Livestock

Are your cattle fit to ship?

Evaluate health, condition of animals before transport

Transportation plays an important role in livestock production. The most recent National Beef Quality Audit shows that cattle—beef or dairy—are transported at least once and up to six times during their life. Ensuring the health and welfare of these animals at each transport opportunity is a great responsibility. Proper handling and transport of cattle can reduce sickness in calves, prevent bruising and improve the quality of meat from these animals.

Fitness for transport is an important concept that applies to all cattle stages—from calves and feeders to cull cows and bulls—and can affect both animal and human safety. This live-animal evaluation is critical to deciding whether cattle are able to withstand the rigors of transport, including standing for long periods of time.

Each trip to the auction market, the next pasture, backgrounding or finishing feedyards, and other destinations is an opportunity to improve animal welfare through transportation and fitness-for-transport decisions. The checkoff-funded Beef Quality Assurance Transportation program was designed for guidance on these topics.

The following are a few important aspects to consider when determining whether cattle are fit for transport.

Evaluate cattle condition and history
Never ship an animal you do not think can withstand the rigors of transport or marketing. This includes extremely emaciated animals and cattle that are exhausted or dehydrated. Having a plan for caring for or humanely euthanizing a non-ambulatory animal should be part of your protocol, since these animals cannot be slaughtered. Always confirm animals have cleared drug withdrawal times before transporting them to sale or slaughter.

Prep the cattle
Provide cattle access to water up until they load onto the trailer, as it improves health in the short term and upon arrival. A modest meal within 24 hours prior to transport, especially for trips longer than four hours, has also been shown to improve cattle response during travel and at the destination. Duration of transport can have significant animal welfare outcomes, and preparing cattle for the trip can improve their response to transport stressors.

Watch the weather
In warmer months, temperature and humidity can burden or improve the transport process. Pre-trip planning can help ensure cattle are loaded or unloaded in a cooler part of the day. Another consideration for younger and smaller cattle is they will need different loading densities versus older cattle in warmer weather.

Move cattle slowly
Animal handling is an integral piece to cattle health, especially during transportation events. Moving animals in a low-stress, gentle and quiet manner reduces stress on the cattle during and after transport. Using acceptable handling tools as an extension of yourself when needed can improve the efficiency of cattle movement. These practices also reduce the risk of defects such as dark cutters, bruising and wasted product.

Be proactive in culling decisions
Many cows and bulls are culled due to a decrease in productivity or an illness such as lameness. When animals are culled proactively, these animals are in a comparatively healthier state with a slightly higher body condition and have less risk of becoming lame or going down on the trailer. Producers are encouraged to work to cull animals earlier in the disease process, as long as drug withdrawal times are met, so animals can safely make it to their final destination without the risk of being condemned.

Transportation can be one of the most stressful events for livestock animals. However, when transporting them in a responsible manner, you make the animals’ well-being and human safety a top priority. The most visible aspect of the livestock industry is when cattle are moved across the country on wheels every day. Each stakeholder, from the cattle owner to the transporter, should strive for responsible transport decisions.

-DR. JIM WHITE
Director of Nutrition
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Keep cows in condition for better breeding

Understanding the relationship between body condition scores and rebreeding efficiency is a powerful management tool for cattle produc­ers. Ensuring that a cow calves in good flesh is one of the most effec­tive ways to encourage reproductive efficiency. Body condition scoring allows the manager to evaluate the nutritional program’s efficacy.

Body condition scores are num­bers used to suggest the fatness or body composition of the cow. Producers calibrate the BCS system under their own conditions using their own cattle. When you use BCS, keep the procedure simple. It is not worth your time and effort to use a 100-point scale trying to de­cide if a cow is a 52 or a 53. Cows are in good flesh, or they are not.

The most commonly used system consists of 9 grades. A cow with a BCS of 1 is very emaciated and unlikely to be seen in the field alive. A cow scoring as a 2 or 3 means “thin.” The cow will look angular, skinny, and sharp. A cow with a BCS of 7, 8 or 9 is fat. It looks boxy and smooth and its bone structure is hidden from sight and feel. “Nor­mal” commercial beef cows will typically have BCS of 4, 5 and 6.

