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Can We Breed 'Em Healthy?

We can breed them black or red, horned or polled. We can breed them for growth, marbling, tenderness or milk production. But can we breed cattle to resist common diseases, respond to vaccination protocols and stay healthy?

The answer is on the way. Researchers, cattlemen and industry partners from across the U.S. and New Zealand met recently in Kansas City at the National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium (NBCEC) Cattle Health Symposium to create a national system for genetic selection for disease resistance in beef cattle.

Why it's important

“Everyone agrees that improving cattle health is desirable,” says Oklahoma State University's Toni Oltenacu. “But we also need to consider how health problems impact animal productivity, zoonotic risks, international trade and consumers' perception of the industry and their subsequent attitude toward animal products.”

And all those reasons point to economics and profitability.

One disease in particular in the research crosshairs is the bovine respiratory disease (BRD) complex.

  • According to the National Animal Health Monitoring System's (NAHMS) 1999 study, the BRD complex is the major cause of death in pre-weaned calves in the U.S., and accounts for half of all feedlot deaths. In fact, 96% of feedlots report treating BRD, with 14.4% of all feedlot calves treated.

  • Gary Snowder, U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) researcher in Clay Center, NE, has analyzed 20 years of USMARC data involving 43,739 calves — 10.5% of calves were diagnosed with BRD.

  • Data from Iowa State University's Tri-County Feedlot study on BRD from 2003 to 2006 showed an average incidence of 8%, varying 5% to 12% by year.

  • Guy Loneragan, West Texas A&M University veterinary epidemiologist, says BRD — also referred to as shipping fever, or Undifferentiated Fever in Canada — is the leading cause of death loss and chronic illness in U.S. feedlots. In fact, it affects more animals than all other diseases combined, and costs the industry more than $600 million annually.

Is resistance heritable?

Chris Morris with AgResearch in Hamilton, New Zealand, shared a comment typical of U.S. bull buyers when he observed that one line of bulls from a herd is usually better able to cope with a high-risk health environment than another line. While it's just hearsay, most cattlemen believe there are differences. But New Zealand data suggest heritability for disease occurrence over all diseases is .28 — easily high enough for selection. Morris also gave these heritability estimates: grass tetany, .36; milk fever, .39; pinkeye, .28; and BRD, .19.

Meanwhile, Snowder's work at USMARC shows statistically significant breed differences in incidence and mortality of pre-weaning and feedlot BRD. He fixes estimated heritability of resistance to BRD in pre-weaned calves at .14, and in feedlot calves at .18 — probably high enough for effective selection.

Resistance or adaptability?

John Pollak, NBCEC director, asked symposium attendees, “When we select for resistance to a specific disease, are we actually selecting for an overall resistance? Does the animal have some innate ability to resist disease challenges? Or is it related to the ability to deal with stress?”

Snowder discussed stress effects and observed, “Maybe, with BRD, we don't want disease resistance — maybe we want stress resistance.”

According to Loneragan, BRD results from the interaction of stessors, pathogens and animal susceptibility, but stressors have the biggest effect. These include transportation, auction market, commingling, weaning, feedlot environment, feed/water deprivation, processing and other factors.

Loneragan's data show that risk of death by feedlot entry weight is a repeatable, predictable trend for health of feedlot cattle. As cattle get heavier, the risk falls, with approximately 600 lbs. as the critical weight.

Mike Engler, Cactus Feeders president and CEO, says Mexican cattle, weighing the same as domestic cattle, but older, have less disease morbidity. Snowder's data agrees. He observed a significant reduction in BRD incidence at 20, 50 and 80 days on feed.

So then, is weight alone the critical factor? Or is weight an indirect measure of an animal's age, giving it more opportunities to adapt to stressors as it ages?

Pollak concludes, “Really, what we're saying is, if stress plays a role, there's an opportunity to affect animals throughout all stages of life production. If we do that, the work has a broader context than just BRD.

“If we could develop a tool where we use the feedlot challenge as the stressor and BRD as the pathogen, we could analyze the animal's reaction, and partition out the part due to stress, and the part due to innate immune ability,” he adds.

What's being done?

NBCEC and USMARC are involved in two projects studying the genetics of BRD resistance in feedlot cattle. The projects are designed to allow expression of the disease to allow complete data collection.

Describing the NBCEC project where cattle are being fed at Colorado Beef in Lamar, CO, Pollak observes, “We're hoping for a fairly high disease incidence in order to have lots of observations to work with. The cattle haven't been mass treated on arrival at the feedlot in order to sustain the integrity of the project.”

Although the cattle were vaccinated and treated according to recommended industry protocols at weaning, more than 40% of the project's 1,551 steers have been pulled and treated for BRD symptoms. The cattle in this project are from a commercial ranch in the Sandhills, and represent a very typical set of ranch-direct feedlot cattle.

Meanwhile, the USMARC project is still in the final planning stages. It will utilize commercial cattle in addition to cattle derived from USMARC projects. The extensive data available will allow correlation of disease resistance results with other USMARC projects, such as feed efficiency and breed interactions.

What are the challenges?

Before a trait can be selected, a measurable and observable phenotype is necessary. In addition, data on the phenotypes must be monitored and collected with reasonable cost and effort. If sufficient phenotypic variation exists in the population, and if the heritability is moderately high, then genetic progress can be made by selecting animals that exhibit the desirable phenotype.

Some traits with simple inheritance are relatively easy to select for when the trait is expressed. For example, if you desire to genetically eliminate horns from your herd, you identify the horned animals and remove them. Easy, right? No, because the polled gene will mask the horned gene when both are present. In this case, available DNA markers allow us to “see” the horned phenotype, and make the selection progress we desire.

Many traditional EPDs were developed and are updated in large part by using data submitted by purebred breeders or collected by breed associations. But unlike weighing calves, can producers correctly identify disease phenotypes?

