Cattle Today

Cattle Today



by: Stephen B. Blezinger

First, from us all here at BLN Consulting, a very Happy and Prosperous New Year. We hope this will be your best year ever. With the arrival of 2008 we typically take time to reflect on the past and look to the new year with anticipation, excitement and in many cases some trepidation. With all the changes in the industry over the last few years, the new year will only bring more of the same. The industry has seen this in marketing, how we identify cattle, what is considered a safe beef product, so and so on. A very rapidly growing area in both demand by the consumer and the efforts on the cattle industry's part are the production and availability of either Natural or Organic Beef products. At this point we will not revisit these areas of discussion in detail but some of the production issues that affect performance.

One significant part of these types of production that have come under scrutiny is what tools and compounds are used in the animal to enhance performance and health. Cattlemen have numerous tools to improve gains, offset or counter-act sickness and so on. This includes the antibiotics and vaccines we use to offset these disease conditions and prevent animal morbidity and mortality. A primary concern with these compounds often relates to the injectable forms although those products which are fed have also come under scrutiny and criticism. Products like the ionophores, Rumensin®, Bovatec® and Cattlyst®, which are all essentially antibiotics but are used to improve feed efficiency and weight gains while reducing the incidence of digestive upset and conditions like coccidiosis. Much press has been given to the theories that abound related to what is thought to be increasing resistance of various bacteria to the antibiotics used to keep them in check. Products such as chlortetracycline (Aureomycin®), oxytetracycline (Terramycin®), tylan (Tylosin®), decoquinate (Deccox®) and a number of others are all used to control or modify the growth and development of various organisms, most which are detrimental to the performance of the animal.

Of greater concern to many consumers is the use of implants. Implants, positioned at the mid-point in the back of the ear are natural or synthetic hormone-based compounds that have been shown to increase weight gains and muscle deposition in growing beef cattle. Products such as Ralgro®, Compudose® and Synovex®, Finaplex®, etc. are widely used in the feedyard, in stocker cattle operations and by cow-calf producers to enhance growth in cattle and generate improved efficiencies. It is widely known that the use of implants has been banned in Europe and this continues to stand in the way of renewed exports of American beef to European countries. While this situation is based largely on politics and very little on science it nonetheless has affected our production system and the ability to sell our beef products to these countries. Overall, the perception that the use of hormonal implants in cattle creates a meat product that is bad for the consumer despite what science tells us.

So, in a nutshell, the beef industry is coming under increased pressure to reduce or eliminate the use of some of its most valuable tools because there is a growing trend among consumers that their consumption of beef products may not be safe. As mentioned, the industry has seen this most prominently in the emergence and proliferation of “all natural” and “organic” beef programs. While both are still in early, growing stages we have seen enough interest and growth to recognize that these are here to stay and will one day be a force to be reckoned with.

Ultimately the consumer will win because they are moving at an increasing rate into the driver's seat and telling the producer what he or she wants, or more accurately, will pay for. This is common in most other industries, the producer should not expect the beef industry to be any different. While the industry has a ways to go, before long the pressure will become more obvious. This being the case it makes sense for the producer to evaluate his options and how and what steps can be taken in the event that these tools are eventually taken away or are regulated more extensively. This article is designed to start this thought process.

Some Basic Considerations

One of the first things the producer really needs to remember is that there are no “silver bullets” and no replacements for the Big 3:

Good Management

Good Genetics

Good Nutrition

We might even modify this some by taking out the word “good” and replacing it with “optimal.” Sometimes the biggest or the most is not always the best. When we talk about nutrition and the development of feed and supplement formulas the industry has moved from “least” cost to “best” cost. Just because something is cheap does not make it the best.

Also, as we consider many of the products the industry has commonly used to enhance performance, we find that in many cases they have become “band-aids” to replace better management, genetics or nutrition. This may step on some toes but in many instances producers have been somewhat guilty of utilizing an ionophore to improve feed efficiency or offset digestive upset because the feeding program was not the best it could have been or because his attention to bunk management or feeding schedules was problematic.