Over the years, beef experts have settled on a few times of year that are optimal for checking body con­dition. These points are significant in the breeding cycle. If you pay close attention, you’ll have an op­portunity to help cows recover body condition through feeding and sort­ing. Typically, it’s a 90- to 120-day schedule, with particular scrutiny at 30 days prior to breeding, 90 days post-breeding, weaning, 100 days prior to calving, and at calving. By evaluating BCS at set times, a man­ager can strategically allocate forage resources and offer supplements to correct nutrient deficiencies.

One of the main constraints in reproductive performance of beef cows is the post-calving anestrous period—the length of time between calving and when she is once again able to become pregnant. To main­tain a standard 60-day breeding program, cows need to go into calving in adequate condition. Cows that have low body condition at calving are less likely to return to estrus in a timely manner. It is possible but difficult and expensive to dramatically improve body con­dition after calving. Cows in early lactation already have many physio­logical demands, and the timeframe in which to work is short.

The best practice is for cows to go into calving season in good condition but not over-conditioned. Fat cows have their own set of problems. Cows in good flesh have adequate energy reserves without carrying excess flesh.

Routine monitoring of BCS is a valuable tool to evaluate your nutrition program and help prevent problems before they become serious. Shortcomings are easier to fix the sooner they are noticed and addressed. MFA livestock specialists can help with learning how to score cattle. The image above is a score­card MFA has developed. You can also find many other industry and university publications on BCS.

The idea is to look in a few key areas on the animals: the ribs, the vertebrae in front of the hooks, and the tail head. Using select criteria for each area, the animals are scored against a rubric. For instance, if the outline of the vertebrae is apparent, the cow will score 4 or lower. If more than two ribs are easily seen, the cow will score 5 or lower.

For spring calvers, taking cows into winter with a good body condition score provides long-term benefits. Cows in good condi­tion generally deliver healthier calves and have a higher chance of successful breed-back. Take time this fall to evaluate your cattle, and make corrective measures if nec­essary. Your MFA livestock experts will be happy to help.

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In doubt about drought?

If your area is not currently in a drought, projections are that soon it will be. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, in late July about half of Missouri was either in mod­erate or severe drought conditions. Drought is a part of the normal cycle of livestock production. Man­agement during these dry periods and decreased feed supplies needs to be part of the overall operational plan.

Drought conditions greatly reduce the available forage for live­stock. Legume forages will tend to be high in quality, but cool-season grasses that were kicked into repro­ductive growth potentially will be low in quality. Grazing grass while it’s in the reproductive stage tends to be stressful on plants.

When forage is short, producers must make tough management decisions that may involve selling or relocating livestock. The remaining animals will likely need alternative feeding programs. When consider­ing the options, keep your oper­ation’s goals in mind: rebreeding cows while maintaining calving in­tervals, maintaining pounds of calf produced per cow, and minimizing feed cost per pound of calf sold.

These considerations are im­portant when evaluating feeding options:

  • Design a program to fully utilize available feeds
  • Supplement low-quality feeds to correct nutrient deficiencies
  • Analyze forages and feed to determine nutrient content
  • Balance every ration with the animal’s requirements
  • Reduce feed losses

An important part of this strat­egy is to allocate forages based on priority. For example, feed the highest-quality forage to animals that have higher nutritional re­quirements, such as growing calves or wet cows. Feed lower-quality forages to older, bigger cows in the middle to third stage of pregnancy. Save the better-quality feeds for periods before and after calving. To improve intake and digestibility of low-quality forages, grind it, am­moniate it, or feed it with a soluble sugar and protein supplement.

Spring forage is always high in protein and relatively high in energy because of the lower fiber con­tent. Small grains, such as annual rye, triticale or oats can be used to fill the void of spring forage. In planning for next year, plant these varieties in August or September to provide even more forage the fol­lowing spring. If the annual forage has been stressed by drought, wind, excessive soil nitrogen, shade, frost, herbicides, acid soils, low growing temperatures or nutrient deficien­cies, be sure to have the forage tested for nitrates. High-nitrate forages are consumable if they are diluted with other feedstuffs and supplemented with energy. Keep the animal’s diet nitrate level below 2,500 parts per million for dairy cows and 4,400 for beef cows.

