There are few mysteries surrounding the importance of getting cattle started successfully before turning them out to grass, wheat or onto a grower yard ration.

“I think that's where the money is made in this business, getting them bought and started those first 30 days. After that, anyone can grow them,” says Dennis Bradford of Jetmore, KS. He's run stockers year-round for better than 30 years. Now, his son, Steve, has joined him in the operation. They run most of their stockers on wheat or in their grower yard.

Unfortunately, there's still plenty of wonder about how exactly to accomplish that starting process. In a world where it seems art often looms as large as science, the basics are constant. But variables associated with weather, pathogen loads, nutritional value and the cattle themselves swing widely from year to year and from season to season.

Just ask Mike Cather and his father, Bob, of Cather Farms at Anthony, KS. They've run stockers for decades. They do about two-thirds of their business on wheat pasture or sorghum silage and the other third on summer grass; they'll retain ownership in most of them through the feedlot.

“We don't have any secrets. We treat our fair share of cattle. It's just a lot of time and hard work,” says Mike.

There are some time-proven hedges, though.

Buying Opportunity Up Front

First, Bradford explains, “I'm a guy who gets in cattle from the Southeast. We fight health problems all the time. We've learned that the order buyer makes a lot of difference, as does the freshness of the cattle.”

Over time, Bradford discovered some order buyers were letting producers take their calves back home after a sale before collecting them for the trip West, adding time and stress to the calves.

This practical experience is underscored by science. A University of Saskatchewan study, for instance, found that even though an average load of 60 steers represented 20-30 producers, there was less risk of fatal fibrinous pneumonia in calves assembled by fewer buyers. A total of 32,646 spring-born steers were included in the study.

For perspective, the 2000 Beef Stocker Survey conducted by Kansas State University (KSU) uncovered the same thing. Smaller stocker operations (2,500 head). At least part of the reason points to the fact that the small operations in the study run more of their own cattle or buy the calves themselves. As the number of buyers used by a stocker operation increased, so did the risk of morbidity.

None of this is an indictment of order buying. It merely points to the fact that whether a stocker operator purchases cattle at the local sale barn himself or via an order buyer, knowing the sources and limiting them enhances the bottom line by decreasing morbidity and mortality.

As for up-front considerations, both operations also say that while the quality of cattle they can buy has improved, they've had to start buying better cattle to be competitive.

Where they used to buy an inexpensive calf and get along, Mike says they've been forced the last five years or so to upgrade the quality of cattle they buy.

“We were having a hard time selling them (as fed cattle),” he says. “They didn't hang real well and the discount wasn't there to make it work on the purchasing end.” In other words, they can't buy the second-tier cattle cheap enough to cover the discounts those cattle incur coming out of the feedlot.

Of course, price still drives plenty of the ultimate profit equation. “I pencil out ahead of time, figuring out what weights to buy,” says Bradford. “Sometimes you can buy the lighter ones and cheapen things up. Other times you can buy the heavier ones for the same money (gross), and they just give the weight to you.”

In the same vein, Bradford adds, “I think sometimes we were guilty of trying to hold the price down and steal the calves.” Today, if he can find verified preconditioned calves, he'll pay more to get them.

Nutrition Lays The Foundation

Once the calves climb off the truck or meander out of the weaning pasture, nutrition — and the cost of it — can be the difference between profit and extra work and added loss.

“If the calf is eating good, that's 90 percent of it,” says Bradford. “Get good feed in front of them, and don't be a cheapskate. If the calves aren't eating, the vaccines just don't work as well.”

Whether they're aiming calves for grass, pasture or their growing yard, the Bradfords start all of their cattle virtually the same way, with the exception of how much feed they'll push.

About two to three weeks ahead of turnout, Bradford explains, “If they're staying in the yard, we'll bump their ration up to where they're gaining 2 lbs. per day. If they're going to grass, we'll use more of a maintenance ration where they're gaining 1.5 lbs. per day.”

At Cather Farms, Mike likes to start incoming calves on prairie hay, top-dressed with corn or soybean hulls. Over time, they move from prairie hay to native grass or sudan, then for silage.

Plus, the Cathers use a nutritionist to help them fine-tune rations for the stocker operation, aimed at giving them a leg up in the feedlot. “Twenty years ago we didn't have a nutritionist, but he's probably made us as much money as anything over the last 10-12 years,” says Mike.

At the Cargill Ranch near Medicine Lodge, KS — primarily a cow/calf operation that stockers its own calves or takes in others on a gain basis — part of getting calves ready for grass starts with maximizing pasture nutrition the year prior. In this case, the Cargills have taken to cross-fencing stocker pastures so they can rotate their grazing. They also rotate stocker and cow pastures each year.