In the case of BRD, the symptoms can be obvious, but recent feedlot studies indicate that up to a third of animals are misdiagnosed, even by experienced pen riders. The population studies now being conducted on BRD should be useful, along with new DNA technology, in identifying genetic markers to aid in selection.

But questions remain. Who will collect and analyze the information? And, who will pay for all of this and “own” the information? Stay tuned.

Real-world stress test

Steve Radakovich, Radakovich Cattle Co., Earlham, IA, believes stress is directly related to disease susceptibility. “We (the beef industry) manage cattle to remove stress, so they have no tolerance for stress when it hits them,” he says.

Radakovich has been breeding and selecting cattle that can tolerate Missouri tall fescue using a four-way cross of Hereford, Barzona, Red Angus and Senepol. Calving is in April and May so that breeding is in the worst heat of summer on fescue.

Bulls are developed only on forage. After yearling weights are taken, they go to a summer stress test — living only on fescue, heat and water. Bulls are weighed again in September and ranked for fescue stress resistance.

Radakovich reports that his cows are getting bred and the herd is growing. In fact, most of his stress-adapted bulls aren't even going to Missouri; they're thriving and breeding cows in the deserts and temperature extremes of Nevada.

Has Steve successfully selected for fescue disease tolerance? Maybe not. Perhaps it's all about selecting for stress tolerance.

Make Your Vet An Asset

When you look at the balance sheet for any business, every item is classified either as an asset, a liability or owner's equity. As a veterinarian, it bugs me just a bit that we are listed as liabilities.

Yes, vets are an expense, just like feed or fence, but with due respect to vet and cowboy poet Baxter Black, I don't like being “out there” as a liability. I think most vets want to be an asset, and on many farms or ranches, the herd-health vet actually is a true asset to the business.

As a youngster growing up on our family swine and beef farm, it was our vet who made such revolutionary recommendations as not calving all year around (we did so with our pigs and that worked fine), and castrating calves soon after birth instead of at weaning. As our herd improved, due in part to his recommendations, we wanted more from him. What about artificial insemination? Could we feed something other than hay in the winter? What breeds best fit our farm goals? What about weighing calves at weaning (a bit cutting edge in the early 1970s)?

Prevention is key

Since the focus of this issue of BEEF is calf health, let's look at a typical health concern — neonatal diarrhea — and see how your herd-health vet can assist in control and, more importantly, prevention of disease.

The long-term goal with respect to calf diarrhea should be zero incidence. Every vet has herds that year after year have no calves with scours. When we as vets see management techniques that result in high health status of calves, we try to apply this information on farms experiencing disease outbreaks.

It's almost never a “cookie cutter” approach where one size fits all, but working with the current facilities and some environmental control, we can almost always give some practical recommendations that will yield positive results. Of course, if the owner's answer is always, “we can't do that” or “we've always done it this way,” we then refer to Albert Einstein's quote that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Instead of focusing on “the next new treatment” for scours, it's in everyone's best interest to focus on prevention. Ask your herd-health vet what he or she thinks are the “weak links” in your system contributing to the health problem. In nearly every situation, we see a number of what may seem like minor problems that add up to a bigger problem.

In diagnosing a herd problem, I like to list the areas that impact the health and profitability of a cowherd. This list includes: health, fertility, nutrition, records, marketing, environment and genetics. I write each of these down on paper and search my mind for any potential contributing factors to the herd problem.

Of course, there's always some overlap and something may show up in two areas. That's not a problem. Some of questions we may ask are:

  • Health — Are cows properly vaccinated and dewormed prior to calving?
  • Fertility — Are heifers bred before cows so that calves from heifers can be watched more closely for disease issues?
  • Nutrition — Do cows calve in a moderate (5.5-6.0) Body Condition Score (BCS), and heifers calve in good (6.5-7.0) BCS, so that colostrum quality and quantity are optimum?
  • Records — Are calves with scours out of mostly heifers? Or are they calves born late in the calving season or from “repeat offender” cows?
  • Marketing — Are calves with scours out of home-raised or purchased cows/heifers?
  • Environment — Are heifers wintered and calved separately from cows (a must)? Is a barn used for calving (which increases disease incidence)? Is calving time consistent with environmental conditions? Note: In most all health surveys, environment is at the top of the “weak link” list for calf health.
  • Genetics — Do calves show excellent vigor at birth and get up and nurse within 30-60 minutes of birth? Do calves have optimum hybrid vigor for improved health?

Strengths and weaknesses

Every herd has strengths and weaknesses, but if health is one weakness, it's nearly impossible to have any real strengths. Think of all the problems that may occur subsequently if calves get sick at a very young age — increased death loss, lower weaning weights and rates, increased sickness and decreased growth in the feedlot, less replacement heifers for the herd, etc. Health is surely a huge impact on the total herd.

This would be a great time for you to sit down with your herd-health vet and really scrutinize your herd as to its strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps health is excellent but fertility is a concern.

Divide your herd into the areas listed on page 40. Write each of these on paper and decide which areas are your top two strengths. Perhaps it would help to ask others what they would say was excellent about your herd.

Once you've settled on your top two strengths, ask yourself, “How did these two items become strengths? Did I have assistance developing these strengths or is this truly my area of expertise?”

Next, write down your top two weaknesses and ask yourself, “What can I do to improve these weaknesses? Who would be a resource to assist me?” It may be your Extension beef specialist, your nutritionist or your herd-health vet.

Does working closely with your vet and others pay off? According to BEEF's Vet Survey (see “Vets Weigh In On Calf Health,” page 6) it pays off big. The vets who reported that calf health has improved or stayed constant in their client's herds have likely attained a relationship with those ranchers that makes them a part of the management team. When that happens, good things result.

The goal is to have a team of experts to help you to make your herd better. Get on a total herd-health program with your vet, and then challenge him or her to help you tackle the weak links that impact your herd. Get them on the asset side of the ledger where they belong.

