I jumped in a truck yesterday with a stocker operator, who was taking a new sort of vitamin. He was popping them like a feedyard manager would down Rolaids after four days of limit-down moves on the futures. I asked him what the pills were and he said he had a friend at the local vitamin store mix them up; they were high-mag pills. He figured if magnesium could help prevent grass tetany in cattle, it might help to fix grass fever in humans.

Grass fever is one of those ailments that’s been around for ages, but no one has yet discovered a cure. The triggers are easy to identify – green grass and not enough cattle to eat it all. But the symptoms manifest themselves in a whole lot of ways, none of them very good.

The most common form is seen with grass-weight cattle that bring as much or, in some cases, more than the futures price for late-summer and fall yearlings. The only explanation for this phenomenon is the rabid use of cowboy math – “Well, the grass is already there and paid for, so it’s kind of like free; and if nothing dies and the market rallies, I’ll have a solid chance of at least breaking even.”

The symptoms tend to get really acute as turnout time approaches. A good friend sat in two sale barns per week since early January with the plan of adding 200 good pairs to his operation. He knew what he wanted to pay and the quality he had to have. Plus, he was patient.

The plan was a good one but after 90 days he had managed to acquire just 40 pair. That’s when grass fever hit and his budget limits were raised and his quality specs lowered.

In fact, he told me how badly he was afflicted on the last set he bought – he was on the phone screaming at the order buyer: “I don’t care if they are thin, have big ol’ humps and no teeth; if they’re breathing I want them, but not a penny over $1,700.” In his case, when the truck arrived and the pairs were unloaded, his grass fever miraculously broke. Unfortunately, his healing process will be lengthy.

Another friend had grass fever hit unexpectedly; he blamed it on deciding to eat at the sale barn on sale day. He was exposed long enough that he ended up spending his wife’s vacation money on a string of Mexican cattle that “just have to make money.” Well, they absolutely have to make money now because he’s since committed to taking a 14-day ocean cruise instead of a five-day trip in order to placate his steamed wife.

Bankers, wives and grizzled old veterans of the business are great at shutting down grass fever before it does significant damage. But it’s even more virulent and the symptoms more pronounced when cattlemen happen to be together at the same time. The key seems to be avoiding watching the greening grass altogether. For those in a position where that’s not possible, the antidote is handing your checkbook and cell phone to someone you can trust.

I’ve heard some have gone as far as locking out the livestock auctions on RFD TV, but there doesn’t seem to be any surefire cure. The fall marketing run will often end the symptoms for several months, but fall profits have also been shown to increase susceptibility to grass fever.

If nothing works and you have succumbed to grass fever, buckle down, keep them alive and work like heck to sell them high.