An interesting consideration, since ionophores were first utilized seriously back in the early 70's the industry has noted a reduction in efficacy of the product. In other words, the products, in many cases do not appear to deliver the same degree of improved feed efficiency as they did 20-30 years ago. Some theories suggest that there has been an increase in resistance by rumen bacteria to the effect these compounds have. This would be exceedingly difficult since in most cases (virtually all), there is no exposure of young, developing calves to larger, older animals (i.e. feedlot cattle) that have actually been fed the antibiotic. Breeding cows are not fed products like Rumensin® or Bovatec® on a particularly wide-spread basis so a cross-inoculation of the calves these cows produce is unlikely. The more prevalent theory in why efficacy may be diminishing is related to nutrition. We have some of the finest researchers in the world working in the area of ruminant nutrition. Over the last 20 years we have seen major improvements in our knowledge in areas concerning the intake and metabolism of protein, energy minerals and vitamins. We have become aware of the effect that stress has on the animal and the importance of grain processing and feeding management. We are better nutritionists than we were 20 years ago and because of this at a basic level our animals are fed better -- in many cases better than we are! Because the overall nutrition of the animal has improved, it has been theorized that products such as ionophores do not show as great of an effect when fed on top of these better rations.

Performance Enhancement From a More Natural Perspective – Taking the First Steps

When it comes to addressing the issues that we've discussed so far, producers generally fall into two schools of thought. One is “I'm going to use everything I can until they tell me I can't.” The second is “Let's start implementing some new replacement solutions now so that we know what we are doing by the time they do restrict use of these products.” We're going to approach this from the second perspective.

To begin, a producer must go back to the Big 3 as mentioned earlier. It is important that he or she employ the best management, genetics and nutrition that is available. These three cover a broad area, more than we have room to cover here, so we'll examine some specific areas to enhance performance without these tools.

1) Animal Health.

One of the biggest arguments for moving away from some of the products and practices cattlemen have typically employed relates to animal health. Many diseases can become quite prevalent in a herd if not addressed by administration of appropriate vaccinations. Initially it would not be good to abruptly change your vaccination and herd health program and do not take this wrong this is not an advocacy of a program without the use of vaccinations and effective therapeutic use of antibiotics. This is simply a discussion of how the use of non-therapeutic or excessive product use may be reduced. Certain steps can be taken to reduce the incidence of health issues. These might include:

a) Take steps to reduce the introduction of “foreign” or disease organisms into the herd. This is simply a good practice regardless of your program. Newly purchased cattle should be kept separate from the rest of the herd for a period of time as they adapt to their new surroundings. If they become ill due to the stress or change in environment they can be treated without your existing herd becoming exposed to active forms of the pathogen.

b) As related to a) above, a number of guidelines have been established to increase the biosecurity of your cattle operations. We see the term biosecurity and automatically assume this refers to anti-terrorism efforts. While this can apply, biosecurity is related more to insuring that pathogenic organisms that might cause sickness and financial loss in the herd are kept at a minimum.

c) Establish the best nutritional program that you can. For years we have know that health and nutrition are “joined at the hip.” The presence of adequate or inadequate levels of any of the nutrients can have serious effects on the overall health of the cow or calf. Similarly health conditions such as disease can likewise affect nutrition, especially the animal's ability to absorb and/or metabolize many of the nutrients. This is especially true when it comes to mineral and vitamin nutrition. Many minerals and vitamins are directly tied to immune response (zinc, copper, selenium, Vitamin A, Vitamin E, etc.). The application of a well-designed mineral program will greatly improve the immunity of all cattle, especially younger calves that may not have developed extensive resistance to the many bacteria and viruses that can cause sickness. Also, while minerals are important, a total quality nutritional program is required to maintain the health integrity of the entire herd, not just performance.