W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical associate professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.

How vets became assets

Here are some examples of unique ways that vets are becoming assets to their clients' herds:

  • A client has his herd-health vet Body Condition Score (BCS) his cows at pregnancy check in early September, and again in early December to revaluate the cows. Each group is given a BCS; appropriate nutrition is then provided to each group so that cows calve in proper BCS. The cost for the additional BCS evaluation is minimal and herd fertility has improved since adding this service.

  • Vets host a calving clinic each year at their clinic to refresh clients on when to call for assistance (“progress every hour”), what supplies they should have on hand, and provide a review of techniques on how to assist in delivery.

  • Clinics have helped clients organize their calves — preconditioned under a uniform health program — into load lots in order to command higher prices at sale time.

  • Many vets assist cow-calf owners in formulating rations utilizing corn and soybean co-products to stretch winter feed resources and save significant money on winter feeding of cows.

  • One vet organized some of his very best herds to sell bred replacement females to other producers. After pregnancy check, the secretary at the clinic records all data in a spreadsheet and provides this to producers looking for heifers. The spreadsheet gets updated throughout the fall and winter as heifers are sold and others are added to the “for sale” list.

2008 Fencing Guide

2008 Fencing Guide

The Fencing Guide is an annual directory of fencing product manufacturers and the latest in fencing product introductions.
View the 2008 Fencing guide as a PDF

Solar energizer

Gallagher's S50 solar energizer producers 0.5 Joules capable of powering up to 30 acres, or five miles, of multi-wire fence. The self-contained design is portable, has a built-in carry handle and easily mounts on walls, wooden posts, T-posts or placed on the ground. A large rotary switch makes the S50 easy to operate and an LED flashes to show the unit is functioning correctly. An automatic night mode monitors light levels and lengthens the pulse rate to save power when animals become less active.

Auger bucket

Danuser Industrial Group's auger bucket mixes, transports and dispenses concrete (up to 1-in. slump), sand, washed gravel (¾-in. max), asphalt, wildlife feed and agricultural grain. It features a ½-yard capacity of premix concrete and up to ¾-yard with an optional hopper extension. The auger can discharge a ½-yard in 50 seconds, and the quick-attach frame allows for right- or left-handed discharge.

Fence tester

Eight Light Fence Tester model 3360, from Dare Products, accurately measures fence voltage up to 7,000 volts. It is designed for neat storage at an affordable price.

Fence mender

Gripple Plus, from Gripple Inc., is designed to connect wires on all types of fence without the bending or twisting of wires. It splices, tightens and eliminates the need for crimps, ratchet strainers, come-alongs and stretchers.

Wire winder mount

A new universal mount for wire winders from Pro-Tatch is applicable on most anything with hydraulics, including loader buckets, pickup boxes and other equipment.

Post-driver trailers

Shaver Manufacturing introduces its TU series of trailers for mounting post drivers that allows operators to transport posts with the drivers. The unit's positioner turntable gives an operator better accuracy and control by tilting the driver forward and sideways, and swiveling it up to 155°. The standard TU-13 trailer features a self-contained, 13-hp Honda engine with electric start. The TU-13T unit hooks up to a tractor and is powered by the tractor's hydraulic system.


Measuring 4.5mm in diameter, IntelliRope PE 4.5 from Premier is black and white to provide extra visibility and is an excellent “starter” material for receiving paddocks. Its “super conductor” design allows electrical pulses to travel further while being less affected by vegetation on the fenceline.

T-post insulator

Premier's Heavy Duty Offset T-Post Insulator features a pin-lock design that holds conductors 9 in. away from the post. The wrap-around base provides strength and support while the internal X design resists up, down and side-to-side strain.

Driveway alert probe

Gate Bird's Solar 9V Driveway Alert Probe is wireless and capable of transmitting radio calls up to a ½-mile or more, depending on terrain. The 20-in. probe is buried slightly underground parallel to the driveway while an 80-ft. cable can be coiled to fit the application. The electronic sensing board and radio transmitter is housed in a small square 4.7-in., all-weather enclosure, which can be placed as close to the probe as convenient. A 9-volt Lithium battery version is also available that will perform without the solar charger.

Gate lock

Lokk-Latch® Deluxe is an improved version of the Lokk-Latch Pro® but costs 10% less. One latch fits vinyl, metal or wood gates and features rekeyable, six-pin security locks, adjustability for easy installation. An External Access Kit is available. The Deluxe has been cycle-tested to over 200,000 closures.

Low-impedance energizers

Dare Products Inc. introduces three models of powerful, low-impedance electric fence energizers. The DE 20 provides 0.05 Joule energy for a 1-acre fence; the DE 60, 0.1 Joule for 3-acre fences; and the DE 80, 0.2 Joule energy for 5 acres of fence.

Field fence

Trusted by one of the largest cattle operations in the world, Red Brand's King Ranch Fence provides cattle with a full 49 in. of protection. It features variable vertical spacing and 12-in. horizontal spacing. Class 3 galvanized coating provides extra durability and the exclusive Red Brand Square Deal® Knot, designed to eliminate sagging and keep fence taut and upright.


The Speedrite SG50 Energizer is ideal for small, temporary electric fencing, or strip-grazing applications. It runs off 2 D-cell batteries and can power up to 1 acre of fence for more than one month. The extremely portable SG50 has a unique stay-on fence wire clip, on/off switch and weatherproof construction.

Post driver attachment

The Pilot Auger, distributed by Kencove Farm Fence and Shaver Manufacturing, digs pilot holes that make driving posts quicker and easier and reduces driver wear. The auger can attach to and be powered by Shaver's HD-10 or HD-12 post-driver unit. It can also be installed on Shaver's skid-steer loader-, tractor- or trailer-mounted units.

