Stocker cattle health has always been a challenge, but the challenge seems to have increased over the years. We have some of the best vaccines and technology, but the mortality number has continued to rise.
Any number of things can influence stocker calf health. I have been told by backgrounders that the feed I formulate doesn’t influence calf health nearly as much as other variables. They tell me where the calves come from is important. How they were previously managed, weaned, bought and transported is a big factor. And how they were managed when received is important, too. Somewhere in the discussion, I usually try to point out that Cattle Charge really does help get calves off to a good start.
While variables other than feed are important in the health risk equation, the feed/ration that formulated is of absolute significance to how the calf will perform as soon as they hit the facility. For example, with long-haul, weaned-on-the-truck calves, the first few days is very important to offer a highly palatable and nutrient-dense pellet/ration that will compensate for low intake. Getting them to eat and having sound bunk management is absolutely key to prop up immunity status of the calf. You can have the best vaccination protocol, but if the calves do not eat a fully fortified/balanced diet for the expected intake, any amount of vaccine/medicine will not work as expected.
The vaccine to use will depend on the targeted pathogen, as well as the complexity of where the pathogen resides in the calf and the level of protection that can come from the vaccine. Your veterinarian should make specific vaccine recommendations based on your operation, the risk level of your cattle, and the past disease issues they have experienced.
The real cost of sick calves is reduced performance and death loss, not the cost of medication. Yes, some medications are expensive upfront costs, but the cost of poor performance or losing a calf is greater. Whittling away at costs of medication is to lose focus on the real cost—one dead calf buys a lot of medicine.
If you bring calves to the farm and don’t have a detailed knowledge of what you are bringing in, you’ll have little control over how they were weaned. You won’t know vaccination history or the what exposure to pathogens the animals have had. Nor will you know how they were handled, sold or transported. Somewhere in this discussion, I usually try to point out that buying Health Track calves assures you of previous management, ability to handle stress and generally improved performance.
Regardless of where you get backgrounders, it is important to match the available resources to the calves once they are settled and go onto grass or the backgrounding yard. The objective is to manage for performance.
If the calves are on a pasture, forage allocation/stocking rate is key. Animal performance will tend to improve as forage availability increases, but only up to a point. And increasing stocking rate tends to increase pounds of gain per acre, but only up to a point. The right forage availability/stocking rate depends on forage production, forage quality, cost inputs and value of weight gain.
Calves on a forage base will need to be supplemented. They will need added protein if the forage base is corn silage. They will need energy if the forage base is cool-season grass. Supplementing energy to energy-short forage rations improves calf performance and improves efficiency of feed utilization. In all situations their performance can be improved with feeding an approved feed additive—ionophores such as Rumensin or Bovatec and fly control when needed. If you do not feed a supplement, at least feed a mineral. Feeding mineral on pastured calves usually shows about a 0.25-pound improvement in average daily gain for calves compared to calves without access to mineral. Feeding an ionophore is worth about 0.2 pounds of average daily gain.
Consider using implants when feasible. In feeder cattle, estrogenic growth-promoting implants improve feed efficiency and daily gain 5 to 15 percent. Implants that include TBA can provide an additional 3 to 5 percent improvement in feed efficiency and daily gain. A good re-implant program can sustain implant-associated performance beyond the payout that would be expected for a single implant. If you are looking for a high quality grade, the most important thing is to never have an implant dosage that exceeds what the caloric intake can support at any stage of production. If they are eating enough to gain 3.5 lbs per day, that boost is 0.5 lbs per day. If they have enough calories to gain 1.5 lbs per day, the improvement is only 0.15 lbs. When the implant is going full-tilt and the calories aren’t there is what may negatively impact grade potential. Proper implant administration can improve the response to implanting. Proper use of disinfectants, using sharp needles, and proper placement are important. The principal problems of getting it wrong will be abscesses and crushed or missing implants. While some implants come with antibiotics, this is not a substitute for good implanting technique.
At weaning, calves not intended for breeding should be implanted with a “feeder”, or low-to moderate-potency implant. The feeder implant can be either an estrogenic implant or a combination estrogenic/TBA implant.
It is important to finish the feeding period with the most potent implant selected in the implanting program. Therefore, if a combination estrogenic/TBA implant is selected as the first implant, it should be used again in subsequent implantings. If an estrogenic implant without TBA is selected as the first implant, a similar product or an estrogenic/TBA implant can be selected for subsequent implanting.
You can delay implanting if the days on implant program do not fit with the expected days on feed. If the animals are high risk, implanting them increases nutrient requirements when their intake is already low.
Delaying implanting 20 to 30 days after they are placed in the feedlot has proven effective. For example, if a group of calves arrives at the feedlot weighing 500 pounds, and the expected days on feed to reach market weight is 240 days, delaying 30 days would allow for use of two implants rather than three.