Most cow-calf producers are so serious about the care and protection of their cattle that they'll wear themselves and their families out at calving time to ensure the mamas and their new babies are OK. They'll delay needed improvements in times of drought to make sure their cattle have groceries. And they'd string up anyone found abusing the cattle in any way.

Yet many of these same producers slam the gate on each year's calf crop and trade away the risk without realizing they've doomed some of those calves to failure.

“I think a lot of producers would be amazed to know 5-10% of the cattle they ship wind up dead before leaving the feedlot,” says Dan Thomson, Kansas State University's (KSU) College of Veterinary Medicine. Before signing on at KSU earlier this year, Thomson spent five years riding herd over health programs for some of the nation's largest feedlots.

“It's always bothered me that the death of a calf in our industry is often viewed as a statistic on a piece of paper or as an economic driver of how we buy cattle. We assume we're going to have a high percentage of sickness and death loss and price them accordingly,” Thomson explains. “When you see the calves die, it's not just a piece of paper or a business transaction. I'm no radical, but it gets to me. Plus, for every one that dies, many people believe there's a chronic or realizer. That's an economic and animal welfare tragedy.”

More frustrating to Thomson is that a significant portion of these deaths, and the sickness leading up to them, could be prevented with preconditioning. In this case, he defines preconditioning as training them to eat from the bunk drink from a water tank and giving them at least one round of vaccinations a few of weeks before shipping.

Post-weaning sickness increasing

Despite the increased efficacy of animal health products today and a growing knowledge of pathogens and their control, more cattle are dying after reaching the feedlot. Data from the National Animal and Health Monitoring Service indicates feedlot mortality increased from 1.4% to 1.8% between 1997 and 2003, with most of the increase attributed to respiratory disease.

Increased death loss is typically preceded by increased morbidity. Although data is lacking, the trend in increased death loss points to increased sickness as well, Thomson says.

Morbidity isn't really tracked industry-wide, but treatment costs are often used as a morbidity barometer. It's an inaccurate barometer, however, he adds, given the use of metaphylaxis and the differences in treatments for bovine respiratory disease (BRD) involving ancillary therapies.

“What we do know is anything breaking with disease in the first week or two after purchase, you've bought the problem,” Thomson says.

He bases that on experience and some Oklahoma State University research indicating the average calf that subsequently dies is pulled for BRD at around 30 days on feed. The death of these calves occurs, on average, 30 days after treatment. Therefore, the average respiratory death loss occurs at approximately 60 days on feed.

“Every year it's the same. We're going to ramp up our high-risk calf program (in the feedlot). We start buying them around Labor Day, we pull calves, and the average death loss occurs 30 days after we start treating them. So we believe our treatments are working properly for the first 30 days, and we order more calves,” Thomson says.

“Then at 60 days into the season we see our death loss increase, and we blame it on ineffective drugs, the weather breaking or a new bug. We quit buying calves, but the death loss is going to continue for another 60 days. It's the normal temporal pattern for death loss,” he adds.

Thomson attributes the increased mortality to a number of factors, including more cattle entering the feedlot at lighter weights, possibly more cattle trading through the sale barn, and the number of people qualified and willing to provide health management in feedlots.

Distance is a factor, too. Eight hours used to be considered a long haul — now that time is up to 20 hours, Thomson says.

“Decreased use of veterinarians at ranch level is another overall contributor to the increase in morbidity and death loss,” Thomson believes. “I think the industry has migrated away from utilizing veterinary practitioners on the farm to help make herd health decisions.”

A wider welfare view

Ironically, feedlot mortality is increasing despite the industry focus placed on animal welfare during the past decade.

“The biggest breech we can have in animal welfare is death,” Thomson says. “Yet, the industry continues to focus on other parts of the animal welfare equation.”

More specifically, the industry has lavished animal handling with plenty of attention as a part of animal welfare. Though handling is a critical component, Thomson believes it has become synonymous with animal welfare in some producers' minds.

“We worry about whether to use a hotshot, and we go to great lengths to change the way we handle cattle. But we haven't changed the way we buy and sell them,” Thomson says. “We haven't changed the foundation of animal welfare, which is health. And it begins the day the calf is born but can be altered significantly as soon as calves leave the birth ranch.”

Thomson emphasizes animal handling is only one component of animal welfare. Yet, he says handling occupies the majority of most feedlot and harvest facility audits for animal welfare.

“We've asked people in our feedlot and packing facilities to make all these changes in how they handle the cattle — 90% of animal welfare audits at these facilities revolve around handling,” he says. “Then, like sending kindergartners off to the first day of school without immunizations, the industry largely ignores preconditioning as the essential core to animal welfare.”

Part of that likely has to do with the fact animal handling can be more conveniently and cost-effectively addressed collectively than can blanket preconditioning standards for the industry. Changing this, Thomson says, starts with producer responsibility.

“We're talking about conditioning calves to enter the marketing channel. We need to precondition and prepare them properly to decrease death loss. The bottom line is the producer must decide for himself that he'll commit to properly preparing the animals,” Thomson says.

He believes many producers are already doing things right, but too many still send cattle off to school to fend for themselves without the proper tools.

Specifically, Thomson defines preconditioning as:

  • Bunk-broke — The calves have had the chance to learn to eat and drink from a water tank for at least 30 days. Thomson says many producers would be surprised to know how many cattle show up at the feedyard not knowing how to drink. The time it takes them to learn adds to stress and increases the health risk.

  • Vaccinated — At least two to four weeks prior to shipment, calves should receive at least one set of vaccinations — 5-way viral (BVD I and II, IBR, PI3 and BRSV) with pasteurella, 7-way clostridial and a parasiticide.

  • Castrated, dehorned and open — According to Thomson, bull calves have 140% more sickness, death loss and chronic rate, compared to steer cohorts. Also, 20% of heifers entering the feedyard are pregnant; 30-40% of the higher risk calves.

Economic facts and myths

Obviously, preparing calves to enter the marketplace in this manner comes at a cost. Depending on the level of preconditioning — whether booster vaccinations are given, or calves are weaned and for how long — the per-head costs can range from $8 for the vaccinations to $60/head for shots, feed and labor.

On the other side of the ledger, premiums are consistently being paid for preconditioned calves — in the $2-$6/cwt. ballpark based on level of preconditioning — though they've lost some bloom with tight supplies and historically high calf markets. In addition to any price premium, producers who wean and background their calves have more pounds to sell.

Thomson cautions producers that preconditioning doesn't mean a higher price all the time.

“The market is set at a preconditioned calf. In other words, it's not like buying a pickup where the market is a base price to which you add options and cost,” he says. “With calves, the base price is for a preconditioned calf, castrated and dehorned (open in the case of heifers). Any of those attributes that are lacking are discounted.”

So, when a buyer snatches a set of calves $15-$20 back of the market, Thomson says he's really buying base-model cattle lacking enough standard equipment that they were worth a lot less.

Thomson believes a national ID program will help tie identity to health — much as a Social Security card identifies children entering kindergarten. But then what?

“Maybe the kindergartens have it wrong,” Thomson says. “If they were run the way we run calves, all new students would show up for the first day of school without known immunization. They'd be vaccinated on arrival, commingled, then sorted into separate classrooms.”