Get'em comfortable

Cattle management often takes a back seat to time management. When this happens, cattle health and performance suffer.

The fall calf run is in full swing. Calves are being weaned, sold and shipped to the feedyards. Stress on these animals include not only these aforementioned processes, but also the weather, their diet and even adjusting to drinking out of a tank, among others.

This time of year, feedyard crews are running hard against the wind. It's also the time of year when pressures from being so busy start to take their toll. Just at the time when our best management practices are demanded, workload becomes overwhelming, making it very inviting to cut corners in an attempt to save time. The result is that cattle management often takes a back seat to time management. When this happens, cattle health and performance suffer.

A friend of mine always says that, when such issues arise, the solution is to do what's best for the cattle. In many instances, this means simply making sure the cattle are comfortable.

The feedyard as a hotel

I think of a feedyard as a hotel. The level of care and comfort is the difference between a five-star hotel and one that rents its rooms by the hour.

One of the primary issues in cattle comfort is population density. In the High Plains, it's recommended cattle have 150-200 sq. ft. of space/animal in the pen, and 12-18 in. of bunk space — especially during the first 30 days on feed. (You will need more pen space as you move east into higher moisture areas.) However, and especially during the fall run, groups of cattle may arrive at a feedyard where, due to a lack of pen space, the pen- and bunk-space recommendations are severely compromised.

The information in the table at right is from a starter feedyard that specializes in handling very high-risk Southeastern calves. The yard had been inundated with cattle, and animal health was suffering. We compared rated pen capacity for all the pens in the yard to the actual population in the pen.

We then looked to see if there were differences in morbidity or mortality by comparing the pens with greater than 100% capacity to pens with 100% capacity or less. Here's what we found in Table 1.

Our analysis showed higher mortality alone resulted in an increased cost of as much as $3.80/head in the yard. This doesn't include losses accrued from the higher morbidity and performance issues due to overcrowding.

Comfort not the only factor

There's an obvious potential for great expense, and comfort isn't the only factor. When cattle are overcrowded, disease-causing agents are easily transferred.

Some research also indicates a relationship between the number of cattle in a pen and the incidence of buller syndrome, though such a correlation isn't settled. The majority of published estimates of buller syndrome occurrence range from between 1-3% of the steer population in a feedlot, though rates as high as 11% have been reported. An in-depth discussion on bullers is a topic best left for another time, however.

To use the hotel analogy again, after I've been on a trip that includes three overcrowded airplanes, three airports and exposure to all those people en route, I would prefer a spacious hotel room and a very comfortable bed. Should it be much different for a travel-weary beef animal?

Dave Sjeklocha is a feedlot-consulting DVM at the Haskell County Animal Hospital in Sublette, KS. He can be reached at 620/675-8180 or

Table 1. Pen Capacity and Morbidity/Mortality
Average % of capacity Morbidity Mortality
Greater than 100% capacity 121% 24% 2.7%
At or less than 100% capacity 89% 21% 1.7%