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Stocker Cattle | January 2012


Stocker Cattle

The Right Health Plan Means the Right Start

By Lorie Woodward Cantu

Editor's Note: This is the first 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.

With stockers, getting them healthy and keeping them healthy, can be a challenge.

The entire stocker industry operates in a narrow window of opportunity, with the goal of maximizing gain for the lowest cost possible. In that pressure-cooker environment, it's tempting to look for a magic bullet and overlook the benefits of a basic, balanced health plan.

"With stockers, getting them healthy and keeping them healthy, can be a challenge," says Dr. Thomas Hairgrove, a livestock and food animal systems veterinarian for the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (TVMDL) and Texas AgriLife Extension Service. "When those calves get off the truck looking like they all want to die, it’s natural to want a magic bullet, but, in the long term, a well-balanced health plan can make all the difference.”

All the stressors
Stockers, perhaps more than any other industry segment, reflect the stresses inherent in the beef marketing system. Generally, when these young cattle arrive at the stocker operation, they have been affected by multiple stressors — weaning, transportation, commingling and handling at the auction market, inadequate feed and water, weather and exposure to multiple diseases.

Stress suppresses the immune system, allowing viruses and bacteria, both of which exist in high numbers even in healthy cattle, to get the upper hand. It’s vital that these cattle receive adequate water and appropriate nutrition in a clean environment where stress is minimized to support proper immune system function, says Hairgrove. He speaks from his experience, having been a veterinarian in Haskell for 32 years prior to working with TVMDL and the Extension Service.

Clean pens, healthier cattle
Before the cattle arrive, make sure the pens are clean, because many diseases can be harbored in manure, old feed and other waste. For instance, coccidia, the 1-celled parasites that cause coccisidiosis, live in moist environments, and have at least 1 life stage in manure. As long as infected manure remains, there is the chance for cattle to be infected or re-infected. Removing sources of potential infection is a good husbandry practice that can help prevent additional disease.

The pens should also be outfitted with plentiful water and feed. After transportation, rehydration is crucial. Hairgrove offered respiratory infections as just 1 example of the importance of water in disease defense. A wide variety of bacteria and viruses live in the nasal passages of cattle. Mucus is the first line of defense to prevent the invaders from entering the lungs. If a calf is dehydrated, its body is not able to make enough mucus to trap the microbial invaders, which are then expelled when the animal coughs, leaving the lungs susceptible to infection.

Proper nutrition, better immunity
Nutrition, particularly adequate protein, is equally important because protein is the primary building block of antibodies. A lack of energy and protein can interfere with the immune function which includes the production of antibodies, and other factors compromising the body's ability to defend itself, Hairgrove says. Early on, the cattle should be introduced to a well-balanced ration that is not so high in energy that it disturbs the microflora of the rumen, creating digestive problems.

"Getting the immune system to operate at its highest level is crucial," Hairgrove says. "While bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics that work in concert with the immune system, viruses are unaffected by antibiotics, so the animal’s immune system is crucial in the line of defense against viral infections."

Prepare a team
Because of the confluence of stress and exposure, many stockers arrive incubating disease; therefore, it's important to have a plan and a team in place to manage the animals' health care.

Hairgrove suggests the team be composed of the stocker operator, a veterinarian and a trusted ag pharmaceutical sales rep. It's better to get them involved with the cattle sooner rather than later, he says.

"As a veterinarian who spent 32 years in the country, I can learn more about the cattle and offer better predictors of health challenges if I'm there when they're getting off the truck," he says. "Seeing them as they arrive gives a practitioner a functional baseline from which to work."

Each team member brings a different perspective to the cattle, which can lead to improved health outcomes, he says. While the operator "does not know the momma cows' names," he can provide key details about the calves' history including point of origin and health concerns. The veterinarian can provide a local perspective on what disease threats and health problems are active locally, as well as what medications have been most effective in treatment. The pharmaceutical rep can provide insight similar to a veterinarian's, but on a regional basis.

"The more information that you can bring to bear on any health concerns, the better the outcome will be," Hairgrove says, noting that treating stocker cattle is equal parts science and experience. "For instance, the effectiveness of antibiotics tends to be cyclical. When a new antibiotic comes out, it beats the bugs for about 3 years, and then the microbes begin to develop resistance to it. The antibiotic has to be taken out of the rotation for a few years and replaced with either a new antibiotic or an older one. People who are keeping current can help you match the right drugs to your cattle."

The team can create a vaccination protocol to provide a framework for administering medications, Hairgrove says.

"Developing a protocol does not tie you to a single course of action, because the most effective protocols are flexible," Hairgrove says. "It's counterproductive to administer medications according to a plan just because it's written down. If your eyes and experience are telling you that it is not working as it should, then it should be modified accordingly, but not thrown out." Having a plan — and the medications to implement it — in place, removes the temptation to treat animals with whatever happens to be in the barn. This can help increase the effectiveness of treatments and reduce the risk of antibiotic residues.

Antibiotic residues are big concerns for the government and the consuming public. It does matter whether a medication is administered in the muscle or in the skin. Paying close attention to withdrawal times is vital, even if the calf is a long way from the slaughter house. Creating "drug cocktails" by mixing 2 or more medications together is illegal and a bad idea because it creates a completely new compound with no tested use parameters. Why? Because all of these practices increase the chance that drug residues will remain in the animal and eventually the carcass.

"There is a widely held perception that animal agriculture is a major contributor to the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria," Hairgrove says. "People believe it, so it's true, regardless of what science says. Because of that, no one in animal agriculture can afford to administer drugs outside of their labeled uses. In this day of instant media, just 1 incident could give the industry a black eye from which we can't recover."

"Stocker Cattle: The Right Health Plan Means the Right Start" is from the January 2012 issue of The Cattlemen magazine.