein, too. And where the drought has dried up the grass, they’re going to be short on vitamin A, which is necessary for respiratory tract and digestive tract health.”

What’s more, because the calves have been grazing shorter grass on drought-stressed pastures, they’re more likely to pick up worms. “When nutrition is marginal, management of internal parasites is that much more important,” Bonner says.

Drought Management Tip: Controlling Parasites Doubly Important In Time Of Drought

So, Hollis says, calves may very likely arrive in a condition where their nutritional background will control everything else you try to do. “There are a whole lot of things that have been compromised if they’ve run out of groceries and have been weaned and sold early.”

However, he says just because calves were weaned early isn’t necessarily a knock against them. “If they’re being sold because it was a smart management decision and done timely, they’re probably as good as any calves you could ever expect. It all depends on how far the rancher let them go past when he should have sold them. Those cattle are the ones you’ve got to worry about. Those cattle won’t respond as well to vaccinations,” Hollis says.

Bonner can testify. This summer, he bought some 350-400-lb. auction market calves that gave him fits with morbidity and had a high death loss. “We got in, during the same period that we got those auction calves, some cattle off ranches that were backgrounded, had a trace mineral package and were pre-immunized; and had zero death loss.”

Bonner says if you read a vaccine label, it says, “For use in normal, healthy cattle.” That’s an oxymoron for high-risk calves, he says, particularly so this year when you add nutritional stress on top of everything else. “Their ability to immediately respond to a vaccine may be questionable,” he says.

So you may have to vaccinate those hard-luck calves a second or even third time, Hollis says. “They may not have enough protein in their bodies. Antibodies are made of protein and they may not have enough protein in their system to even produce antibodies. So it’s going to take time at your place, on your ration, before the immune system has the building blocks to respond to the vaccine and build the antibodies.”

Starting rations

Given the current state of affairs, Hollis says feedyards and stocker operators may want to change their starting rations by bumping up the protein 1-2%, amping the energy a bit and adding more vitamin A. “You have to be careful,” he cautions, “because if you try to bump it up too much, you can get into bigger problems, especially on the energy side. If you try to compensate all at once, you’ll get acidosis problems.”

To that, Bonner adds that trace minerals are important. “Trace minerals affect the immune system’s ability to function properly and respond to vaccine.” He says the benefits of pre-immunization and a trace mineral package in the range mineral are well documented. “If we’re going to buy backgrounded calves and have a choice, we’ll buy one that’s been on trace minerals before we buy one that has not, even if both are pre-immunized. It makes that much difference.”

Therefore, Hollis says, if you have the ability to customize rations, work with your nutritionist to develop different starting rations for different sets of cattle.

“If you’ve got a set of good calves coming in, looking good from a good background, you feed them one way. And if you’ve got a set of hard-luck calves coming in, that were early weaned, their moms were out of groceries and they’re looking pretty tough, you feed them another way – a little bit more energy and for sure a little bit more protein and maybe you bump the vitamin A,” he says.

If you don’t have the ability to customize your rations, he suggests erring on the high side. You’ll over-feed some calves as you try to make sure that the hard-luck arrivals get enough to eat. That’s more expensive, he says, but the tradeoff is giving the calves a better shot at vaccine and therapy response, which leads to faster, more efficient gain.

“We need to do the things we’d normally do,” Hollis says, “but sometimes we may have to go the extra mile, either nutritionally or with our vaccination program, to make up some of the deficiencies that the calves brought with them when they arrived.”

About the Author(s)

Burt Rutherford

Senior Editor, BEEF Magazine

Burt Rutherford is director of content and senior editor of BEEF. He has nearly 40 years’ experience communicating about the beef industry. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works from his home base in Colorado. He worked as communications director for the North American Limousin Foundation and editor of the Western Livestock Journal before spending 21 years as communications director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He works to keep BEEF readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line.

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