Tempting as it may be to treat each pen of arriving stocker calves the same way, such socialistic management is a sure way to squander money and opportunity.

“Although a good stocker health program doesn't assure profitability, the lack of a totally comprehensive health program has been a contributing factor to the demise of more than one stocker operator,” says Larry Hollis, Kansas State University (KSU) Extension veterinarian.

Moreover, Hollis emphasizes that developing an effective health management strategy is a dynamic process rather than a single formula. And, it starts with assessing health risk based on the origin of the calves.

Need-based Treatment

“You need to have an idea of what you need to control before you even start thinking about a treatment program,” Hollis says. “When you buy the cattle and the first one coming off the truck drops, it's a little too late to start thinking about treatment protocol.”

Some stocker operators have developed sophisticated risk matrixes that judge cattle health by specific source, truckers and the like. But Hollis says even just classifying the calves within three broad risk categories — ranch-fresh, put-together and preconditioned — offers opportunity.

For instance, with ranch-fresh calves, Hollis says you know before they ever arrive that their immune systems haven't seen much challenge. Consequently, he explains, it doesn't make any sense to mass-medicate them coming off the truck. Instead, he suggests waiting until the first one breaks with symptoms, usually at least a week after arrival.

Conversely, depending on how much time it took to assemble and transport put-together calves, given their risk to disease exposure, Hollis says mass-medication within 24 hours of arrival is often a logical strategy.

Even with preconditioned calves, arrival treatment depends upon the vaccination history in terms of product and timing, as well as the number of days they have been weaned. “Depending on those things, you may revaccinate them or not even touch them,” Hollis says.

No matter the origin or the expectation, upon arrival, Hollis suggests another risk assessment of the calves to decide what they need and when. As an example, if cattle are so worn out they want to just lay around upon arrival, he says treatment stress would be too much for their immune systems to handle at that time. Waiting until the cattle start showing interest in their surroundings or 24 hours before processing will increase the likelihood that calves will respond to the initial vaccination.

The needs of the producer play a role, too. While initial treatment will likely be the same, Hollis points out that the vaccination and revaccination needs and schedule for stocker calves that will be carried 90 days will be different than for those calves an operator intends to carry for six months.

Since bacteria and viruses are not equal-opportunity thieves, health management should be tailored to risk. Though Hollis believes the goal of health management should be the same in every case.

“The key focus should be on maintaining or improving health, not just treating disease,” Hollis says. “Stocker health programs, like feedlot health programs, should be preventive in nature and include provisions to minimize stress and exposure to disease.”

With that in mind, Hollis points to several key areas where stress can be minimized.

  • First, Hollis suggests a firm rein on assembly and transportation. Besides making sure cattle are loaded as soon after final assembly as possible, he suggests making sure the trucking firm and driver understand how to transport livestock.

    That includes trucks being cleaned between loads, exhaust stacks that extend above the truck rather than piping diesel fumes into the top deck of the trailer, drivers who don't rely on hotshots at every turn to move cattle, and reliable estimates of when cattle will arrive.

  • Next, Hollis suggests producers evaluate their own receiving process. Make sure receiving facilities are clean and well-maintained, water is clean and plentiful, and the chosen receiving ration is available. He's found value in letting stocker arrivals settle in grass traps before moving them on to the grazing pasture or backgrounding pen.

“Cattle should be received during the daylight hours if possible, or into a well-lit receiving area for nighttime delivery,” Hollis says. “Cattle should be weighed directly off the truck and those weights compared to actual purchase weights. Shrink that's excessive or less than expected could be an indicator of health problems later on.

“Don't ever accept a load that doesn't match what you paid for,” Hollis adds. “If you paid for a good healthy load of cattle and it's a disease wreck on the truck, don't accept them.”

Essential Health Components

Once the cattle are accepted, as with arrival preparations, Hollis says effective health management is the result of cooperative planning that includes the veterinarian and all personnel who will be involved managing the cattle.