Fence post clips

The new Step-In post from Geotek Inc. features its new SmartClip. The SmartClip has a fast and easy-to-use durable design and holds up to 2-in. tape, braided rope, polywire or high-tensile wire. The Step-In post is lightweight and strong.

Wood posts, steel rails

Cameo Fencing Inc. introduces a combination fencing product comprised of treated wood posts and steel pipe rails. The rails are the same pipe-in-pipe “swedge” rail connection that's part of the company's all-steel pipe fencing. The rail-in-rail design can be constructed as a single continuous rail to whatever length is needed.

Energizer for horses

Power Wizard's line of electric fence energizers for horse owners shocks through weeds and brush. Its HorseSafe 15 is a 110-volt, 1.5-Joule plug-in energizer recommended for corrals and pastures up to 15 acres. HorseSafe 30, also 110 volts, supplies 3 Joules of energy and is for pastures up to 30 acres. HorseSafe 10B is a 1-Joule, 6- or 12-volt battery-operated energizer for corrals and pastures up to 10 acres.

Slab Blaster and Postmaster

The Slab Blaster, from Danuser Industrial Group, has a 400-lb. hammer to break concrete up to 9-in. thick. Additional weight is available to bolster total hammer weight to 700 lbs.

The Postmaster is capable of driving 14-ft.-tall wood or steel posts varying from 3- to 8-in. in diameter. The 275-lb. hammer can drive 60 posts/hour with hydraulic requirements of at least 12 gpm and 2,000 psi.


Twin Mountain Fence has added the TE50 and TB50 to its Titan electric fence energizer line. Both are equipped with digital control, built-in lightning protection, weather resistance, “Power on Demand” and comes with a three-year guarantee, which includes lightning.

The units are capable of powering a single-wire fence for 5 miles, or a three-wire fence for 1.66 miles. A fence lamp flashes at regular intervals mirroring the electrical pulse on the fence line. The Titan pulse is designed for performance on fences with abundant weed growth and can shock through wet fenceline growth.

Electric fencer energizer

The Power Wizard PW18000 Electric Fence Energizer provides safe, electric pulses to fencing that will not harm cattle. Using ultra-low impedance technology, the unit delivers an effective shock, even through overgrown weeds and brush. With a Joule rating of 18.00, this energizer controls 1 to 1,800 acres or 300 miles of fence. A full two-year warranty covers lightning strikes and power surges.

Automatic gate opener

Zareba Systems G450 standard-duty automatic gate opener is engineered to open swinging gates up to 14-ft. long and weighing up to 450 lbs. via push-button control. The G452 unit works with double gates. The automatic gate opener cycles 200+ times/day and complies with all UL325 standards. Kits include: gate opener (actuator), control box w/built-in receiver, entry transmitter, transformer, mounting brackets and hardware, battery, instruction manual and warning signs.

Solar energizer

A 12-volt solar energizer from Power Wizard, features low-impedance circuitry that delivers shock through overgrowth and weeds. The PW100S energizer mounts easily and has a modular circuit design for easy serviceability.

Continued on Next Page: View fencing product manufacturers and contact information

Cameo Fencing Inc.
PO Box 214
Hammond, NY 13646-9998
Phone: 800-822-5426

D&D Technologies (USA) Inc.
7731 Woodwind Dr.
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
Phone: 800-716-0888

Dare Products Inc.
860 Betterly Road
Battle Creek, MI 49015
Phone: 269-965-2307

Danuser Industrial Group
500 E. 3rd Street, Box 368
Fulton, MO 65251
Phone: 573-642-2246

Gallagher Power Fence*
130 W. 23rd Ave.
North Kansas City, MO 64116
Phone: 816-421-2005

Gate Bird Long Range Gate Operators
707 Tuxedo Junction
Twin Falls, ID 83301
Phone: 208-410-7156

Geotek Inc.
1421 Second Ave NW
Stewartville, MN 55976
Phone: 800-533-1680

Gripple Inc.*
1510 Hubbard Avenue
Batavia, IL 60510
Phone: 630-406-0600

Kencove Farm Fence Inc.
344 Kendall Rd.
Blairsville, PA 15717
Phone: 724-459-8991

Keystone Steel & Wire
7000 SW Adams St.
Peoria, IL 61641
Phone: 800-447-6444

Munro Industries Inc.
381 Fairgrounds Place
Hermosa, SD 57744
Phone: 866-906-8676

Pivotal Fencing Systems, LLC*
511 North Birch Street
Yuma, CO 80759
Phone: 970-848-5500

Power Wizard Inc.
10375 State Route 43
Streetsboro, OH 44241
Phone: 800-866-2161

Premier Fence Systems
2031 300th Street
Washington, IA 52353
Phone: 800-282-6631

Pro-Tatch Inc.
1104 Claude Road
Grand Island, NE 68802
Phone: 877-407-8645

Rohrer Manufacturing*
PO Box 32
Powell Butte, OR 97753
Phone: 800-980-7599

Shaver Manufacturing Co.*
PO Box 358
Graettinger, IA 51342
Phone: 712-859-3293

The Burly Corporation of North America
754 N. Burleson Blvd.
Burleson, TX 76028

Tru-Test Inc.
528 Grant Road
Mineral Wells, TX 76067
Phone: 800-874-8494

Twin Mountain Fence*
PO Box 2240
San Angelo, TX 76902
Phone: 800-527-0990

Worksaver Inc.*
PO Box 100
Litchfield, IL 62056
Phone: 217-324-5973

Zareba Systems
906 Fifth Ave. E.
Ellendale, MN 56026
Phone: 507-684-3721

Weather Worries and Weather Woes

It's likely that cattle producers in the Southeast won't look back on 2007 with any fondness. This region, home to about 25% of the nation's cow-calf production, withered under an unrelenting drought last year, and entered '08 desperate for a change.

That has happened, to an extent at least. And based on the prognostications by Art Douglas, the Cattle-Fax weather forecaster, Southeastern cattlemen may be in for a break. Eventually.

