A national survey of cattle feeding operations provides a management reference for large and small feeders.

Most cattle feeders feel administering pre-arrival respiratory vaccinations at least two weeks prior to weaning is extremely or very helpful in reducing sickness and death loss.

Almost all operations that process cattle administer vaccines to aid in the prevention of respiratory disease.

These are two of the findings from the first in a series of reports on the U.S. cattle feeding industry to be released this summer by USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS). The "NAHMS '99" feedlot report provides benchmark data and information cattle feeders around the country can use to compare themselves to their peers.

Part 1 of the series - "Baseline Reference of Feedlot Management Practices, 1999" - contains management information collected from feeders in 12 states, representing 91% of U.S. fed cattle production. Covered is a wide range of feedyard practices, from arrival management to implants to environmental programs.

The intent is for feeders to use Part 1 to assess their operations and, once subsequent reports are issued this month, measure where they stand against where the industry was five years ago.

"This report is the tip of the iceberg," says veterinarian David Dargatz, data analyst for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) based in Fort Collins, CO. "This material gives us an opportunity to dissect the U.S. cattle feeding industry and provides an opportunity to plan for the future."

Operations were categorized into two groups - those with capacities of 1,000 to 7,999 head, and 8,000 or more. Data collectors visited 520 feedlot operations late last summer gather information for the initial report. The sampling was designed to allow statistically-valid inferences for 100% of the cattle feeding operations with a capacity of 1,000 head or more in the 12 states.

While excerpts from the 64-page report reveal no real surprises in industry trends, they highlight some of the more prominent, and controversial, practices being used in feedyards. Here are a few findings:

* The largest source of cattle for smaller feeder operations was directly from auction markets (46.9% of cattle). For large operations, the largest portion (44.1%) was acquired through custom feeding and joint ownership with the feedlot.

* A greater percentage (80%) of steers and heifers weighing less than 700 lbs. at the time of placement received more than one implant compared to those weighing 700 lbs. or more at placement (30.4%). Overall, 74% of cattle less than 700 lbs. at placement received two implants, whereas 66.8% of cattle 700 lbs. or more at placement received only a single implant.

* More than one-half of all operations (54.2%) provided cattle with a group or owner identifier, and 39.8% tagged cattle with a unique identification.

* Overall, 92.9% of operations fed ionophores to placed cattle, while 46.2% fed coccidiostats and 27.3% fed probiotics.

* Of large operations, 79% tested groundwater, and 69.5% tested the nutrient content of manure. * Large operations were more likely than small operations to provide formal training that included written guidelines to their employees on issues of quality assurance, residue avoidance, animal handling and employee safety. Cattle health management will be closely examined in Part II of the NAHMS report, Dargatz says.

"By bringing this data to the table we hope to put numbers to what is happening in the country," explains Dargatz. "This allows the industry to individually and collectively identify strengths and weaknesses in our management, as well as set direction and develop policy."

Having good data on hand helps cattle feeders better position themselves when it comes time to address laws and regulations affecting the industry, Dargatz says.

The report is available from: Centers for Epidemiology and Animal Health, USDA/ APHIS, 555 South Howes, Fort Collins, CO, 80521 (phone 970/490-8000 or e-mail NAHMSweb@usda.gov). The reports are available online at www.aphis.usda.gov.