by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Every cattle operation is affected by sickness and or even death loss in some manner. A vet put it to me very simply one time: “if you don't have ‘em, you can't lose ‘em!” Conversely, if you DO have them, they will get sick and from time to time, unfortunately, one or more may be lost. For stocker and feedlot producers as well as for cow/calf operations during weaning and “transition,” this is especially true. As cattle are being weaned from the cow, shipped from one location to another, received to go onto pastures, preconditioning or backgrounding operations or if they go directly to a feedyard, animal morbidity (sickness) and mortality (death) reaches higher than average levels. Even with all that science and practice have taught us over the years, these conditions continue. Another factor that is always important but particularly in current markets are the values of the animal. Loss of ONE 5 wt calf may cost in excess of $1,000 to $1,200. Frankly, cattle are too valuable to lose!

Given what cattle prices have been and potentially where they will remain based on supply, loss of productivity and especially the animal itself is a VERY expensive proposition. If an animal is initially sick and has to be treated for any period, medicine and vet expenses are high. Given the cost per dose of many of technologically advanced antibiotics, it is not uncommon to have medicine expense that may reach $50 to $100 (or more) in treatment cost for the sick animal. Even then, in some cases, the animal may still die or become a “chronic” and never perform economically, returning the dollars that have been put into it. If the calf dies, these input costs are lost since no payback is possible from that animal. Obviously all these things are very detrimental to the bottom line. The producer must take an aggressive position in planning for and dealing with these situations.

Things to Understand

In a study at the University of Nebraska, it was reported that respiratory disease and particularly pneumonia is still the biggest killer of newly weaned cattle. In many cases the onset of disease is created by stress in these cattle, which depresses/weakens the immune system. Concurrently there are many factors that influence the outcome of the disease. And while stress is pretty much an expected condition, two of the most important tools in minimizing the effect are making sure cattle are eating properly (more about this later) and identifying sick cattle and starting treatment early.

Another condition which often affects newly weaned or newly received cattle is BRD or Bovine Respiratory Disease. Bovine Respiratory Disease commonly refers to infections of the lungs caused by bacteria that normally inhabit the nose and throat of cattle. Healthy lungs will have adequate resistance against the bacteria. Animals with lungs damaged by viral infection or animals stressed by management or environmental factors, however, will have a lowered resistance level.

Some of the stresses that contribute to BRD include exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration (all associated with the sale and shipping process), weaning, ration changes, castration, dehorning, overcrowding, chilling, overheating, confinement in poorly ventilated quarters, and social adjustments associated with co-mingling cattle from different sources. The more these events can be avoided the less likely the cattle will become sick. The bacteria strains primarily involved with BRD are Pasteurella haemolytica, Pasteurella multocida, and Haemophilus somnus.

Identifying sick cattle early in the course of the disease can be one of the most difficult jobs producers have. However, necropsy reports and treatment records from thousands of cattle have shown that appropriate treatment started within the first 48 hours of the onset of pneumonia will improve a sick animal's chance of survival. Efforts to locate sick cattle as soon as possible are critically important.

One of the most important early symptoms associated with pneumonia as well as many other diseases is poor or nonexistent appetite. In order to effectively observe this symptom, cattle must have some protection from the environment as well as adequate pen and bunk space. Individuals monitoring the cattle must have plenty of time early in the morning to observe cattle. When cattle are not feeling well in many cases they simply won't feel like getting up and eating, even when the feed/forage is fresh and very palatable. This is one step that must be taken with “at-risk” cattle. Make sure the feed is fresh at all times and that it is as palatable as it can be. Be sure to use long-stemmed grass hay and that it is of very good quality. If possible, spread hay out in the bunks or troughs and spread the feed over the top of the hay so they must eat through the feed to get to the hay. Use little or no fermented (haylage, silage, wet distillers grains or corn gluten feed or brewer's grains) feeds which may have an odor cattle are unfamiliar with. They are also higher in moisture and less nutrient dense. If the cattle are freshly weaned or newly received AND have become sick, getting them to eat is an even greater challenge. Just remember – FRESH, PALATABLE, NUTRIENT DENSE. Nutrient intake must be adequate in order to support medicinal treatments given to offset disease. This is the producer's number one job. Cattle that are eating properly seldom get sick or at least will certainly recover faster. It is also very difficult to find a starter or a high quality weaning feed that is too expensive.

Take Proper Time

From a management standpoint, rule No. 1 is to be sure that you have all the time necessary in the early morning to observe the cattle. The Nebraska study recommended that producers need to be finished feeding, identifying sick cattle, sorting sick cattle, treating sick cattle, and returning sick cattle to their pens before 11 every morning. The earlier the better. This is especially true in the southern United States in late spring, through the summer and early fall where temperatures can begin to climb by 8:00 am or even before. It is very stressful to work sick cattle past late morning when the weather is reaching temperatures over 80 degrees.

