A feedyard pen, says Jack Scoggins Jr., isn't the place to start calves.

While that reality has long been known by cattle feeders, it's especially true when dealing with calves from the brush and pear of South Texas. A load of put-together, salebarn cattle of unknown origin is a risk, no doubt. But at least you don't have to coax them down from the trees.

While Scoggins says it's not quite that bad, dealing with naive, native South Texas calves does have its unique challenges. “A lot of South Texas cattle come off places where they're a little skittish,” he says.

A little? They're as wild as deer and every bit as athletic. Outside of their mamas, the extent of their social contact amounts to coyotes, rattlesnakes and an occasional alligator. Then a helicopter chases them out of the brush, a brush-popping cowboy chouses them into trap, and they levitate themselves onto a truck. When they unload from the semi at Starr Feedyard, they're wild-eyed with a kink in their tails.

And the last thing they're ready to do is go on feed.

“You can't really just work through something like that. You have to set up facilities,” Scoggins says. “It gets down to more husbandry and less work.”

Starr Feedyard is a 20,000-head feedyard, ranching and farming operation in South Texas near Rio Grande City, not far from the Mexican border. Since the early '90s, owner-manager Scoggins has employed a backgrounding-preconditioning program for every animal he receives. On arrival, each animal is processed and immediately put out on a 30- to 40-acre trap.

“The lighter the animal, the longer they stay,” Scoggins says. The 300- to 400-lb. calves may stay in the trap for 60-90 days; a five-weight or bigger may be there 40-60 days. At the end of the preconditioning program, generally anything that's a five-weight or heavier goes to the feedyard and anything under 500 lbs. goes back out on pasture.

Regardless, they're ready to take on civilization with a little calmer demeanor.

Acclimation is the trick

From their first day in the trap, the cattle are ridden and gathered every day.

“We bring them in and shut the gate so they become used to the water trough and the feed trough,” Scoggins says. Each trap has a chute and a hospital pen, and sick calves are pulled and treated daily. “And then, the cowboys come back in the afternoon and let them out.”

The routine isn't much different from a regular backgrounding feedyard — with one major exception. Being in the trap allows the cattle to acclimate to their new world in a more familiar setting. That reduces the stress on the calf considerably.

“We try to get them to as close to a native-type surrounding as we can,” Scoggins explains. “It's nothing any different than if they were in the feedyard — checked and doctored every day. It's just that they have a more comfortable setting.”

And, in the process, cattle settle down considerably, so when they do change addresses and move to the feedyard, a lot of the jumps and snorts have worked themselves out and they can go on feed smoothly and quickly.

“They get used to being around people and horses and being in a group,” Scoggins says. “When you first start gathering them (in the trap) for the first 10 days, they're in small bunches scattered all over the pasture. And then they start grouping up until finally, say by day 21, you can send a guy around them and they just start heading toward the pen. They just about gather themselves.”

Mexican cattle, too

Scoggins also buys quite a few Mexican cattle, and they're handled the same way. However, Mexican steers adjust sooner; they're ready to move out of the traps and into the feedyard after about 21 days.

“Stress is a non-issue to Mexican cattle,” Scoggins says. “Our naive, native cattle have never had a stressful day in their life, but a Mexican calf has had stress every day of its life. So when they come over here, they think they're in heaven. And their consumption shows it.”

With a native calf, Scoggins says it can take 21 days just to get feed consumption up to a maintenance level. Mexican calves take about seven days.

While backgrounding cattle isn't unusual, Scoggins says he's not aware of a feedyard his size or larger that approaches it quite the way he does.

“It really helps when you get them to the yard. We couldn't do it without it. Our medical costs and death loss would be to a point where we couldn't justify the risk.”