Weaning calves and placing them in a drylot with creep feed is very effective in reducing forage demand. MFA programs are well established for this practice, using products such as MFA Full Throt­tle, 14% Stockgrower, 16% Range Cubes, 20% Super Cattle Cubes, Cadence, Bucket Rattler Cubes, Cattle Charge or Forage Extend­er. Feeding half of the animals’ requirements as processed feed usually requires a feeding rate of 5 to 7 pounds per head per day, but cows can be maintained on as high as 80% Cattle Charge with tightly managed feeding.

If your forage supply is straw-based, feeding adequate protein is important, or there is a good chance the animals could become impact­ed. A feeding rate of 5 to 7 pounds of concentrate will help keep rumen fermentation going. The risk of im­paction increases if water availabili­ty is limited.

Feeding protein supplements every other day for animals on stockpiled forage is effective and reduces labor. This practice is far less effective, however, when energy needs to be fed. Feed the 5 to 7 pounds of feed at least once a day. Splitting feedings into two is better.

Also keep in mind that cattle grazing short pastures are more likely to pick up undesirable things such as parasites, hardware and weeds. Pastures should be moni­tored and animals dewormed.

Visit with your MFA livestock specialists or agronomists for more strategies to manage effectively through drought conditions.

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Troubled waters? Find an alternative

Droughts have a nasty way of decreasing water levels. This means that the streams, ponds, or even shallow wells that your cattle depend on may not be sufficient during dry spells. When this hap­pens, supplemental water is needed for grazing cattle.

One of the cheapest options, if available, is to use other wells, ponds or streams on the farm. Be­fore you do this, ensure the quality and quantity of the water source. Be careful when considering the use of shallow ponds during warm weath­er. Low water levels in warm ponds are ideal conditions for cyanobac­teria growth that can release toxins into the water.

If you are putting an old well back into use, make sure the pump you’re using is appropriate for the job. If electrical power isn’t available at the well, engine-driven, solar or battery-powered pumps are an option. Look at storage capacity re­quirements here as well. From per­sonal experience, I can assure you that it is easy to inadvertently get a pump that exceeds the capacity of the well to supply water. Match the well’s capability to the pump, rather than using whichever pump was lying around unused.

When using alternative watering options, often the most straightfor­ward strategy is to move cattle to the new source. The specifics will depend on your operation, but tem­porary lane fencing can be helpful in cases like this. If moving cattle to the water source isn’t practical, the other option is to move the water to the cattle.

If the new water source is within 1,000 feet, consider piping it into the pasture. You’ll need to consider the terrain, the pipe size, pump capacity and storage capacity to determine if this is feasible. Tem­porary above-ground piping works well until sustained below-freezing temperatures. You can lay polyeth­ylene pipe along fence lines and protect it when it cuts across gates or roads.

If neither moving cattle to the water source nor piping water to the pasture is possible, the final option is to haul water. Hauling water is effective but gets old very quickly. If you’re loading water from a non-pressurized source, you’ll probably need a transfer pump. Don’t load water into tanks that have held liquid fertilizers, fuel, pesticides, etc. Make sure that tanks are ap­propriately secured to the vehicle or trailer and that towing vehicles have sufficient hauling power and braking capacity.

While hauling water with a vehi­cle, try not to brake sharply. When you start to brake, the water moves forward in a wave. The water hits the front of the tank, and then the wave reverses and thumps the back of the tank. The harder the braking, the more pronounced the effect. This can be a source of anxiety.

Getting water to the pasture is often the greatest challenge, but it is also important to consider what to do with the water once it’s at the pasture. If you’re connecting a new supply to an existing water distri­bution system, remember to first disconnect the old water supply from the system. If the flow rate or pressure of the new supply is too low, consider using a surge or supply tank with a second pump to feed the distribution system.