Douglas sees a weather pattern similar to the 1940s and '50s, forecasting that we'll stay in a moderate to strong La Niña through this spring. “With cold water persisting for the next four months, moisture conditions should continue to improve in Australia and northern Brazil, but the La Niña will favor persistent drought in Argentina and the Southeastern U.S.,” he says.

However, relief for the Southeast is in sight. “Persistent drought conditions in the Southeast are likely to moderate by the summer as La Niña gradually weakens and tropical storm activity brings coastal rains,” Douglas says. He sees dry conditions redeveloping in the Southwest this spring, but then a good summer monsoon season for the Four Corners states.

Likewise, Douglas sees a near-normal summer throughout much of the Corn Belt, which, given good soil moisture conditions from this fall and winter, is positive for crop yields.

The main center of heat and dryness this summer is forecast for the Northwest third of the nation, he says, suggesting an abrupt change from a cool and wet spring to a hot and dry summer.

As cattlemen head from winter into spring, Douglas forecasts warmer-than-normal temperatures for the Southwest and eastern half of the nation. “Only the Northwest quarter of the country is expected to be cooler than normal,” he says.

Helpful Hints

Keep a watchful eye at calving time

Surveillance and decision-making are key during birthing, believes University of Nebraska-lincoln Extension veterinarian Dave Smith.

“Be monitoring the progress of calving and have some kind of rule for when you intervene,” Smith says, warning that every calf being born doesn't need to be pulled. “There's risk of harm by doing that. You just need to see evidence of progress.”

For example, if you check a cow and see that the toes are pointing forward and the nose is starting to show, and come back five minutes later and more of the feet and nose are showing, that's a good sign. But if there isn't progress being made, producers need to be ready to act.

“A lot of people wait so long before they call a veterinarian that there's nothing they can do,” Smith says. Early recognition of a calving problem is critical, which is why Smith recommends having a vet talk through the birthing process with everyone responsible for calving cows. It's important for people to know what they can do, what should be on hand and when to contact a vet.


The only thing more variable than the weather at calving time is the equipment available from ranch to ranch. One outfit may have just a horse and rope, others a complete hospital sickpen. Dave Smith, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension veterinarian, recommends producers have basic equipment on hand, including:

  • chains
  • buckets
  • soap and water
  • lubricant
  • obstetrical (OB) gloves
  • esophageal tube-feeder
  • colostrum
  • restraint for the cow

It's extremely important to keep equipment clean, Smith states, particularly esophageal feeders and OB equipment.

Weather extremes

When do producers need to be concerned about weather affecting newborn calves? When the temperature is outside of a calf's thermonetural zone.

The thermonetural zone is a temperature range where calves don't need extra energy or effort to stay warm or cool down, thus not suffering distress from being unable to adjust temperature.

Newborn calves are not as prepared as older animals to thermo-regulate their body temperature. When air temperature gets too far from the thermoneutral zone, calves cannot keep up, becoming chilled or heat stressed.

The thermoneutral zone for newborn calves is between 10° and 26°C (50° to 80°F); month-old calves' range is between 0° and 23°C (32° to 75°F).

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension veterinarian Dave Smith compares the thermoneutral zone to shirt-sleeve weather for humans. When the temperature is in that range, we are comfortable. If it's outside the range, we either put on a jacket or seek an air conditioner.

Hot box — or not?

A “hot box” used to revitalize extremely cold-exposed calves can be very effective — for saving an occasional calf. But if it's part of the management plan, ranchers need to be wary of the high pathogen load to which they're exposing susceptible calves.

A calf that is bright, alert and bawling probably doesn't need the extra attention. But sluggishness, slow response and lack of a suckle reflex are all reasons to intervene, says Dave Smith, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension veterinarian. To go along with that, if it's very cold, the calf needs to be warmed up and given colostrum.

“It's those two components: taking care of its body temperature and taking care of the energy,” Smith says.

Testing for profit potential

Shaun Sweiger, DVM points to another pre-weaning tool — pre-calving actually — that can reduce stress and economic loss on multiple fronts: testing for persistent infection with Bovine Viral Diarrhea virus (PI-BVDv).

“Given the research that exists, hopefully producers are testing for PI-BVDv prior to the breeding season so they're not re-creating the problem if they have one,” Sweiger says.

He points to research from Colorado State University that indicates PI-BVDv infection can cost $10-$24/breeding cow across the entire herd, stemming from abortions, late breeding and sub-par breeding performance. In his own practice, Sweiger says calves testing negative for PI-BVDv — at stocker level — are gaining 0.5-0.75 lbs. more/day on average than those exposed to a PI-BVDv calf.

So the average test cost of about $4/head can pay substantial returns. At mimimum, Sweiger suggests that cow-calf producers test their calf crop once to know if the problem exists in their herd.
Wes Ishmael

Genetics and immune function

Up to now, about the only way a cattleman could help his cattle develop a strong immune system was by vaccination. But information is growing that immune function and health may begin long before an animal is ready for vaccination, says Gordon Brumbaugh, a veterinarian with Pfizer Animal Health.

“Studies have identified genetic contributors to resistance against some diseases. As more is learned about particular genetic markers, specific selection criteria may be available. The genetic basis for health emphasizes that preparing defenses against disease may actually begin with selection of brood stock.”

The "Greening Of America:" What's the Beef?

America is getting “greener,” at least in the minds of consumers concerned about the environment.

From Al Gore's film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” to activists who condemn “factory farming,” the “greening of America” is a part of pop culture that is swaying an uninformed public in believing animal agriculture is hurting the environment. And, to an extent at least, it's successful. Some actually believe cutting back on beef consumption will help “save the planet.”

