Effective stocker receiving strategies begin before the calves ever climb aboard the market wagon.
There's a reason stocker operations are spooky territory for the timid. With all sorts of unknown cattle coming in from all sorts of ranches and regions, every load is different and nothing seems to work the same on any two.
“Every load is a brand new deal,” emphasizes Jim Reeves of JMR Cattle Co., Leon, KS. He's a long-time stocker operator running cattle in his home state and Texas. But, he does add there is one commonality among the diversity: “The biggest challenge we always have is the first three weeks.”
After all, the receiving period — 21-30 days after shipment — often seals the profit fate on a load of calves. If they're going to get sick or keel over dead, that's usually the period they'll do it.
That in mind, Mark Spire, a beef veterinarian in Kansas State University's (KSU) Food Animal and Health Management Center, explains that receiving strategies are critical to the performance of a stocker operation. And, among these strategies are components producers often don't consider.
Buying The Odds
As an example, Spire says the world's best health program can't correct misrepresented calves or remove the risk of sick and dying cattle off the truck. That means knowing the buyer and limiting the number of buyers.
“Don't buy calves from unknown buyers over the phone,” cautions Spire. “Reputable buyers build relationships with their clients and stand behind their word.”
As for the number of buyers, Spire points to a study conducted at the University of Saskatchewan. It found that loads of cattle purchased by a single buyer served up less risk of fatal pneumonia than loads consisting of cattle purchased by several buyers.
All told, the study examined 32,646 spring-born steers. The average load of 60 head represented 20-30 different farms.
Likewise, KSU's 2000 Beef Stocker Survey found that 81.8% of smaller producers (<500 head) recorded 10% or less calf morbidity during the first 30 days. Only 54.2% of the largest operations (>2,500 head) could say the same.
As it turns out, 41.2% of the calves in the smaller operations came from the operator's own herd, and another 28.3% were purchased by the same operator at the local sale barn. Only 23.1% came from order buyers.
Conversely, 74.6% of the calves in the largest stocker operations came through order buyers.
Those stats don't speak to the quality of order buyers but underscore that the fewer hands in between, the healthier the calves tend to be.
Contrary to popular mythology, Spire says it isn't the distance cattle are hauled that stresses them. Rather, it's the time involved.
“Cattle are about 80 percent water, and as transit time increases, calves become dehydrated and lose many essential blood and cell minerals, such as potassium,” Spire says. “Dehydration and loss of electrolytes are detrimental to body function and increase the calf's susceptibility to respiratory disease.”
Spire says stocker operators can hedge their bets by paying attention to how their purchases are cared for before heading to their new homes and limiting the amount of time it takes to assemble loads. This focus on reducing stress includes demanding that cattle are given a minimum of 8 sq. ft. of space on the truck.
At JMR, Reeves explains, “We'll put together mixed loads of steers and heifers so we can get them put together and out of the sale barn earlier.” Reeves buys about 30% of his calves direct; the other 70% are put-togethers.
Incidentally, Reeves says buying preconditioned calves isn't necessarily a guarantee for stocker success. He's had good luck with them, but he's also had sets of them that got sicker than any anonymous misfits he ever bought.
“On paper, those programs are good,” says Reeves. “But they're no better than the people enrolled in them.” That, of course, is one more vote for knowing the source of the cattle.
Rest And Replenish
Dale Blasi, KSU Extension beef specialist, says some folks could increase their returns just by giving the cattle a chance to recover from the ride and by getting an effective ration into them upon arrival at their new home.
“It means a clean pen with long-stem hay of at least 10% crude protein, easy access to water and 24 hours of rest before being hassled again,” says Blasi.
Soon after that, however, Blasi recommends processing the cattle to get a handle on the infectious agents that abound in every cattle operation and in the cattle themselves.
“Processing cattle early on to administer vaccines is an attempt to raise the immunity of the animals to resist disease-causing organisms,” explains Spire. “Delaying the processing allows time for the organisms to build up.”
That's also one reason that keeping new arrivals separated from other cattle can help immune defense.
