Reducing stocker health risk

Plan ahead, define the problem, use proven tools.

Industry Voice by Zoetis

December 13, 2018

5 Min Read
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“A mismanaged calf today responds the same way that a mismanaged calf responded 20 years ago,” says Dan Thomson, DVM and Jones Professor of Production Medicine and Epidemiology at Kansas State University (KSU).

Thomson knows that observation runs counter to current dogma. He sees data that suggests the opposite. He hears that calf health is declining and all of the potential reasons: everything from younger calves entering the market channel, to genetic potential overwhelming immune systems, to decreased heterosis, to…

But, Thomson is a third-generation cattle veterinarian with a world of practical experience doctoring stocker and feedlot cattle. If true direct comparisons could be made, he’d bet the difference in calf health today compared to a couple of decades ago is more similar than different.

Such comparisons would require the ability to measure differences between cattle from the same source, of the same genetics, managed the same way, shipped at the same time of year, in similar conditions, before arriving at the same stocker operation or feedlot, where they’re managed the same.

“I don’t think it’s cattle genetics, available antibiotics or anything else. Drive down the alley of about any feedlot, and the industry is not short of crossbreeding,” Thomson says with a chuckle.

As for the increased death loss documented in feedlots over time, Thomson says, “I think one reason we’re seeing it is that we’re feeding cattle so much longer.” In rounds numbers, he reckons cattle today are on feed 30-50 days longer than a decade or so ago.

“I’m not an epidemiologist, but I remember hearing that the longer you live, the more chances you have to die,” he says.

Rather than calf health itself, Thomson believes the change producers sense over time has to do with the shifting environment in which stocker cattle are managed.

Overloading the system

For one thing, Thomson notes the declining number of folks who want to work with cattle, as well as the declining experience of those who do want to work with them.

Less labor and experience, making it easier to overload a system with high-risk calves.

“We need to plan our help accordingly,” Thomson says. “Peak morbidity on ranch-fresh calves will occur about 30 days after receiving. For high-risk calves, peak morbidity occurs closer to the time of arrival. If you’re buying high-risk calves, make sure you have enough help for the numbers you’re buying. Otherwise, buy fewer, low-risk cattle.”

Increased reliability of defining the health risk is why Thomson believes it’s critical to procure cattle from buyers you trust.

“I can deal with cattle that are going to be a problem if I know they’re going to be a problem,” Thomson explains. “When you work with someone you trust, who knows the people putting the cattle up for sale, that makes a huge difference.”

He believes the advantage is even greater for anyone starting out in the stocker business.

“If you’re starting out, work with someone to procure cattle that aren’t as much of a health risk. That way you can focus on other things in the beginning, like building fences, processing and nutrition.”

Reducing health risk ahead of receiving includes building groups efficiently (no more than a week) and working with known and trusted truckers, according to Thomson. He adds health risk increases with time and miles of the haul.

With so many variables in play, Thomson remains a firm advocate of using metaphylaxis with high-risk calves (see “Mass Opportunity”).

Defining the problem

“Most times, we’d like to blame the drug, but that’s hardly ever the case. Ten percent of the cattle sick with BRD will die, no matter what we do,” Thomson says. “When we get into increased death loss, we have to ask ourselves whether it’s an issue of morbidity or case fatality rate (CFR).”

Using BRD as the example, he explains CFR is simply the number of cattle treated for BRD that ultimately succumb to BRD, relative to the total population of cattle treated for BRD. Morbidity, of course, is the number of cattle treated for BRD, relative to the population.

Confusing the two can lead folks down the wrong treatment path.

Suppose the mortality rate of newly arrived stocker cattle is already running 5%, compared to 1% for the last group. If you focus on mortality alone, Thomson says the knee-jerk reaction is to hasten to change treatment products and protocols.

When you consider CFR, though, both mortality rates may in fact be equal; if 50% of the new pen was pulled and treated vs. 10% in the previous one. In this example, the drugs and the protocol worked the same as they did the last time.

Rather than jumping to a different antibiotic amid a health wreck, Thomson says, “I think about things like where the cattle came from, how they were managed and why they responded differently.”

Acclimation becoming more important

Another change in the stocker environment is the cattle themselves. Despite all of the chatter about low-stress cattle handling and the number of producers earnestly embracing low-stress practices, Thomson believes cattle today are less domesticated than they were, due to advances in other management areas.

“We get out of the pickup just long enough to pop the twine and unroll a bale of hay. We feed in fence-line bunks and never get out of the tractor. For treatment, we dart cattle from the pickup window,” Thomson says.

“If cattle don’t trust us, they take longer to show us the clinical signs of a disease. Acclimate the cattle. You wouldn’t think of throwing a saddle over a colt until you spent time with the horse. It’s the same with cattle. When we spend time with them we have a better chance of the cattle saying, ‘I don’t feel good, help me.’ We need to make sure we have the proper facilities for low-stress handling and that we use low-stress handling. Then, you’ve got to live with them.”

Despite the need to focus on reducing the risk of health challenges, Thomson emphasizes, “I’m so proud of our industry and what producers do when it comes to providing care to cattle and managing their health.”

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