With that in mind, Chad Cargill explains, “When we get cattle in, we like to break them to an electric fence. It seems like if you can break them to it in the pen, you can save a lot of hassle in the pasture.”

The Cargills have taken some pain out of cross-fencing pastures with hot wire by using fiberglass fence posts, light cable and a solar charger. That way if cattle get bunched up and spooked or a deer's eyes are bigger than its leap, the fence just lays down and stands back up rather than getting torn up.

“If we take in cattle, we've gone to intense grazing for 90 days,” adds Chad. “Get them in, get them off, let the grass rest, and it seems like it does a lot better the next year.”

Incidentally, the Cargills say they're also encouraged by a recent KSU trial they were part of. By providing a commercially available energy supplement that contains an intake limiter, they were able to extend grazing on available forage. Plus, the cattle came out of the feedyard 19 days sooner than the control group.

The Value Of Prevention

Assuming correct nutrition is in place, each of these operators next focus on health management that includes both physical and nutritional stress reduction.

The Bradfords strive for minimum stress and chute time on arriving calves. They vaccinate calves for the basic bovine respiratory disease (BRD) complex upon arrival, but wait 10 days to vaccinate with Blackleg, boosters, implant and the rest.

“We started giving the calves a multi-mineral shot,” says Bradford. “Since we've done that, we feel like we're getting a better response from the vaccines; there are fewer pulls and re-pulls.” The cost is $1/head.

Bradford also explains they moved away from metaphylaxis on arrival. “We felt like by mass treating them we were doctoring cattle that did get sick later than we would have otherwise, and our vaccines weren't working as well on the second shot,” he says. “Plus, it saves us $5 per head.”

At Cather Farms, on the other hand, where they do mass treat all of sale barn calves they receive, Mike explains, “I think we've gotten better on animal health. We're better able to avoid the wrecks.”

More specifically, the Cathers administer a four-way BRD vaccine upon arrival, then they booster it 10-14 days later. As well, Mike explains, “When the cattle come in, we try to keep each load separated for 30 days before we commingle them.”

In Bradford's operation, he says, “Really, to do it properly here, we need to have a calf 45 days before turning it out.” He says any sooner than that they tend to be ahead of some secondary sweats that are tougher to treat once the cattle are out to pasture.

While the days of preparation vary be operation, Chad echoes a stocker basic: “We want to have them ready to go to grass when it's ready and not have to be doctoring them.”

That's another reason the Cargills like their rotational approach. Besides boosting gains, or perhaps partly because of it, Colin Cargill explains they have fewer flies to contend with. Make no mistake, face flies and horn flies cost plenty of performance.

As an example, according to USDA's Agricultural Research Service a few years back, horn flies alone cost U.S. livestock producers approximately $700 million annually in reduced weight gains and reduced milk production for nursing calves.

In the stocker pasture, specifically, KSU's Dale Blasi explains, “In studies, the impact of horn flies can range from 10-40 lbs. per stocker. And, the economic impact of face flies due to the impact they have on pinkeye incidence accounts for approximately 18 lbs.” All told, KSU estimates flies cost that state's beef industry $130 million -$150 million annually.

While some folks get results rotating between fly tags with different active ingredients, the Cargills use their pasture rotation, then spray the cattle on pasture if needed. They lay down a line of cake in the middle of the pasture, then use a hydraulic sprayer they have attached to their cake truck.

Likewise, the Cargills fight potential foot rot up front. “In this country we get quite a lot of foot rot,” explains Colin. “We went to taking away salt and put out iodine blocks. That seems to prevent a good bit of it.”

Assuming that a case of foot rot is caught early, initial treatment costs can easily reach $20/head by the time medicine, lost performance and labor costs are accounted for, explains Blasi. Because zinc is a trace element that's been linked to skin and foot health, he explains a number of field trials evaluating zinc supplementation strategies have been conducted.

In one three-year, KSU stocker steer trial, adding 100 lbs. of 50% zinc methionine/ton of free-choice mineral increased daily gain by approximately 0.10 lb. per day and reduced foot rot incidence by 55%. About 20% of the advantage in live weight gain was attributed to the reduced incidence of foot rot.

Moreover, each of these operators emphasizes working in concert with their local veterinarians enables them to craft prevention and response plans unique to their operations and geographic locations.

“One thing we're fighting is that a lot of antibiotics have been taken away from us, so it's tougher to start cattle today, even though we should be smarter,” says Bradford.

In other words, even after three decades of experience, Bradford says, “We're still learning how to start calves.”

For more information about starting stocker calves, check out the fact sheet at www.beefstockerusa.org or at www.beef-mag.com.