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Truth & Lies in the Chronic Pen

Cattle in the chronic pen represent a failure in the system. Can the trickle be slowed?

Every time Bo Kizziar looks at the shipment schedule for the chronic pen, he knows two things:

  • Somewhere, somehow, the system failed those calves.
  • Because the system failed those calves, those calves failed Hansford County Feeders.

Neither thought is particularly pleasant to contemplate. But the truth of the matter, Kizziar admits, is he doesn’t have a good way of analyzing the systems he has in place to handle and manage chronics.

Kizziar is manager of the 40,000-head feedyard near Spearman, TX. In spite of his crew’s best efforts, chronics are still a part of their management headaches, taking a much larger proportion of his employees’ time and effort than their number indicates. In fact, Kizziar estimates that about 1% of the cattle that pass through his feedyard in a year’s time will end up in the chronic pen.

That number is both very small and way too big.

“Some part of our labor pool has to do something with them every day,” he says. “We try to provide as much TLC as we can – make sure the bunks and water troughs are clean, and provide dry bedding in bad weather so they have a comfort level that can be supportive in their struggle to survive.”

In his long career as an animal caretaker, he knows he can do no less. In his long career as a businessman, one glance at the closeouts from the chronic pen tells him he must do more. A railer brings from 10¢ to 50¢/lb. and walks onto the truck packing a pretty high vet bill. So, from several perspectives, Kizziar applies significant resources to reducing his chronics.

Vet-prescribed protocol

When pen riders find a sick animal, they pull it from the home pen and send it to the hospital pens. “Our lay vet identifies them as high-risk or low-risk, and that has a lot to do with their age, how far they came, if they came from a sale barn, etc.” Kizziar says.

Cattle identified as low-risk have one treatment regimen; high-risk cattle have another. “Because of what I know about their backgrounds, I’m not going to take any chances (with high-risk cattle), and I’m going to give them the big guns up front.”

Then the calves are rotated through five hospital pens on a daily basis. When high-risk cattle come in, they get a shot of a long-duration antibiotic on day one. “Every day, the lay vet will start on the top end, the longest day cattle. At that point, he makes a decision – does this calf go back to get restarted in the hospital rotation or does he go home?”

That empties the end pen. Then the lay vet moves the next pen into the empty pen. While he’s doing that, he’s evaluating the cattle to determine if any need additional time and treatment. “All through that process, we give our lay vets the authority to say this calf isn’t going to make it,” Kizziar says. “At any point in the process, we may send him to the chronic pen.”

Typically, however, a calf will be treated at least twice and possibly three times before they head to the chronic pen, where they’re given time to meet all drug withdrawal times before being sold as realizers. And there, upon occasion, an interesting thing happens.

“There might be 10% of the cattle that go through that process and hit the railer pen, and then they’ll just take off,” he says. Did those calves lie about their health status? Probably not. It just took them a little longer than the others to respond to the TLC and drug therapy.

“Now they’re probably going to be a couple of hundred pounds behind their home pen, but they indicated enough to us that they’re going to perform adequately,” he says.

Homemade chronics

There are a number of reason an animal becomes a respiratory chronic in a feedyard. It may be that, through genetics or management on the ranch or both, the animal never developed sufficient immunity to withstand the challenges cattle invariably face when they get to a feedyard. Or it may happen at the feedyard if a sick calf should run on its way to the hospital, the hospital is too crowded or the calf isn’t given the proper drug therapy initially, according to Tom Latta, a consulting feedyard veterinarian from Spearman, TX.

Latta’s definition of a respiratory chronic is based on weight gain and response to drug therapy. For example, a calf is treated with one long-duration antibiotic, then repulled in 10 days and treated with another.

“In 10 more days, if that calf’s not responding, I’d consider him a chronic,” Latta says. “Depending on management’s philosophy, I’d say that calf, as soon as it’s clear of the medicine, is ready to go to the railer pen or maybe a pasture situation where you give him a chance on his own.”

Latta thinks feedyards are gaining ground in rehabilitating chronics. A lot of that has to do with today’s more effective drug therapies.

While Kizziar agrees with that assessment, he’d like to cut the number even more. But, as a manager who has made liberal application of the mantra, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” he’s frustrated in his inability to design a system that prevents chronics in the first place.

“We have ways of analyzing closeouts to death. We have ways of analyzing feed quality. Getting all kinds of data and feeling good about the decisions we make. But we don’t today have a way of really tracking those cattle (chronics) and getting to the end of it,” he says.

Not that he doesn’t look at the data. “We look at first-time treats, retreats, chronics. But there’s really no way to look at that and say because this happened, this happened and this happened, next time we’re going to do it differently. There should be a way of measuring that, and it should lend itself to managing those chronics. But I don’t have one in place today. And I haven’t talked to anybody who has a real good handle on it,” Kizziar says.

Sure, there are visual indicators that a calf is responding to therapy – weight gain and general appearance chief among them. But Kizziar would like to be able to manage the situation so that a calf doesn’t become a chronic in the first place. While he thinks the long-duration drug therapies now available help that, he’s looking for more.

In the meantime, Latta says cattle feeders are doing a better job overall in their health programs, given that things are different now.

“We’re treating a lot of younger cattle, and pushing cattle harder nutritionally. I think, if we factor those things in, we’re doing better,” Latta says. “I would say, compared with 10-20 years ago, our overall death and chronic loss is no worse than it was then, and is probably better.”