Maintaining good cattle health is not only positive for making a profit, it is also a good animal welfare practice. Health program requirements vary along the beef production chain depending on the management practices executed in each earlier stage.
For instance, health management practices at the feedyard are dictated by the animal care provided during the cow-calf and stocker production stages.
“Preventive health programs at the cow-calf production level focus on reproduction and weaning quality calves,” says Dale Grotelueschen, DVM, MS, Great Plains Veterinary Education Center, University of Nebraska. “Major parts of the platform for the health of a calf are fetal programming and colostral immunity.”
“Fetal programming is defined as maternal stimuli during pregnancy that can affect fetal development, as well as postnatal growth and health of the progeny,” says Dr. Don Llewellyn, Washington State University Extension.
“The way beef cows are managed during pregnancy can have a significant effect on growth and performance of their offspring during their entire life,” he says.
Maternal nutrition may affect the growth and performance of the offspring well after weaning. Meat animals are raised for their skeletal muscle because that is what the public purchases. Muscle fiber development during gestation determines the muscle structure at birth and establishes conditions for muscle development in growing cattle pre- and post-weaning. Consequently, a decrease in the number of muscle fibers due to fetal programming permanently reduces muscle mass and thus reduces animal performance. A reduction in muscle mass can reduce the amount of salable beef product, resulting in economic implications for the producer.
“In addition to reduced birthweight potential, maternal malnutrition was shown to reduce weaning and slaughter weight as well,” says Dr. Carey Satterfield, Texas A&M University. “Reduced growth rates were associated with an imbalance of the hormones known to regulate growth and development. Maternal undernutrition also alters the expression of the genes associated with metabolism, which plays a role in the development of obesity and could potentially alter feed-to-gain ratios. Observations indicated that calves born to mothers receiving suboptimal nutrition during pregnancy required significantly more treatment for respiratory and/or gastrointestinal illness from weaning to slaughter than did calves born to well-fed mothers.”
Development of colostral immunity comes from the exposure of pregnant females to disease agents and agents in vaccines. Part of health management is initiating colostral immunity prior to calving by vaccinating cows against prominent diseases in the areas where calves are born and where they will be shipped.
Vaccination stimulates the immune system of the cow, causing her to build necessary antibodies to give passive immunity to the calf through her colostrum. It is important for a calf to receive this first stage of protection by consuming 5 to 6 percent of its body weight in colostrum within the first six hours of its life and another 5 to 6 percent within 12 hours of age. In addition to antibodies, colostrum contains the nutrients needed by a fresh-born calf.
An effective postnatal health program is exemplified by the Pitchfork Ranch at Guthrie. “Our health programs are designed to build calf immunity to major cattle diseases before they leave the ranch,” says Brooks Hodges, ranch manager.
“Our primary cattle enterprise is hormone- and antibiotic-free feeder calves. We calve in early spring and during April or May, we ear notch, brand, dehorn, castrate the bulls, and vaccinate against bovine viral diarrhea, Pasteurella and Clostridium diseases. We give the same vaccinations again when we wean during October or November. We give booster shots at 14 to 21 days post weaning. The herd is treated for internal and external parasites each time the cattle are worked. Weaned calves are grazed on winter wheat and then sold to feedlots in truck-load quantities the following spring. The calves usually remain in a closed herd throughout the marketing chain,” Hodges explains.
Stocker cattle health
The stocker cattle production stage occurs between the cow-calf operation and the feedyard. This step is often skipped when a cow-calf operator sells weaned calves as feeder cattle.
Stocker programs are defined as the process of growing and developing calves from weaning weights of 450 to 600 pounds, to yearling weights of 700 to 800 pounds.
Weight gains are primarily produced from forage with a small amount of supplement. During this process, calves are backgrounded to prepare them for the feedyard.
Stocker cattle learn to eat and drink from a trough and are vaccinated to support immunities against major cattle diseases.
“Normally, cattle purchased by a stocker operator through an order buyer are commingled,” says Hodges. “These calves are primarily obtained in small numbers from various auction sales, mixed together and often hauled for long distances to the stocker operation.
“These animals are sometimes weaned by the cow-calf producer on the trailer to the market, resulting in a high degree of stress,” he says.
“While stressed, they are exposed to respiratory disease pathogens to which they are susceptible unless they have been vaccinated. If vaccination records are not available, calves are often given antibiotics upon arrival to help prevent sickness.”
Ron Gill, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, says, “The same basic health program is appropriate for both cow-calf and stocker operations, but the purpose between the two segments is different.
“Calf-cow operations primarily vaccinate for pathogens associated with respiratory diseases because of the microorganism’s ability to cause abortions,” he says. “Stocker operators use the same vaccines, but their objective is to keep calves from developing bovine respiratory disease so that average daily gain (ADG) isn’t jeopardized.”
“There are general guidelines for processing stocker calves,” says Jeremy Powell, DVM, University of Arkansas. “A modified-live viral (MLV) vaccine containing infectious bovine rhinotracheitis virus (IBR), bovine diarrhea virus types 1 and 2 (BVD), Parainfluenza3 virus (PI3) and bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV) is used to combat respiratory diseases. MLV vaccine is recommended because high-risk weaned calves need protection as soon as possible and killed vaccines will not work as quickly.
“Normally, two shots are given two to four weeks apart to ensure that immunity is established. A seven- or eight-way clostridial vaccine is also recommended,” he explains.
“Stocker calves, especially those on permanent pastures, are at high risk for internal parasites,” says Thomas Craig, DVM, Ph.D., Texas A&M University emeritus. “Therefore, it is essential to treat when they are turned out on pasture, and then repeat the treatment one to three months later, depending on the anthelmintic (wormer) used and the grazing season. Because these calves are at risk and pastures may be laden with resistant worms, it is advisable to have your veterinarian check fecal samples two to four weeks after treatment to aid in determining if the anthelmintic actually worked.”
“The job of a stocker operator is a lot easier and there is more income potential when the cow-calf operator uses a good health program and markets healthy calves. Morbidity rates of improperly prepared calves are often 30 percent or more upon arrival at the stocker operation or feedyard,” says Gill.
“Antibiotics are necessary for treating sick calves to save their lives. If the cow-calf operators maintain and document good health programs for their calves, antibiotic use can be reduced significantly. It is important, and in the best interests of the beef industry, that cattle are kept healthy and treated humanely throughout each production step.”
“Anything cow-calf producers can do to prepare a calf for the stressors that are to come from separation, transportation, marketing, commingling, and processing, has value to buyers and can be marketed to the producers’ advantage. If a rancher goes through the effort of preparing calves for what lies ahead in the production chain, he or she needs to market that management if they want compensation for what they have done,” concludes Gill.
Preventive Health Programs is excerpted from the September 2018 issue of The Cattleman magazine.