As for specific health protocol, Spire recommends that producers visit with their veterinarians each season. After all, viruses have a nasty propensity to change faces. What worked last time may not work this time.
For the record, the KSU Stocker Survey reports that 50% of respondents keep new arrivals confined one to two weeks before turning them out to pasture. Another 19.1% keep arrivals confined for two to three weeks, and 5.8% take cattle directly to grass.
“We try to get them in, unload them, have fresh-chopped prairie hay for them, and let them sit for 24 hours before we process them,” says Reeves. “For the first three or four days, you're just trying to get them to eat.”
Reeves uses shallow pens for feeding, lets the cattle go out to grass after about a week, brings them back in to feed and checks them twice a day.
“You have to look at these cattle, whether they're three-weights or six-weights. They've been pulled off a cow, taken to the sale barn, then hauled 10-12 hours. That's a lot of stress to overcome, and you can't vaccinate it out of them,” says Reeves. “It takes doing it all.”
Spire emphasizes “doing it all” includes preparing facilities before cattle arrive, getting rid of the rough surfaces that can cause toe abscesses, the broken welds and sharp edges that can cause bruising, all of the things that make it so cattle don't want to walk and eat.
Finally, Spire encourages producers to look at the health and performance of their stocker cattle in a different way than usual.
For one, he discourages taking the temperatures of newly arrived cattle as they come off the truck. While the rationale makes sense, Spire says readings taken at that time can be misleading.
“Not all cattle with an elevated rectal temperature coming off the truck are sick or are going to get sick,” says Spire. “Stress will increase rectal temperature, as will processing order, time of day and environmental temperature, particularly coupled with increases in humidity.”
Moreover, Spire suggests producers quit looking at the percentage of deads as a barometer of their receiving program's effectiveness. When it comes to profitability, the medication costs, labor, weight loss, time off feed, decreased gain and efficiency and decreased market value associated with chronics and morbidity can hurt a lot more than actual mortality.
Reeves agrees. “In some of these put-together cattle, although I've seen it in ranch-fresh calves, too, the chronics are a worse problem than the death loss,” he says.
Really, effective stocker receiving and measuring it as such boils down to common sense.
“Just get back to the basics and walk a mile in their shoes,” says Blasi. “It's just an appreciation for good animal management. Our grandfathers knew that.”
- Know the source.
- Minimize transportation time.
- Prepare the facilities.
- Process for health quickly.
For a detailed fact sheet describing more specifics about these and other components of effective receiving strategies, check out the Beef Stocker USA Web site (www.beefstockerusa.org) or BEEF magazine's Web site (www.beef-mag.com).
Technology For Stockers
In the battle to manage stocker cattle more effectively, Kansas State University has developed a portable record keeping system that allows producers to track cattle automatically or manually more easily.
Dubbed ChuteSide™, the software is designed to work with handheld computers (personal digital assistants that operate on either the Palm or Windows CE operating systems).
Joined with bar code eartags or by inputting ID numbers manually along with individual weights, the software automatically calculates the dosage of treatment to individual calf weight. Blasi says that means producers, in concert with their veterinarians, can customize treatment protocol, both on-label and extra-label use. Bottom line, it allows producers to carry their records with them and make processing more goof-proof.
“It makes a producer more proactive because you're documenting what those calves are doing,” explains Dale Blasi, an Extension beef specialist at Kansas State University (KSU). He designed the software with Mark Spire, a beef veterinarian in KSU's Food Animal and Health Management Center.
“It's a walking, talking beef quality assurance machine that puts the formularies for processing protocol at the fingertips of those doing the processing,” Blasi says. “It allows you to document how the cattle are performing while building a history on them that has value to buyers.”
Moreover, Blasi explains, the handheld software, synchronized with a producer's desktop system, enables the collection of data. That data can be used for comparison against the stocker performance database that KSU will have available on its new Beef Stocker USA Web site (see Beef Stocker USA on page BS-1).
“Bearing in mind how important time is to stocker producers, we're trying to marry technology to what they do on a daily basis. We're trying to make record keeping easier and less painful,” says Blasi.