My View From The Country

Why Is Death Loss Increasing In Heavier Beef Cattle?

There’s nothing more frustrating than losing an animal, and it’s even more financially devastating when it occurs at heavier weights.

The industry has done a tremendous job of improving nutritional programs and pre-conditioning programs, so much so that the death loss number of cattle under 700 lbs. has been dramatically falling in feedyards around the country. The converse of that is that, despite all of the improvement, overall death loss hasn’t decreased. In many cases, it’s inching upwards.

I’m sure the statisticians will tell us it’s because we’re spending more time at weights above 700 lbs., placing heavier cattle, and taking cattle to ever-heavier weights. All these factors will shift the curve to the right, of course.


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There’s nothing more frustrating than losing an animal, and it’s even more financially devastating when it occurs at heavier weights. Lots of good cattlemen believe there’s a trend taking place – that there’s something we’re doing from either a management or genetic standpoint that is increasing the health risk and susceptibility of these larger-weight animals.

Another telling factor is that we’re seeing certain groups or lots of cattle with extremely high death loss, while others are well below industry standards. Thankfully, the occurrence level is low, but there are many factors that could be involved in this situation that it’s difficult to collect good data or quantify potential causes.

Perhaps it’s just a function of widespread drought or some other factor, and we’ll eventually find that this trend is an aberration. Perhaps, however, it’s a warning sign for the industry.


What are your thoughts? Have you noticed a trend? Add your thoughts in the comments below.

The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of or the Penton Farm Progress Group.


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Discuss this Blog Entry 16

Earnestchrist (not verified)
on Aug 15, 2014

Stress from weather extremes. When it's hot it's really hot and this year in many places on the southern plains, the really hot was interrupted by temperature well below normal. Going from 100 to 70 in less than 72 hours, sometimes 48 hours and then back up again can take its toll.

Thank goodness there is no unusual condition or factor that is having some extreme impact on our weather both now and that will effect these conditions on into the future....If that were the case we might need to really sit back and look at this.

It's just like what my grandpa told the doctor when he told him he had emphysema..."I'm sure it will go away. I gotta go have a smoke."

Kerry Feller (not verified)
on Aug 15, 2014

It is my opinion that our genetics are playing a role in the increased death loss in larger cattle. Think about how everyone breeds for certain traits! If there is a weak Gene that Gene is also passed on.

Brett (not verified)
on Aug 15, 2014

Some research has been done at Colorado State University which has mainly focused on the new developing incidences of high mountain disease at lower elevations. A lot more goes into the whole issue than what I am about to say, but essentially death loss due right sided heart failure has been climbing because feeder cattle are being pushing so hard for more weight gain and muscle mass. This factor has created an increase demand for oxygen which cattle today are unable to provide because they lack the lung capacity to provide for what is demanded. It is believed that this factor has been created by selection pressure over the years for cattle to gain and create protein rather, and they haven't been selected at all for lung mass. This same problem was created in the chicken industry with broilers. Chicken's falling over with sudden death due to heart disease. This is why most big chicken operations are in the southeast where elevation is low so as much oxygen as possible is present in the atmosphere.

Owen (not verified)
on Aug 15, 2014

Over the past 50 years the industry has been concentrating on growth traits. While the rate of growth and the size of the animals at yearling age has dramatically increased during this time, there has not been a corresponding increase in the size of the heart and lungs during that time. Those of us in the higher elevations see this in a direct correlation between high yearling weight EPDs and an increased risk of high pulmonary artery pressures, also known as brisket disease. While this problem has historically been seen mainly in cattle over 5200 feet, it is now being found in cattle as low as 3000 feet elevation. My question: is there a correlation between high yearling
EPDs and large animal death loss in the feedlots?

Avatar (not verified)
on Aug 15, 2014

You may be correct. But are there data indicating heart and lungs are not increasing in proportion to other tissues?

Burke (not verified)
on Aug 15, 2014

Troy, everywhere I go I hear stories of lower conception rates and more doctoring of calves and yearlings--even cows--including the mentioned brisket disease. I thought for awhile that people were doctoring more because they would rather ride and rope than go fix fence, but I am fairly well convinced that selection for higher growth and more milk has had negative effects in other areas of performance which aren't noticed immediately--unintended consequences.