Correcting this misinformation and better informing consumers about beef production and environmental stewardship is a chore the industry must and is taking on, says Rick McCarty, vice president of issues management for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

Fighting against the anti-beef forces is nothing new for the industry. But it's apparent that with the onslaught of more news coverage and an increase in anti-beef and anti-agriculture Internet sites, as well as ongoing calls for more environmental action by activists, the need for the industry's role in educating consumers is greater.

Countering consumer misconceptions about beef's role in the environment is part of the industry's checkoff-funded “Beef — from Pasture to Plate” program. A major segment of the program is contained at, an NCBA-managed site that helps tell the story of cattle producers' commitment to providing wholesome beef and protecting the land, water and air.

But there are a lot of anti-beef lies and rhetoric to wade through; propaganda put out by environmental groups and activists with tens of millions of dollars in their coffers. They prey on consumers stuck in “the fuzzy spot.”

“Consumers don't know how beef gets from the pasture to the plate,” McCarty says. “They see cattle grazing peacefully in a pasture as they drive down a highway. Their next encounter with beef is a set of choices at the meat case or a steak on their plate. In between the pasture and the plate is a knowledge vacuum we call the fuzzy spot.”

Activists discovered the potential of that fuzzy spot years ago, and they exploit it by attempting to fill that vacuum with misinformation. McCarty uses the popular Wikipedia website as an example, in that the site is often visited by web users in search of information. But not everything on Wikipedia is factual.

“The result of widespread misinformation is a new concept called Wikiality,” he says. “It involves the belief that something is true if enough people believe it's true. The more something gets repeated, the less likely it is to be questioned until it reaches the point that it's considered conventional wisdom.”

Activists, such as those who produced “The Meatrix” — a series of short, animated web films that attack so-called factory farming and have been seen by an astonishing 15 million Internet visitors — have an objective of convincing consumers that “the steak on their plate comes at a high cost in terms of health, safety and the environment,” McCarty says.

They decry “factory farms,” such as feedyards and other confined animal operations, as promoters of animal cruelty, BSE, E. coli, cancer, heart disease and water and air pollution. Examples of the message being put out by activists and others can be found at

Public opinion changing

The misinformation that meat produced at a feedyard or similar facility harms the environment has truly changed some public opinion. An NCBA-conducted, checkoff-funded survey found 32% of consumer respondents planning to “likely cut back on” beef consumption for environmental reasons; 16% said they already had.

“This points out that the whole greening of America thing is real,” McCarty says, adding that 43% of those surveyed indicated they were likely to buy more organic food in order to reduce greenhouse gases.

Local, sustainable, organically produced food is promoted by “The Meatrix” and by a wide range of activist groups. The Chipotle Grill chain of restaurants even used the slogan, “Get antibiotics from your doctor, not from your beef.”

The greening movement has certainly increased consumer interest in natural and organic beef, however, opening a niche-marketing door for some cattlemen. These entrepreneurs produce and market beef raised without antibiotics, growth hormones and animal byproduct feed supplements. Most produce natural beef not because they believe conventional beef products are bad, but because of the growing demand and market premiums.

Natural beef is available at most supermarket meat counters; most taste good, are tender and carry a USDA stamp. They're right up there with other branded cuts. Many feedyards have pens and rations devoted to natural animals. A premium of $5 or more/cwt. is common, though production costs also tend to be higher.

“These products are offering consumers a shortcut through the fuzzy spot to peace of mind, but they pay more money to take the shortcut,” McCarty says.

Greening is pressuring food producers and marketers into decision-making and actions they think benefit customers, employees, shareholders, communities — and the environment. “Companies are taking this corporate social responsibility seriously,” McCarty says.

Clearing it up

The fuzzy spot gets more and more murky to consumers confused about what's organic, what's natural and what is sustainable agriculture. “USDA has established standards for organic products, and if beef carries the certified organic label, consumers can find out how it was produced,” McCarty says.

“Still, checkoff-funded research has found significant consumer confusion about the difference between organic, natural, grass-fed and grain-fed beef.

“Food is no longer viewed essentially as a source of nutrients or eating as a source of pleasure,” McCarty says. “For many people, food has become a way of defining themselves; it is a social platform.

“The beef industry is increasing its capabilities for using the Internet and other resources better in efforts to get the industry's positive message across to help people understand the facts behind beef production and its impact on the environment.”

Larry Stalcup is a freelance writer based in Amarillo, TX.

From pasture to plate

The industry has its own version of how producers and feeders employ environmental stewardship — the site. It guides visitors through the stages of beef production, from the cow-calf operation, feedyard and ultimately to the meat counter.

It uses a series of testimonials and producer profiles to help inform visitors about all facets of beef production. Ranchers and feeders from Texas, California, Colorado, North Dakota, Wyoming, Michigan, Arizona, Massachusetts and other states are profiled through short videos. They cite the history of their operations and guide viewers through their production practices, animal welfare and dedication to preserving the environment.

“Cattle farmers and ranchers are credible with the public,” says Rick McCarty, vice president of issues management for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. “They're viewed as honest, hard-working and an embodiment of American values. Nobody knows beef production like beef producers and nobody is more credible to tell that story.”

“From Pasture to Plate” helps create a positive marketing environment for promotional efforts such as the “Beef. It's What's For Dinner” campaign, McCarty says. And it provides a better understanding of the overall industry and how projects like the Environmental Stewardship Award Program help ensure a sustainable and wholesome product.


When was the last time stocker production was harder than marketing?

Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist, asks that question in light of little, if any, wheat pasture available for grazing on the dry High Plains and the disastrous drought in the Southeast.

At the same time, feeder cattle futures prices remain high, generating a “value of gain” and profit probably as close to automatic as ever.

But this is, after all, the cattle market. And anything can happen around the corner or around the world to negatively impact prices just when you're ready to make the sale.

However, Peel sees opportunities for stocker operators to secure the good markets on the table - strategies that can protect against a wreck and even lock in a $30+/head profit.

