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MANAGE STRESS TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE IN STOCKER CATTLE

by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D, PAS

Within the next few months huge numbers of freshly weaned cattle will be shipped from the ranch to grass and grazing programs. A large number of these cattle typically move from some part of the south or southeast to fall and winter pastures in the mid-south, high plains and mid-west and will eventually end up in a feedyard. A lot has been written and endless research conducted concerning this practice and how steps can be taken to improve performance and ultimately profits at this phase in the cattle production cycle. This article will attempt to review and discuss some of the more practical procedures and practices which can be utilized to improve overall performance and economic returns for these cattle.

Managing Stress

In many cases young cattle are weaned directly off the cow, loaded on a truck and driven for many hours. Needless to say, this is exceptionally stressful from many standpoints. Let's look at a few:

• To begin, if these cattle are freshly weaned or rather, if this is the weaning process, these calves are unaccustomed to fending completely for themselves. They still have had at least some dependence on the cow for part of their nutrient intake needs.

• In many cases these cattle have very limited immunity. Having been only on the ranch their entire life, their exposure to various antigens bacteria and viruses may be very limited. If they have not been vaccinated, their susceptibility to pathogens for which they have limited or no resistance is great, leaving them wide open to infection. This combined with the stress of handling, shipping, passage through auction facilities, co-mingling with strange cattle, etc. can have a significant effect on health.

• The transit process is very stressful. Imagine being loaded on a truck in Florida and not unloaded for 12 to 24 hours (or more) with no rest, no water, no feed. Also there is a constant subjection to diesel fumes, which, when inhaled, dries the moist tissues of the airways causing them to dry and crack, allowing for infiltration of the respiratory system by pathogens.

• Finally, on arrival, cattle may be put through a processing program in which they may be poked, prodded, injected, branded, de-wormed and dehorned. Once again, this is very stressful on already wrung out animals.

      So what's the answer? In many cases we are seeing buyers, both grass operators and feedyard managers, requiring at least some preconditioning of cattle. In other words, proactive buyers are looking for cattle that have been weaned, given appropriate injections and trained to eat from a bunk or drink from a waterer. While this is not exceptionally widespread there is a trend developing. Preconditioning of cattle either on or near the ranch helps prepare them for the stress of transit to a new locale and into a new environment. If cattle have been managed in this manner they are better suited and prepared physiologically and nutritionally for the stress they will encounter. This helps reduce sickness upon arrival and also reduces deathloss. If the opportunity presents itself to purchase cattle which have been managed in this way it is normally economically favorable to consider paying somewhat more for cattle that you will have less sickness and mortality.

      After cattle have arrived the need to manage stress levels continue. Numerous techniques have been examined and I've listed a few below:

• Off load cattle in as calm and quite a manner as possible.

• Provide fresh water with ample room per head in a conspicuous location.

• Provide plenty of good quality hay if hay feeders or line the bottom of the bunk with hay and layer with a receiving feed.

• Provide a well designed receiving feed with a full complement of protein, energy, minerals and vitamins.

• Maintain cattle in a relatively small pasture or trap for a few days before turning them out. This keeps new arrivals within close proximity to feeders, waterers and hay if necessary. After several days and cattle have been acclimated a bit more they can be turned out into the pastures.

Enhancement of Performance

A couple of tools which consistently work well in pasture cattle include implanting and feeding of ionophores. Implants have been around for numerous years and will, under typical conditions, produce an 8 to 15 percent increase in gains and feed efficiency. Implants induce a small shift in hormonal levels within the animal which improves the overall efficiency of growth. Numerous products of this nature exist, all of which will provide a positive response. While responses have differed in different studies the greatest or most notable difference is in the length of effect. Products range in effective times from 90 to 150 days. The greatest overall response is seen when implants are kept in place continuously. Various programs suggest alternating implants each time while others suggest staying with the same product all the way through. The work I've conducted with clients indicates the alternation methods seems to produce the greatest response.