Avatar (not verified)
on Aug 15, 2014

Troy: Do you mean the average weight of cattle dying is now higher or do 1300 lb cattle, for instance, have a higher death rate now than at some time in the past?

on Aug 18, 2014

Troy Marshall responds:
The number of deaths are increasing dramatically, but as you infer that in and of itself is not that telling as the average weights are increasing. However, overall death rate has increased and at the same time the deaths below 700 lbs has dramatically declined. The number of deaths above 1200 lbs, and 1300 pounds have both spiked. Among feedyards I am hearing a lot of different theories the better drugs (draxin, exceed etc… are lowering deaths at the lighter weights but there is still enough damage that it causes problems as the animal reaches higher weights, the number of PI3 cattle also gets blamed, there is a theory that while we have increased growth genetics we have not increased the heart capacity to handle the weight, issues caused by drought stress, feed additives, distiller based rations, bloodlines in the Angus breed that are susceptible similar to the PAP issue in the mountains, insufficient shade, and a whole host of other explanations. Overall death rate is inching up, while death below 700 and death above 1200 are going in opposite directions, from sheer number standpoint, as a percentage of deaths, and within weight groups percentages over time. Professional Cattle Services which has a little over 1/2 the cattle on feed has looked at the data, and it appears to be a very consistent and concerning trend.

When you factor in the extra cost associated with a death at 1300 pounds versus one at 550 for example, the cost of death loss has actually been exploding.

Dunbar (not verified)
on Aug 15, 2014

Two deaths in fed cattle almost ready for harvest were posted by feedlot vet. All cattle vaccinated for black leg. Cause of death listed as clostridial with no conclusion that it was black leg specifically.

John R. Dykers, Jr (not verified)
on Aug 21, 2014

Harvest smaller, younger, more tender, better customer satisfaction, less fat, less feed, less time, cuts will still be 'big enough for dinner, --- fewer pounds, fewer gross dollars at whatever price point, continue until the statistical lines cross with the savings from less death loss, and factor in any premium price point from improved demand for a more tender product.

John R. Dykers, Jr (not verified)
on Aug 21, 2014

The big feeders may be having myocardial infarctions from obesity! or just bigness. We see similar phenomenon in people who are just big; even well conditioned big athletes.
'Bigness' alone is a 'risk factor' for premature death.

Avatar (not verified)
on Aug 21, 2014

And "smallness". Look at the purebred dog world. Life expectancy averages shorter for both very large and very small breeds. Genetic extremes often have problems, perhaps partly due to single-trait selection to get the extreme.

on Aug 21, 2014

I can hear my father now, after all these years: "You bred too much of the 'ear' out of them! That just makes them healthier!" I realize that there are often reductions in yield and grade, but there are improvements in heat tolerance and summer gain/feed consumption to compensate.
And, sad to say, black hide in summer may be a factor as well.
Crossbreed, and select for a balance in traits.

Jim Howard (not verified)
on Aug 21, 2014

All of the selection nowdays is for a black hide with a big ribeye, we have forgot the most important trait of all, that is the ability to survive in the environment where these cattle are going to have to live.. I've never heard of a breed association selecting for resistance of a viral challenge.

wynne (not verified)
on Aug 22, 2014

The question becomes are the heavy weight cattle suffering from the same types of health problems that the obese humans are having? The frames of the cattle have not changed, but the weight has changed to three and four hundred pounds additional weight. The heavy humans have hearts, lungs, and all other organs that were meant to be used by normal weight individuals and animals have the same issues when they are overweight. Extreme temperatures and humidity cause stress on all organs. I notice that our pregnant cows will stay in the shade during the peak hours of sunshine in the summer while the normal weight cattle stay in the sun to graze. When the humidity is high, the horses and cattle stay in the groves of trees from eleven to three out of the Florida sun, but I am sure that the sun is just as hot on the Plains during that time of day. The single minded trait of putting heavy weights on normal size cattle is a prescription for failure. I don't think that black has any impact on cattle that are pasture roaming, we lose an average of two Angus a year and that is due to rattlesnake bites. There are about 250 cows per pasture and 80% are black and all of the bulls are black. I am convinced that the problem is putting too much weight on smaller to average frame breeds of cattle.

Gates (not verified)
on Sep 6, 2014

It would be interesting to see that same study also divided up into crossbred vs. purebred animals. Would this trend have anything to do with more producers moving away from crossbreeding? If it is such a drastic trend, I would think feeders would want to get to the bottom of it and soon. But with the beef supply what it is, the market is also pushing more pounds per animal in attempts to keep up with the total cattle numbers. Rather than just assume its producers pushing growth, maybe we need to look at the entire chain and all of the drivers.

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What's My View From The Country?

As a fulltime rancher, opinion contributor Troy Marshall brings a unique perspective on how consumer and political trends affect livestock production.


Troy Marshall

Troy Marshall is a multi-generational rancher who grew up in Wheatland, WY, and obtained an Equine Science/Animal Science degree from Colorado State University where he competed on both the livestock...

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