From castration to vaccinations, stocker operators have opportunities to improve feed intake and gains, and boost their profits when buyers come calling.

Whether calves are light or six-seven weight stockers, a good animal health program will help them perform better on pasture or in a grower yard, and prepare them for the high-concentration conditions at the feedyard.

Dan Thomson, Kansas State University (KSU) DVM and former head veterinarian for Cactus Feeders, Inc., says proper castration alone can boost stocker or fed-cattle profits by $25 or more.

Studies at KSU have enabled Thomson to gain more understanding of the value of castration and two, standard cutting methods.

He's looked at knife cut, with and without a local anesthetic, vs. banding practices. Results of his research are eye-opening.

Most believe castration should be done at the earliest practical age because there's less stress when a calf is less than three months old. It helps prevent physically or genetically inferior males from reproducing and ultimately improves meat quality.

The method of castration can determine how well a calf performs early on. It boils down to whether the animal suffers pain early for a short time, or a milder, yet more drawn-out pain for several weeks.

Thomson agrees earlier castration is the best, but many times we don't procure cattle at 300 lbs. or less. That's where animal welfare recommendations from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association impact the process.

“The recommendation is if an animal is more than 500 lbs., local anesthetic (Lidocaine) should be given with a knife-cut procedure,” he says. “If calves are banded, lidocaine isn't recommended.”

The KSU study looked at seven-weight bulls, half of them knife-cut and half banded. Animals were on feed 28 days after castration. Research looked at dry matter intake (DMI), average daily gain (ADG) and whether the local anesthetic made a performance difference. Each animal's performance was monitored daily and summarized weekly.

In the first week, banded calves had higher DMI and ADG than knife-cut calves. But after the first week, knife-cut calves began eating and gaining more, and it continued from 14-21 days. In fact, banded calves saw decreased performance through day 28.

“There's early pain and stress with the knife cut,” Thomson says. “But the pain associated with banding is much more evident at 14-21 days. At 21 days, only 40% of the scrotum had fallen off.

“Overall, the knife-cut calves had DMI of 22 lbs./day, compared to 20 lbs. for banded calves. Knife-cut calves had ADG of 2.6 lbs., compared to 1.7 lbs. for banded calves.”

Thus, the added profit of knife-cut calves is about $26/head relative to banded calves. Thomson adds the research showed no performance benefit in calves receiving the local anesthetic, regardless of castration method.

“We need to expand this overall study to where cattle are monitored all the way through closeout,” he says.

Modified-live re-vac?

Another subject Thomson studied is calf re-vaccination, something he rarely prescribes today. Added stress and lower performance can result, he says.

“We re-vac less than 5% of the cattle on feed in my practice,” Thomson says. “The way I see it, if calves are eating well and not getting sick, why re-vac?”

The reasons, he adds, are obvious. Moving cattle from a pen and through a chute increases stress, which can decrease feed intake and performance.

“Our research shows an increase in pull rates, railer rates and death loss in cattle revaccinated relative to cattle not revaccinated,” he says.

There's no silver bullet

That sure thing, cure-all has been sought for decades and is still elusive.

“We get hung up looking for the silver bullet on high-risk cattle,” Thomson says, “However, our overall death loss is going up for cattle on feed despite having the best technology ever (up from 1.4% in 1997 to 1.8% in 2003).

“We have great animal health products, yet we buy and sell cattle the same way we did 20, 30 or 50 years ago. We ship sale-barn cattle from the Southeast by truck for 24 hours to a western Kansas feedyard; they're stressed. We had the same problems then that we have today.”

So a good stocker-health program should begin by knowing the origin of the cattle and how they've been treated early on.

“Watch where you buy cattle,” Thomson says. “Local, un-commingled calves that can be delivered immediately face less stress and sometimes perform better.”

Preconditioned calves know how to eat from a bunk and drink from a water tank properly. And castration, dehorning and vaccination prior to arrival at the stocker or feeder operation all add value through decreased stress when acclimating to a new environment, he points out.

Thomson reminds stocker operators and feeders: “The average cow herd is only 30 head nationwide. If the average pen size is 150 head, a single pen may involve cattle from five separate herds.”

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Mass treatments prevent problems

In a typical processing program for incoming cattle, Kansas State University DVM Dan Thomson identifies several vaccinations that can immunize cattle against bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) and other problems. He reminds producers that all vaccinations and other animal health products should be administered according to label directions.

Incoming cattle should receive vaccinations to protect against:

  • Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis Virus (IBR)
  • BVD Type I and II
  • Bovine Respiratory Syncycial Virus (BRSV)
  • Parainfluenza3 Virus (PI3)
  • 7- or 8-way clostridial vaccine (“blackleg”)
  • Pasteurella

Meanwhile, University of Arkansas Extension veterinarians point out several “realities” that go along with vaccination.

  • No vaccine will give 100% protection against disease.

  • The most common reason for vaccine failure is failing to follow label directions.

  • About 30-40% of calves vaccinated for bovine respiratory disease won't respond to vaccination due to stress, illness or a naturally inferior immune system.

  • Can cattle showing clinical disease be vaccinated? Yes and no. Once an animal begins to show disease signs, it's unlikely a vaccine will stop the disease process, but it might help the animal's immune system combat the disease. On the other hand, the stress of disease may prevent the animal from properly responding to the vaccine.

  • Most vaccines will cause a mild reaction in the animal (depression, slight fever, etc.). Some producers refer to this as the “sweats,” which is normal and should last 12-36 hours post-treatment, and won't affect overall production. Vaccine companies have been working on new products that minimize any reactions.

  • In keeping with Beef Quality Assurance directives, try to select 2cc products administered subcutaneously whenever possible.