Low-Stress Weaning Helps Boost Calf Immunity

When you feed your calves and see the results of your management and genetic decisions further down the marketing chain, it changes your perspective. Here's how Mike Healy hit a home-run with his calf crop this past year.

Burt Rutherford, Senior Editor

June 30, 2014

7 Min Read
Low-Stress Weaning Helps Boost Calf Immunity

Like many young men who return to the ranch where they grew up, Mike Healy had big dreams back in 1982 when he went home to the LU Ranch at Worland, WY. Despite the inevitable conflicts he knew he would have with his father, Healy’s inquisitive nature and ability to see the long term made him think he could make what his dad had built even better.

Some 30 years later, it’s still a work in progress, he says. And while his 2012 calf crop, fed and harvested in 2013, indicates he’s come a long way in reaching his goals, he’s not ready to say he’s arrived. Ranching is a complicated business, and he says it seems he’s always struggling just to catch up.

“When you go in with enthusiasm, you make all these changes. Some are bad, some are good. You eliminate the bad ones, keep refocusing and focus on the good ones,” he says. It’s a philosophy he still holds today, and it’s the philosophy that underpins his whole approach to ranch management.

His weaning protocol is a good example. For many years, his ranch weaned traditionally, separating the cows and calves and letting them bawl it out. That’s fine when they were selling wet-nosed calves. But Healy and his father began retaining ownership in the late 1980s. By the mid-’90s, Healy began feeding the entire calf crop from his 1,400-head cowherd at Decatur County Feedyard in Oberlin, KS.

When you feed your calves and see the results of your management and genetic decisions further down the marketing chain, it changes your perspective, Healy says.

First, a marketing lesson

“Nobody in our outfit is good enough to tell you what the market is going to do,” says Kevin Unger, Decatur County Feedyard manager. So the feedyard centers its marketing program on historical seasonal movements in the fed-cattle market. “We try to market cattle in the high of the spring, with the second high coming in the fall,” he says.

Traditionally, Healy would wean in October and then background the calves in a yard near Worland for 1½-2 months before shipping them to the feedyard. But that protocol meant the cattle wouldn’t finish until June and July, which is the seasonal bottom of the fed-cattle market.

calf immunity tips

“Our profit was $8/head,” Healy says. “For the risks you’re taking, $8/head isn’t worth it. There were years we’d lose $150 and years we’d make $150. It’s fun making $150, but losing $150 takes a notch out of your hide. So we needed to find something more dependable.”

So he began listening to what the folks at Decatur County Feedyard had been telling him — that he needed to change his management procedure so his calves would hit the spring highs in the fed-cattle market.

Healy’s consulting nutritionist had been encouraging him to try early weaning. “But we tried to cheat on it at first,” he says. “We said, ‘Let’s just ship directly to the feedyard.’ The cattle would get through quicker, but they still weren’t selling in April. They were typically selling in late May. But it was earlier, so we were making progress.”

Health ramifications

But weaning early and shipping directly, without the benefit of backgrounding, led to some major health problems after the calves went on feed. “We couldn’t overcome our health problems, and we eventually had to stop doing that,” he says.

He heard about the nose-flap method of weaning and tried that. “We really liked it,” he says, but he was still weaning and shipping directly to the feedyard. And still experiencing health issues.

He went back to weaning them straight again; the result was an 8% death loss. So Unger and the feedyard’s consulting veterinarian made a visit to the LU Ranch, where the veterinarian diagnosed the problem as one common to large Western ranches.

Healy runs around 1,400 cows in the high desert of the West, an area that gets only 9-10 in. of precipitation. His stocking rate is 8-9 pairs/section, meaning big pastures and little contact between groups of cattle.

The problem, the vet said, was that the calves had a naïve immune system. Even with vaccination, their immune systems hadn’t fully developed before they shipped to the feedyard, where they mingled with calves from many different sources. “We knew that was an issue, the naïveté of the immune system. We knew we were also stressing them by the way we weaned,” Healy says.

Fenceline weaning wasn’t practical, given the expansive pastures. “So we tried the nose flaps again. We found that when we weaned them, the calves are absolutely quiet. They don’t mind getting weaned, and they don’t mind getting on the truck. It’s the cows that are bawling.”

Changing the weaning procedure dealt with the stress of traditional weaning. “But we needed to do something about allowing their immune systems to develop,” Healy says. That was conquered by returning to the backgrounding feedlot, where the calves stay for two months, developing on a high-roughage ration.

And they continued early weaning. “We said, ‘Let’s really shoot at the April target. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting a lot closer.’ ”

The 2012 calf crop was weaned the last week of August. The steer calves from the 2-year-olds were weaned Sept. 10. After a stop in the backgrounding feedlot, the calves were shipped in mid-November.

Hitting a home run

And the calves hit a home run. Here’s the “tale of the tape” after harvest in mid-May, with a comparison with the 2009 calf crop in parentheses:

  • Average daily gain, 3.78 lbs./day  (3.67 lbs. in 2009)

  • Ribeye area, 13.4 sq. in. average (12.5 sq. in. in 2009)

  • 48.7% in upper 2/3 Choice, 30.1% lower Choice for a total of 78.8% in the Choice grade (25.6% in upper 2/3 Choice and 42.9% in lower Choice in 2009, for a total of 68.5%.)

  • Yield grade, average of 2.8 (same as 2009)

  • Hot carcass weight, 862 lbs. average (816 lbs. in 2009)

  • Feed efficiency, 4.87 lbs. of feed/lb. of gain (5.41 in 2009)

  • Dressing percentage, 64.42% (63.1% in 2009)

To some extent, Healy credits those numbers to the changes in his weaning and health management. “I think they were healthier last year, and I think that helped the conversion,” he says. “Good health improves feed conversion, and it improves the quality grade.”

The year before, when he weaned directly to the feedlot and had such high death loss, quality grade took a big hit. “If it’s getting sick and they have to doctor it, it’s not going to grade, it’s not going to convert well and it’s not going to gain well,” he says.

But Healy is quick to point out that everything has to work in concert. “It takes a long time to get to this point,” he says.

Over the past 30 years, he’s made several changes in his genetics. Some worked, some didn’t. He changed his grazing strategy, using water distribution and lick barrels to manage grazing pressure and provide supplement at the same time. And he changed lots of other things on the ranch, and continues to look for ways to keep up with the changing dynamics of ranching today.

“We target how to make the most from the choices we have in our genetic selections and our on-the-ranch management to try to have a marketing program that will be profitable most of the time,” he says. “You focus on health, you focus on timing and you focus on genetics. If I survive long enough, I’ll look back 10 years from now and say I should have been focusing on a couple of other things.”

In an industry that’s always changing, that’s a given. But given that Healy feels he’s always a step or two behind his goals, and he’s always trying to catch up with where he wants to be, it likely won’t take him 10 years to refocus himself and remake his management to fit the changing paradigms of a complicated, shifting business.


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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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