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Stocker Cattle| April 2012

Stocker Cattle

Stale vs. Fresh Cattle

By Lorie Woodward Cantu

Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment in a 12-part series on stocker cattle management. This series has been created in partnership with Chris McClure, Gold Standard Labs (, a lab services company based in Hereford that specializes in BVD-PI testing and blood pregnancy tests; and Danna Schwenk and Karla Whitmore, CattleXpert Management Software (, a software company based in Elkhorn, Neb., that specializes in feedlot and stocker management applications.

In a bakery, the determination of freshness is straightforward. In a stocker operation, it is much more difficult.

"People often use the words 'fresh' and 'stale' to describe cattle," says Dr. Ron Gill, professor and Extension livestock specialist, Texas AgriLife Extension. "Unfortunately, those words mean different things to different people."

For some people, "fresh," as applied to cattle, means calves that are coming straight from the cow. For others, it means cattle that have recently entered the marketing chain and have endured minimal stress caused by transportation, handling and nutrition.

"Stale" cattle generally have been in the marketing chain for an extended period of time and have begun showing the effects of stress associated with poor handling, nutrition and transportation.

"Whether or not cattle are fresh or stale is not just a function of time, but also a function of management," Gill says. "If cattle are handled properly, well-fed, well-hydrated and transported as efficiently as possible, they may be fresh, even though they've been in the marketing chain for a while." Fresh cattle are in a better physical state, so they are less likely to develop health problems.

"I once had a very successful stocker operator tell me, 'I want to buy calves that have been weaned for 45 seconds or 45 days,'" Gill says. "It stuck with me because it just made so much sense."

If operators get calves straight off the cows, the operators have complete control of the health and nutrition of those calves from the very beginning and will not have to potentially overcome someone's poor management decisions, he says.

In the other scenario the cattle have been weaned for 45 days, which is the optimum amount of time to overcome the initial stress of separation, get them on feed and implement a health protocol. If the post-weaning management or backgrounding has been handled correctly, the calves come to the stocker operator on a firm footing and ready to grow.

"While fresh cattle from a known source are very desirable, they are not bullet-proof," Gill says. "I've seen people get into serious wrecks because they purchased a set of calves directly from a ranch and mistakenly believed they would be free of health problems."

Calves taken directly from their mothers may be "tender," and susceptible to problems just because they've never been exposed to any type of stress at all. Another potential problem of buying from just one ranch is that the calves will be very similar in their genetic make-up and their nutritional profile. If a problem develops, it is likely that it will run rampant through all of the calves because they are so similar.

"Diversity is not always a bad thing," Gill says.

If an operator chooses to buy cattle through an auction market or broker, it is important to gather as much information as possible on the management practices employed at the auction or in the broker's yard, he says.

"All brokers and auction markets have a history and a track record," Gill says. "Some of them are top-notch when it comes to handling and taking care of cattle. As a buyer, it's imperative that you know as much about the cattle and how they've been cared for as possible."

One of the most important questions to ask is whether the auction market or broker is known for handling a high percentage of "trader cattle," cattle that have passed from market to market or hand to hand. Trader cattle have an increased probability of being stale.

Unfortunately, only the stalest cattle are easy to spot. Some red flags include lethargy and stiff movements or sore-footedness from long periods of hauling or standing on concrete.

"The really stale ones stand out," Gill says. "It's the ones that are borderline that will get people into trouble." In some cases, the stale calves have been doctored with inexpensive antibiotics to help mask emerging symptoms, he says.

Stale cattle are in a diminished physical state, making them particularly susceptible to health problems. Dealing with sick cattle takes a lot of time, labor and money. Diminished productivity or death loss can devastate a stocker operator's bottom line, even if the calves were purchased at a low price.

"A stocker operation is a margin business," Gill says. "It doesn't matter how low the purchase price is if the cattle require a lot of expensive inputs like treatments, vaccines, labor, feed and nutritional supplements just to survive."

To help stale cattle turn the corner and eventually turn a profit takes information, experience and commitment.

"It's not easy to turn a pen of cattle around," Gill says. "If operators are inexperienced, it might be best if they hire someone to do the backgrounding and get the cattle sound. Beginners might want to concentrate on becoming graziers, allowing more experienced people to address health issues."

Operators who choose to tackle the health issues themselves, should enlist the assistance of an experienced consulting veterinarian to create a health protocol, and then the operators should be prepared to implement the protocol assertively.

To reduce the risk of viral challenges, it may be advantageous for buyers to look for calves that have been tested to see if persistently-infected bovine viral diarrhea (BVD PI) individuals are in the group, he says. Early detection and removal of BVD PI calves will reduce the risk associated with bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in purchased calves.

The earlier in the life of the calf they can be tested to see if they are persistently infected with bovine viral diarrhea, the better. Testing for BVD PI infections after the cattle are assembled in a purchasing group will be late in preventing exposure to BVD in the naïve cattle; however, it will prevent exposure to cattle already in inventory and those that might be purchased later.

"Anyone who is managing stale cattle should just assume that they are behind the health curve," Gill says. "It's particularly important to treat any respiratory diseases aggressively."

Operators should also be prepared to give more personal attention to stale cattle, enacting a stringent acclimation process. Because many of the cattle are sore, they tend to lay around; therefore, someone has to get them up at least once a day and encourage moderate exercise and place them at the feed bunks. This is not just important for stale cattle. It should be done with all calves going through preconditioning.

"As strange as it sounds, the managers actually become surrogates to these calves, making them walk and eat, and, in the process, infusing them with the will to live," Gill says. "While this is an extreme example, it points out a truism that is the foundation of a successful stocker operation — To succeed in the stocker business, you can't be a back door manager. You have to be hands-on, engaged and informed."

"Stocker Cattle: Stale vs. Fresh Cattle" is from the April 2012 issue of The Cattleman magazine.