Processing

“Ideally, cattle should be processed with viral vaccines within 24 hours of arrival,” Hollis says. “The typical incubation time for most viral diseases is five to seven days, which starts the day calves were first exposed to it.”

With put-together calves, timing is important, you need to vaccinate them and get them working before the viral disease completes its incubation period. You have more time with ranch-fresh calves because they haven't been exposed to other calves and their diseases prior to arrival.

Nutrition

When formulating rations, Hollis says stocker operators must keep in mind palatability, digestibility and potential toxicity. “Ingredient quality should be monitored to prevent molds, toxic weeds or contaminated feedstuffs from contributing to or causing disease problems,” he says.

Disease Detection and Diagnosis

“The key to a successful treatment program is early detection of sick cattle. The key to early detection is knowing what a normal animal looks like so that abnormal animals are apparent,” Hollis says. “Become familiar with common stocker diseases, so that you know when a disease condition is unfamiliar and when you need to get assistance from a veterinarian. Everyone who sees the cattle should be alert to health problems.”

Treatment Initiation

“Equally as important as the detection and diagnosis of disease is that its treatment be started early in the course of the disease,” Hollis says. “If tissue damage is allowed to become too extensive before initiating proper treatment, the damage may be poorly reversible or irreversible. In such cases, the animal will either become a poor doer, a non-productive chronic or die.”

Treatment Duration

Very rarely will a single treatment with an antimicrobial stop an infectious disease, Hollis says. In most cases, and especially with the bovine respiratory disease complex, antibiotic treatment should be maintained for a minimum of three consecutive days with an antimicrobial that's proving effective.

“Even if the calf looks remarkably better after the first day, treatment should be continued for the next two. If treatment is stopped prematurely, the infection will normally smolder a few days then reappear. Even with longer-acting products, it may be necessary to use a second round of treatment to ensure the animal doesn't relapse.”

Product Selection

Although trial and error can work, given the diversity of pathogens and their strains, Hollis suggests stocker operators work with their veterinarians to determine the appropriate samples to collect for bacterial culturing and sensitivity testing.

“This way, known pathogenic bacteria can be cultured from the animal and sensitivity tests run to determine which antibacterials should work and, probably as important, which ones won't work,” he says.

Product Dosage

There are reasons animal health products come with approved dosage levels; it's the level at which they have proven effective.

In cases of proper dosage and treatment failure, Hollis points out producers can work with their veterinarian to conduct minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC) tests from cultures of diseased animals. These indicate which antibiotics will work against the pathogens discovered and also what levels are necessary to be effective.

Supportive Care

“All too often, antibacterial treatment is the only form of therapy considered. However, some calves need additional support to keep them alive long enough to benefit from antibacterial treatment,” Hollis says. Supplemental and alternative therapies include fluids, electrolytes, anti-inflammatory drugs, antihistamines and vitamins.

When To Quit

In the words of more than one veterinarian, despite your worst mistakes, you can't kill them all. Nor, despite your best efforts, can you save them all.

“Almost as important as the effective treatment of cattle is the decision when to quit treating non-responsive cattle,” Hollis says. “At some point, a decision must be made concerning the animal's ability to respond to further medication and whether it is economically feasible to continue treatment.”

Still, Hollis emphasizes, “If a stocker health program starts with disease treatment as its primary concern, a major portion of the profit to be obtained from a comprehensive health program has already been missed. Missed management occurs any time that dollars are lost because a management opportunity was overlooked or ignored.”

In other words, assessing risk first, then applying health protocols based on that determination, allows for true management rather than missed management.

“When proper use of a knowledgeable veterinarian is combined with management personnel focused on optimizing health-related performance of the cattle and an eye on proper nutrition, stocker managers should expect a significant return on health investment,” Hollis says. “That helps make the potential for overall stocker profitability a realistic goal.”

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