Ideally it works well to handle only the number of newly weaned cattle two people can feed, sort, and treat easily and without rushing from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. each morning. Also, it's a good idea to stagger the receiving periods so that no more than 200 animals per person are being started at one time. However, for many operations this is becoming increasingly difficult as experienced, qualified employees are becoming more difficult to find.

Spacing in Pens and at the Bunk

Remember, getting cattle to eat properly is the number 1 priority. Pens should provide cattle the opportunity to rest, eat, and be treated easily and in a low stress manner. Pens should provide approximately 150 square feet of dry space per animal. Bunks should provide at least 12 inches of linear space per weaned calf and it is best if the calf has 16 inches of space to eat in the sick pens. Remember that if a calf is not truly inclined to eat to begin with, they will not fight or push their way through other cattle to get to the bunk. This results in a downward spiral for the animal which, in many cases, is very difficult to recover from. Finally, and this can't be over emphasized: provide plenty of clean, fresh, cool water at all times. Waterers should be provided with a minimum of four inches of linear space per animal. Finally, if at all possible, provide shade for newly weaned or received cattle to get out of the sun.

Managing the Environment

Sometimes we discount the effects that environmental conditions have on cattle. This is a very big mistake. Temperature fluctuations greater than 30 degrees per day are very stressful to cattle. If the hair coat becomes wet and that insulation factor is lost, the effect is increased. If at all possible, provide protection to newly weaned or received cattle from both dampness and severe temperature fluctuations. Windbreaks provide relief from cold winter winds but can prevent air movement when the weather is warm. Design windbreaks to meet both conditions. If overhead shelter is provided it should be designed to allow air movement, protection from radiant heat, and allow for drying under the shelter by permitting sunlight to contact the entire covered surface during the day. Overhead shelters should be at least 10 feet high and provide about 200 square feet of covered area per animal. Finally shelters of this nature should be rectangular in shape and oriented north to south to allow sunlight to shine on all areas under the shelter. This will aid in drying the areas under the shelters where cattle will gather. These areas can become very wet with urine and feces if some opportunity is not made for these areas to dry.

Eating Patterns

Another rule for treatment is to pull (move to a different location – pen or grass trap) any newly weaned or received calf that is slow to come to the bunk to eat. Sick cattle are generally slow to come to feed if they come at all. As mentioned earlier, a rule of thumb states that an animal that is eating seldom is sick. This can be a challenge if, as noted above, the cattle have not been adapted to eating at a bunk or eating a feed of any type before. The best time to look for sick cattle is when you put out feed. If you don't have too many cattle to look after, make a note of the ones that were slow and come back and pull them for treatment later.

The cattle producer needs to know the first day cattle are slow coming up to eat. Research by Hutchinson and Cole, documented that the feed consumption in cattle exposed to viral respiratory disease starts to drop 48 hours before a rise in body temperature can be detected. In fact, the consumption will drop by 50 percent 24 hours before the animal's temperature starts to rise. By carefully observing feed consumption the producer can get ahead of most cases of typical respiratory infections in weaned calves. So, noting reduced feed intake is a first sign that a calf may be getting sick.

As noted, the best time to spot and sort sick cattle away from healthy cattle is immediately after they have been fed. As soon as the feed is in the bunk someone should be watching for the cattle that are slow to come to feed. Have someone stand quietly in the pen with them, and identify the animals that will be treated later in the morning. If from the first day cattle are received this procedure is started and cattle are acclimated to having someone in their pen with them, soon the cattle will let the producers or other individuals walk among them without getting excited.

Signs to watch for:
1) Coming to the bunk more slowly.
2) Sick cattle will be a little depressed and will hold their heads a bit lower than normal.
3) A “distant” attitude; they will be less interested in the things going on in their environment and not quite as curious as they would under normal circumstances.
4) Tendency to try to hide behind other cattle or in the corner next to the end of the bunk.
5) Less gut fill than normal. They may appear flat sided, and their abdomen will shake slightly when they walk. They have a “gant” appearance.
6) Presence of soft, repetitive coughing and a more rapid breathing rate.
7) Watery, dull eyes, a clear nasal discharge. They will not be cleaning their noses as often as normal.
8) Movement may be stiff and weakness will cause them to shorten their stride and drag their toe or knuckle slightly. Tails may be tucked slightly between their hocks.


Managing newly weaned or transition cattle that may become sick can be a full time job, especially some during some periods when it appears all the cards are stacked against you. With patience, practice and attention to details, identifying sick cattle earlier becomes easier and it definitely pays off in the end.

Copyright 2015 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Steve Blezinger in a management and nutrition consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at For more information check out

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