d) Reduce stress as much as possible. Stress (handling, transportation, environmental) is detrimental to health and performance. By handling cattle in a calm quiet manner (leave the dogs on the truck and the hot-shots in the tool-box) stress levels in cattle are greatly reduced plus they will be easier to handle the next time. Make sure pens and working facilities are well designed and that movement and flow of cattle is simple and effective. Not a lot can be done to control environmental conditions but it is important to provide plenty of shade and fresh water in the summer and adequate wind-breaks and protection from extreme cold in winter. Mud is very detrimental to cattle so reduce exposure to very muddy areas as much as possible.

e) Utilize an effective parasite control program. This includes the control of flies, internal parasites such as the various worms, liver flukes as well as external parasites such as grubs (could be considered internal), lice and ticks. Flies are a vector for disease as well as being a nuisance. While not as much of a problem as horn flies, research has shown that house flies are a significant carrier of e. coli O157:H7.

2) Nutrition

Nutrition relates directly to a variety of performance parameters including gains, efficiency, reproduction, as well as to health as discussed previously.

a) Forage program. For most operations, pastures, hays, silages are the foundation for your nutritional program. Forages can be your most valuable resources and if effectively managed can provide the lion's share of the nutrients needed to provide for the nutritional needs of your herd. Managing the forage program is a subject for a completely different article (series of articles, books, etc.) but one of the most important components is soil and forage testing. Soil testing in order to be aware of what needs to be added to the soil to optimize the growth and nutrient content of the forage itself, forage testing to be aware of what needs to be added to the forage to optimize the growth and overall performance of the animal. Manage your forage base to emphasize quality and not just quantity. A couple of hundred dollars spent on analysis of forages can save you literally thousand on supplemental feeding costs over a feeding season.

b) Optimal nutrition. This is not excessive nutrition and requires attention to meeting the needs of the various classes of cattle on your operation through changing conditions. The nutrient needs of the cattle are based on two components: the maintenance requirements of a particular class of animals (pregnant cows, developing bulls or heifers, newly weaned calves), and the nutrient needs above and beyond maintenance to achieve the level of performance desired (gains, reproductive response, etc.). Optimizing nutrition can go a long way to offsetting the need for “band-aids and silver bullets” and as discussed above, if properly designed, a quality nutritional program can reduce the performance gap between the use and non-use of the various compounds typically used.

c) Utilize tools that are considered more natural and do not raise red flags to the consumer. To begin this includes specific nutrients. Zinc is essential to all animals and plays significant roles in the metabolic activity of the grazing ruminant. Zinc functions in enzyme systems and is largely involved in nucleic acid metabolism, protein synthesis and carbohydrate metabolism. Zinc is found in all body tissues which are high in protein or calcified material. The absorption of the metal appears to be directly dependent on the body's physiological need. Early effects of Zn deficiency include reduced feed intake, reduced growth rate and feed efficiency followed by skin disorders. If left untreated, other more serious conditions may be manifested including inflammation of nose and mouth, unthrifty appearance, stiffness of joints with soft edematous swelling of the feet in front of the fetlocks as well as a host of other deficiency related symptoms. Many of these symptoms appear to be related to the role of zinc in protein synthesis and energy metabolism. This relationship is also noted in the body's ability to produce the necessary “killer cells” which the animal's immune system uses to fight off infection. Zinc deficiencies in the animal have resulted in a decreased ability by the animal to produce these various immune system components. Providing appropriate levels of Zn, especially in a highly available form has been shown to counter act these effects and improve overall immune system function

Similarly, a large number of disorders are attributed to deficiency of Copper in cattle. Symptoms including anemia, severe diarrhea, depressed growth, hair color change and weak, fragile bones are only a few of the characteristic signs of a clinical depressed Cu status. One of the more sensitive indicators of depressed Cu is achromatrichia or loss of hair pigment. Black cattle tend to develop a red tinge to the hair coat whereas the hair of red cattle lightens considerably. Hair loss around the eye is also occasionally noted with Cu deficiency. Likewise, deficiencies in copper have been shown to reduce the effectiveness of the immune system.