When you’re hauling water to pasture, you’ll need a supply tank. Don’t use the original well as a supply tank. While at first glance it seems like a good idea, doing so risks contaminating the well and often results in significant loss of water. There are several options for how to hold water in a pasture. The transport tank can serve as the supply tank, or you can offload it into a separate supply tank. Above-ground tanks such as firefighting supply tanks or swimming pools work well. Shallow dugout ponds lined with plastic can also work. Re­gardless of the type of supply tank, the minimum volume should be the complete water requirement for the cattle between deliveries.

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When animals can’t take the heat

Summer is hot on our heels here in MFA territory. For any livestock operation, heat abatement is critical. Heat stress decreases animal com­fort, health and performance. When temperatures and humidity rise, it’s essential to ensure adequate shade and plenty of water, no matter what type of animals you’re raising.

Here are some important consid­erations by species:

BEEF CATTLE

Compared to other animals, cattle cannot dissipate their heat load very effectively. Cattle do not sweat effectively and rely on respiration to cool themselves. As a compounding factor on top of climatic conditions, the fermentation process within the rumen generates additional heat.

Typically, pastured cattle are not as susceptible to heat stress as feedlot cattle. Pastured cattle have the ability to seek shade, water and air movement to cool themselves. In addition, radiant heat from dirt or concrete surface is increased for feedlot cattle. At temperatures above 80 degrees, cattle endure physiologic stress trying to deal with their heat load. Although cattle at this temperature are not at risk of dying, they will have increased maintenance requirements.

In addition to shade and water, nutrition can help in heat abate­ment. Provide a product with MFA Shield Technology or MFA FesqQ Max mineral. These products have been shown to reduce the effect of infected fescue and increase blood flow, helping the animals stay cooler and out grazing longer.

DAIRY CATTLE

Hot weather can bring a long list of problems for dairy producers. When cows are heat stressed, they eat less, produce less milk, have re­duced immune function and higher somatic cell count, and experience reduced fertility. A spike in lameness often follows warm spells. In severe heat waves, cows can even die.

Recent work from the University of Florida emphasizes the impor­tance of providing heat abatement for non-lactating animals. The studies show cows pass the neg­ative effects of heat stress to their offspring and produce less milk during lactation if they experience increased heat in the dry period.

Providing shade, fans and misters to dairy cattle will promote profit­ability and increased milk produc­tion in your herd across multiple generations. Nutrition also plays a role. In addition to feeding products with Shield, evaluate feeding at least 1.5% potassium in the diet. Do not overfeed nonprotein nitrogen (NPN) supplements. If milk urea nitrogen values are greater than 17, reconsider the amount of NPN fed and evaluate the possibility of pro­viding additional fat in the diet.

In the summer, it is common to see a decline in butterfat test. Feed­ing buffer, such as 4 ounces bicar­bonate with 2 ounces magnesium oxide, will often help, as will feed­ing soluble fiber such as soyhulls, beet pulp and fuzzy cottonseeds.

POULTRY

Birds are subject to heat stress when the air temperature and humidity uncontrollably increase their core body temperature. Heat stress can result in panting, increased water intake and eventually death. Severe heat stress can cause drops in production efficiency and increased mortality rates in your flock. You may notice reduced growth rates, egg production and hatching rates.

Access to cool, fresh water, venti­lation and adjusted feed schedules can help provide relief. Digestion generates heat, and birds will be less likely to eat during the hotter parts of the day. You can supple­ment lost electrolytes by adding them to their water source, if neces­sary. Make sure your flock has plen­ty of space so they aren’t crowded. And keep your birds calm. Don’t let children, dogs or other pets chase or disturb your flock.

Heat stress can also cause a change in egg quality. You may no­tice smaller eggs, thinner shells and overall poor internal egg quality. A hen’s eggshell is made up of more than 90% calcium carbonate. The immediate result of inadequate calcium intake is an increase in cracked eggs and eggs with very thin eggshells. When such prob­lems appear, evaluate calcium intake and utilization. Calcium concentration in the feed, should be 4%. In general, hens require at least 4 grams of calcium per day at the beginning of their cycle and as much as 4.5 toward the end. Using MFA Quality Egg 16 or 18 feeds will reduce the incidence of soft shells in the summer.

Visit with your local MFA feed specialists for more information on how to mitigate the effects of heat stress this summer.

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