In the not too distant future, I plan to conduct courses in nutrition. Among these will be instruction in the field of consulting. An item to be stressed is that there is much more to nutrition consulting than just nutrition. You must be able to motivate people.

This is particularly true for feedlot nutrition. If you are unable to motivate those who actually process, mix, deliver and manage the feed, you haven't done your job. Feedlot performance is about 60% science, the rest is management.

To a certain extent, I must confess to hypocrisy. With respect to nutrition and BRD (shipping fever) there is one very important concept that only rarely have I been successful in motivating clients to adopt.

Specifically, 20 years ago Texas A&M University conducted research that showed a substantial reduction in morbidity (sickness) for calves receiving concentrate feed before shipping. Calves were shipped from Tennessee to Texas, and those receiving a good quality mixed ration had fewer treatments and lower death loss than those fed only hay.

Research Was Largely Overlooked Unfortunately, the industry pretty much overlooked this research. Why? Apparently, because a much more appealing study was done in conjunction. Specifically, the now famous potassium (K) work of Dr. Dave Hutcheson was super-imposed.

Don't get me wrong, the potassium work was extremely valuable information but, as Dr. Hutcheson himself will tell you, in order to get the response to K, you must have specific conditions. The calves must have actual tissue shrink (not just fill shrink), and the ration must otherwise have nominal levels of potassium. (Texas A&M used a cottonseed hull ration. With alfalfa or lush green forages you will not get the response.)

But the potassium work caught everyone's attention because it falls in line with another aspect of the psychology of nutrition: the concept of the silver bullet. Around the world, producers are looking for that one item that will solve all their problems.

With receiving rations we've seen several nutrients profiled as the key to success. Copper, zinc, chromium, selenium and vitamin E from time to time have all made the headlines. The reality, of course, is that nutrition is the balance of nutrients.

Individual minerals are important, but no single item is going to save the day. Quite the opposite. Going overboard can be detrimental. I have seen calves killed with excess copper and iodine, and have heard on occasion of so much potassium chloride being put in supplements that calves wouldn't eat them.

But the silver bullet philosophy also extends to vet medicine. Backgrounding operators are always looking for that special antibiotic or vaccine that will turn their death loss around. With respect to the vet products, there is another item that adds to their appeal: the ease with which they can be administered. All you need is a syringe.

Order buyers are increasingly willing to run calves through a chute and stick them with whatever needle you request. But ask them to provide a special feed, and in most cases you will get nothing but resistance. Vaccines and antibiotics can be ordered from and delivered by the supplier. Likewise, a large inventory can be kept in a refrigerator.

Feeds are much more problematic. Feed mills may not want to run small batches of custom feeds and in most cases will not deliver. In that case, you must take the time to review the products they have in inventory, and then make a decision. Subsequent to that, arrangements must be made for someone to pick up the feed, and storage is needed.

One client I was able to convince to feed his calves prior to shipment used truck drivers. In this case he had his own truck line and would send them the day before, along with some bagged feed. It cost an extra day's wages and a motel bill for the trucker, but we felt the reduction in morbidity was worth it.

Unfortunately, not all truckers (or order buyers) are as cooperative. If we ask them to provide special feed, most will look at us like we're some sort of dude.

The result is that most backgrounding or stocker operators don't feel the hassle is worth it. Rather than argue with order buyers on the phone, be put on hold by various feed companies, and/or try to explain the nutritional aspects of immunology to someone who doesn't know or care, they'd rather just wait till the calves arrive.

The Clock Is Ticking The problem is that the clock starts ticking way before the calves are delivered. The minute they arrive at the first sale barn or order buyer's pens, disease incubation begins. The immune response also begins, but if hay is all the calves get to eat ... the response will be impaired.

Hay simply does not have enough nutrition to maximize the immune response. And no vaccine and no amount of antibiotic (either before or after they arrive at the feedlot) can offset poor nutrition.

Next month: Fescue and year-round grazing.

David P. Price is a consulting nutritionist specializing in feedlot and range cattle. A number of his books and a subscription newsletter are available through BEEF magazine by contacting Marilyn Anderson at 800/722-5334, ext. #710.