Ionophores such as Rumensin and Bovatec, fed at a rate of 180 to 360 milligrams per head per day will also provide positive responses in gain and feed efficiency. Ionophores create a population shift in the ruminal microbe population which promotes the growth and development of more efficient bacteria. Improved gains of 8 to 12 percent have been recognized quite commonly with the feeding of these products. The feeding of ionophores is accomplished by inclusion in a supplement of some type be it a protein/energy mix or a free-choice mineral.

Understand, however, that these compounds are not silver bullets and will not take the place of sound management. They will make a good management program more productive and profitable but will not solve the short comings of a poor program.

Managing Nutrient Intake From Pastures

In the late fall cattle are going onto winter annuals such as wheat, oats, ryegrass (a bit later), rye, etc. These pastures, under appropriate moisture conditions and temperature patterns as well as planting and fertilization can produce immense amounts of forage for grazing. Subsequently, this type of program can provide excellent nutrient intake for grazing cattle. It must be noted however that these pastures can be made more productive by taking a few, relatively simple steps.

Take a moment to look at the nutrient needs of the typical steer or heifer coming into this type of a program. Table 1 below outlines dry matter, protein, energy, etc. needed by this type of animal at various rates of gain.

Several points you may note as you review this table. First, at a given rate of gain, as the calf grows it requires more dry matter intake to support that gain. Second, as rate of gain increases, the allowable roughage content of the daily ration decreases. Ration means the total amount of grass, hay, supplement, etc. that the calf takes in within a given 24 hour period. Third, maintenance energy (Nem) requirement at a given weight remains the same but energy for gain (Neg) requirement increases as the rate of gain increases. Both Nem and Neg increase at a given rate of gain as the calf grows.

So what does this tell us? To begin, in order to increase gains we have to increase dry matter and energy intake. On winter annual pastures such as wheat, oats or rye, remember that this grass is very “wet.” In other words, the grass contains a high amount of moisture and a given sample may be as high as 78 percent water or more in some situations. This helps explain why producers note that the manure of cattle placed on these pastures becomes very thin. Because of this high moisture content, in many cases, it is difficult for a calf to consume enough grass to take in the necessary dry matter level required for higher rates of gain. Also, because of the high water content of the plant material, digesta passes through the tract very quickly, reducing the amount of time the rumen bacteria have to breakdown the fiber and extract necessary nutrients. The animal itself has less time to absorb the nutrients as they pass rapidly through the intestinal tract.

Given these considerations there are steps that can be taken to improve performance on winter pastures.

• Provide free-choice hay or some other type of dry roughage for cattle on pasture. In general, cattle will eat some hay even while on pasture. This provides more dry material, reducing the overall moisture content in the daily ration. This helps slow down rate of passage, providing more time for effective bacterial action in the rumen and more time for absorption in the intestinal tract. This can also help reduce the incidence of bloating in these types of cattle. Finally, this practice will help stretch pastures or allow you to stock pastures more densely, increasing returns per acre.

• Provide a few pounds (normally about one percent of body weight) of a relatively low protein, high starch supplement. This provides extra energy in a more compact form, more dry matter and finally provides starch which is necessary for the rumen bacteria. Recall that as the rumen bacteria break down the soluble protein in the plant material this releases nitrogen in the form of ammonia. If the other necessary components are available (i.e. starch molecules) the bacterial can combine the ammonia with portions of the starch molecules to create protein in their own bodies. This increases the overall yield of bacterial protein which is ultimately the main source of protein to the calf. This helps increase growth and performance. In addition the extra energy also helps increase the activity of the bacteria, increases bacterial population and simply makes for a more active rumen which can more effectively breakdown the fiber in the diet.. The sum total effect here is an increase in gains on pasture of .5 lb. per head per day or more in many cases. Once again, as with the dry hay or roughage, feeding a supplement in this manner will reduce consumption of pasture and help stretch available forage supplies thereby increasing length of time pasture is available or increasing the allowable stocking density.

Conclusions

Grazing programs are a cost effective way in which cattle can be grown out and taken to a size more suitable for entry into the feedyard. Through proper management and utilization of a few common sense techniques, profits and performance can be improved nicely. And in markets such as we've experienced of late, every little bit helps!

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at sblez@peoplescom.net.

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