“We often say production is easy and marketing is hard,” Peel says. “It's almost the opposite now. There are a lot of factors that project good feeder-cattle prices well into 2008.”

Those factors include a flat line in cattle numbers caused by the reverse in herd buildup. “In early 2006, we had a large pool of replacement heifers,” Peel notes. “But a lot of those were slaughtered (because of the drought). We've had to start all over again.”

That's keeping prices up there, in the $111-$112/cwt. range on the feeder-futures market.

On-feed figures tell the story

Cattle-on-feed and placement numbers show why feeder-cattle shortages will likely continue to see pressure. Nationally, there were 2.716 million head placed on feed in October, up 12% from the previous year. Every state but California and Idaho had higher placements in feedyards.

That's keeping prices in the $108-$112/cwt. range on the feeder futures market.

January's USDA Cattle On Feed Report indicated that feeder cattle shortages will continue to see pressure. Placements in feedlots during December totaled 1.70 milion, 1% below 2007 and 10% below 2006. Net placements were 1.64 million head.

Placements of cattle and calves weighing less than 600 lbs. were 480,000, compared to 470,000 a year earlier. Placements at 600-699 lbs. were 505,000, compared to 504,000 in 2006. Seven-weight placements totaled 420,000, equal to 2006. And 800-lb. placements were at 296,000, up from 320,000 in 2006.

It's likely that many of those cattle were sent to the feedyard before their owners wanted because of the lack of grazing, Peel says, adding that if dry conditions continue, even more pressure will be placed on replacement heifer buildup.

Since there's been little grazing in key stocker areas, calf prices are closer to feeder prices as far as overall value is concerned. So buying calves and grazing with supplements up to 800-850 lbs. should more than pencil out.

“Overall, you can easily see a 77-78¢ value of gain,” Peel says, “which is nearly the same as the cost of gain feedyards are seeing for finished cattle.”

For example, using Oklahoma City average prices, a 450-lb. steer would cost about $1.33/lb., for a total cost of about $600. If that animal is over-wintered to 850 lbs., it would be worth about $1.07/lb., based on Oklahoma City numbers.

Worth the risk?

A risk-management strategy could be used to protect that price. And spring and summer feeder-cattle futures have been offering such protection and even a profit.

Referring to futures prices in early December, Peel says stocker operators had the opportunity to lock in a profit using the March, April, May, August and even September feeder cattle futures contracts. “I can see these good prices for the foreseeable future,” he says.

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For example, April '08 feeder-cattle futures were trading near $111-$112/cwt. last fall. A producer could sell futures at that level and lock in a $4/cwt. profit, or more than a $30/head profit for an 850-lb. animal, based on its $107/cwt. value.

The same goes for cattle ready for the feedyard in May or into the summer and even fall. In fact, all '08 feeder cattle contracts were trading in the $111-$112 range last fall.

Options a possibility

Options could also work into the strategy, but be prepared to pay high options premiums, particularly for at-the-money puts. “The out-of-the-money puts can be a cheaper way to at least protect against a disaster,” Peel says.

Lenders could appreciate the options protection to cover a loan against a wreck. “Since there's virtually an even basis due to the shortage of cattle, the futures price can be a sound gauge for a cash price,” Peel says. “And a bank's loan portion of a cattle transaction could easily be covered.”

He suggests limiting options trades to more nearby months. “Options are sometimes thinly traded in the more distant months,” he says. “They may be too expensive. I wouldn't go out more than 3-4 months.”

If a stocker operator locks in a futures hedge, then sees a potential rally in the market, the “synthetic put” might be in order.

“With this strategy, you put in the floor price with the hedge, then buy a call option to obtain upside protection,” Peel says. “You can delay this strategy and not buy the call until later to reduce the premium cost.”

Winter of opportunity

With the tighter margins between lighter and heavier calves, producers can buy calves at heavier weights and still expect to see good results, he adds.

“Before, there was little interest in keeping stockers after 650 lbs.,” he says. “Now, feedyards are buying cattle as big as they can get. They don't want to pay the cost of feeding them high-priced corn.”

That's making the stocker business easier. “You can just about own them as long as you want and they will work.

“We're almost in a situation that an old-fashioned program will work,” Peel says. “You can dry-winter calves on a little pasture and supplement, then graze them in the summer.”

That may mean feeding lower quality hay until there's pasture, getting out of your comfort zone and looking beyond the ordinary for the forage-based gains that should be profitable.

He points out hay supplies are generally tight on a regional basis. “Hay quality is marginal in many situations, even when supplies are adequate,” Peel says. This fact and the lack of wheat pasture means that most producers are managing feed supplies pretty conservatively.

“In the face of high supplemental feed costs, it's essential for cattlemen to carefully manage costs and utilize forage resources wisely.”

Of course, cost of putting on the pounds will likely vary from ranch to ranch. Peel suggests stocker operators figure all their costs of production and run a spreadsheet to determine a total cost of production.

“That can help determine how much risk, if any, you want to cover with hedges or even options.”

Peel says there's no indication cow-calf or stocker producers are interested in being very aggressive with production plans until they see how spring and summer forage conditions develop. Until then, keeping an eye on marketing potential may be your best bet.

Larry Stalcup is a freelance writer based in Amarillo, TX.

Two new grasses for Southern Plains

Meet “Verl” and “Chet,” two new forage-grass varieties engineered to provide year-round grazing developed by Agricultural Research Service scientists at the Southern Plains Range Research Station in Woodward, OK. Both varieties were released in cooperation with the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station and USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Researchers set out to develop both warm- and cool-season grasses for livestock to graze year-round by increasing seed and forage production, persistence, and quality within grazing systems. Grasses also needed to have longevity on highly erodible lands and complement native rangeland.