One of the primary metabolic requirements for Selenium is for the production of glutathione peroxidase, a Se-containing enzyme necessary for the prevention of oxidative damage of cellular and subcellular membranes, i.e. an antioxidant, as we commonly hear the term used in human medicine. The enzyme apparently attacks and destroys peroxides before they can damage the membranes. The production of peroxides in the body is a normal metabolic process and a constant source of glutathione peroxidase is required to counteract this activity. A Se deficiency reduces the amount of active enzyme, allowing greater amounts of peroxides to go unchecked. Selenium requirements are often categorized with those of Vitamin E which has a similar antioxidative activity in cellular membranes as that of glutathione peroxidase. Once again, an important roles of Se include adequate immune response in livestock. It also may affect prostaglandin synthesis and essential fatty acid metabolism.

Selenium and Vitamin E appear to be closely tied together. One study by Ohio State University researchers has shown that supplementation with vitamin E decreases the incidence of mastitis, and selenium decreases the duration of these infections. Combining selenium and Vitamin E supplements appear to result in the greatest increase in defense against mastitis. Deficiencies of vitamin E and selenium also have been found to increase the incidence of retained placenta. Selenium deficiency alone can increase the incidence of embryonic death and uterine infections and can decrease fertility.

Other opportunities include the use of certain feed additives such as yeasts, bacteria and enzymes to control or affect performance within the rumen and gastrointestinal tract. The use of feed additives containing live microorganisms and/or their metabolites (compounds they produce as waste) to improve the efficiency of production in cattle has increased, to a large degree, as a response to consumer demand for more “natural” growth-promoting or efficiency enhancing substances. Yeast Products, direct fed microbials, probiotics and other terms are used to identify a host of products that are based on populations of microbial organisms be they yeasts, bacteria or fungi which are thought to have a beneficial role in the rumen or lower digestive tract. Subsequently the use of these materials has shown or is believed to have shown benefit by improving the digestion of various nutrients, especially forages in the bovine digestive system.

Direct-Fed Microbials (DFM) have been of great interest in recent years. There have been several hypotheses put forth to explain the usefulness of DFM. One of the most common explanations for improved animal health or production suggests that the addition of beneficial bacteria prevent the colonization of pathogens in the lower gut by competing for space and nutrients. Production of antimicrobial end products such as acids and antibiotics has also been discussed. Some of the proposed mechanism for how DFMs work include:

• Production of antibacterial compounds (acids, antibiotics).

• Competition with undesirable organisms for space and/or nutrients in the digestive tract.

• Production of nutrients (e.g. amino acids, vitamins) or other growth factors which stimulate growth and reproduction of other microorganisms in the digestive tract.

• Production and/or stimulation of enzymes.

• Breakdown and/or detoxification of undesirable compounds

• Stimulation of the immune system in the host animal.

Similarly, yeast usage has found applications in many areas. One particular area of interest is in cattle grazing fescue pastures. Much of the eastern and southern United States has endophyte-infected fescue as the main source of forage protein and energy. While new lines of endophyte-free fescue exist, it is unlikely that there will be wide-spread replanting of fescue areas. There is a renewed interest in year-round or extended grazing to reduce the feed cost of cow-calf production programs. Yeast products may assist in digestion of forages.

On-going studies are evaluating the use of yeasts and yeast cultures as a possible alternative for ionophores. Work has shown responses in feedlot cattle to the feeding of specific yeasts. Treated cattle showed an increase in gains, feed efficiency and reductions in digestive upset when fed rumen-specific yeasts.

A lot of research is still needed as to how these compounds actually function in the animal and what the overall mode of action really is. The intervening results, however, have been good enough that producers and researchers alike should give attention to these tools.


From this brief review it becomes obvious that animal health and productivity are not necessarily related to the application or use of a needle or the feeding of a variety of the products on the market today that can commonly mask less than adequate management. It is important for the producer to evaluate the opportunities and tools at his disposal. Many of the concepts discussed here could prove valuable at improving overall animal health, performance and producer profitability.

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


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