The area's extended dry periods, insects and diseases provided a formidable challenge for development. Researchers began by working with their existing foundation: two warm-season grass species, eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) and sand bluestem (Andropogon hallii), and a cool-season variety, Texas bluegrass (Poa arachnifera). All are native to the Southern Plains, but each has its own drawbacks.

In 2005, researchers released a new eastern gamagrass called “Verl,” the first gamagrass released from a hybrid breeding program. In field trials, Verl equaled or surpassed standards set by a highly productive gamagrass called “Pete,” (released in 1988). Verl's forage dry matter yield was on an average 11% greater than Pete's when tested in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, Florida and New York. In an experiment conducted at Woodward, the Verl variety produced 45% more seed than Pete.

Sand bluestem, lauded for its forage palatability, high yield and positive ecological impact, also has a new variety called “Chet.” Dry matter yield was almost 9% greater for Chet than that of a key sand bluestem variety called “Woodward” (developed during the 1950s). In addition, the Chet variety produced growth of about 2.5 lbs./day on stocker cattle over a 62-day grazing period.

Researchers are continuing their work with bluegrass to develop a perennial, cool-season forage grass that's economical, environmentally friendly and a sustainable alternative to wheat as a cool-season forage.
ARS Research Report, February 2008

Heifers developed to 50 or 55% of mature body weight had similar reproductive performance compared to heifers developed to traditional recommendations (60-65% of mature body weight), researchers at the University of Nebraska West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte say.

Two experiments evaluated prebreeding target body weight and progestin exposure for heifers developed lighter than traditional recommendations.

Experiment 1 evaluated the effects of the system on heifer performance through subsequent calving and rebreeding over three years. A total of 119 heifers (505 lbs.) were randomly assigned to be developed to 55% of mature body weight (660 lbs.) before a 45-day breeding season (intensive, INT). Another 142 heifers were assigned and developed to 50% of mature bodyweight (600 lbs.) before a 60-day breeding season (relaxed, RLX).

Prebreeding and pregnancy diagnosis body weight were greater for INT than RLX heifers. Overall pregnancy rate did not differ (88.4%), but RLX heifers had later calving dates (7 days) and lighter calf-weaning weights (428 lbs. ± 9 lbs. vs. 439 lbs. ± 9 lbs.) compared with INT heifers.

Calf birth weight, calving difficulty, second-calf conception rates and two-year-old retention rate did not differ between systems. Cost per pregnant two-year-old cow was less for the RLX than the INT heifer-development system. Of the heifers that failed to become pregnant, a greater proportion of heifers in the RLX than in the INT system were prepubertal when breeding season began.

A second two-year experiment evaluated melengestrol acetate (MGA, 0.5 mg/day) as a means of hastening puberty in heifers developed to 50% of mature body weight. Heifers were randomly assigned to the control (n = 103) or MGA (n = 81) treatment for 14 days and were placed with bulls 13 days later for 45 days. Prebreeding and pregnancy diagnosis for body weight were similar (617 lbs. and 838 lbs., respectively) for heifers in the control and MGA treatments. The proportion of heifers pubertal before breeding (74%), pregnancy rate (90%), calving date, calf weaning weight and second breeding season pregnancy rate (92%) were similar between treatments.

Researchers conclude that developing heifers to 50 or 55% of mature body weight resulted in similar overall pregnancy rates, and supplementing the diets of heifers to 50% of mature body weight with MGA before breeding did not improve reproductive performance.
Martin, et al, 2008, Journal of Animal Science, 86:451.

California Nightmare

The tentacles of the largest beef recall in history – 143,383,823 lbs. – have reached all across the country. If the surreptitious video of exhausted and disabled dairy cattle being tortured to take their last few steps to the kill box of the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, CA weren’t disturbing enough, local papers around the country were heralding coverage on school districts that utilized product from the offending firm in their cafeterias.

Reportedly, school cafeterias in 36 states received product from Hallmark/Westland, which is USDA’s second-largest supplier of meat to the federal school lunch program. Most of the voluntarily recalled meat is thought to be already consumed, and there have been no reported illnesses. Rather, federal meat inspection services were pulled because the firm “did not consistently contact the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with FSIS regulations,” USDA says.

The company actually consists of two operations. Hallmark Meat Packing is the processor, and Westland Meat Co. marketed the product. Incidentally, the firm was cited as a supplier of the year by the National School Lunch Program in 2005. Last year, the federal government purchased nearly $39 million of ground beef from Westland/Hallmark out of total annual sales of roughly $100 million.

Charges filed

At press time, media reported two workers – one 49 years old and the other 32 years old – had been charged in the incident. Of course, management was out in front, at first claiming the footage was fake, and later crying ignorance of the conditions.

In a statement posted on the company’s website, president Steve Mendell said: “Words cannot accurately express how shocked and horrified I was at the depictions contained on the video that was taken by an individual who worked at our facility from October 3 thru [sic] November 14, 2007.”

It made me think of what animal-handling guru Temple Grandin told me a few years ago when we worked together on an article on the audits she was conducting of animal-handling practices in the nation’s packing plants. She said the number- one factor governing the quality of animal handling in such facilities was the attitude of management. If management is engaged and forceful, these types of incidents don’t happen.

A watershed incident?

The fallout over the incident is tough to gauge at this point, but it has all the makings of a watershed incident – egregious cruelty toward animals, dirty conditions that can stir wonder about the quality of the overall meat supply, plus a reach that extends right into our kids’ cafeterias.

While anti-meat groups gloat over the coup, politicians are lining up for their turn in front of the camera. Among them is Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT), chairwoman of the House Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration Appropriations Subcommittee, who is leading a Democratic call for “an independent government investigation into the safety of meat in the National School Lunch Program.”

With the Humane Society of the U.S. − which planted the undercover worker and released the footage − claiming to have such moles currently embedded in a handful of other livestock operations as well, brace yourself for more potentially bad news about “factory farming.” That is, unless all industry players strive to prove Hallmark is indeed an isolated incident