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

Part 2

In Part 1 of this series we began a discussion of the transition process taking calves from the cow/calf sector on to the next stage of production. The initial destination may be one of several including a grazing stage, preconditioning operation, feedyard or some variation of these. In any case, the transition stage with the handling, transportation, lack of feed and water, comingling with other animals and the associated exposure to pathogens to which the calf has no immunity, all work together to create an extremely challenging situation. This commonly results in sickness in the calf, from which it may or may not fully recover. Worst-case it can result in the complete loss of the animal. All of these scenarios result in significant economic loss to the owner at whatever stage it occurs.

As we discussed last time, much of this occurs because the calf was not prepared, at least to some degree, by the initial owner. The complicating factor is that unless the cow/calf producer knows he is going to get paid for the investment, he is not overly compelled to do the work or spend the money.

Additionally, as the title of this series implies, the beef industry is on a road toward significant restrictions in the use of antibiotics, at least from a fed-product perspective. This is also becoming more restrictive with the upcoming implementation of the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) which will make the feeding of various antibiotics such as Chlortetracycline, a commonly used product in cattle feeding at various stages, much more complicated. Based on a variety of conversations I have had over the last few months, the consensus by most producers is that they will simply not use these products anymore and are searching for alternatives to promote and enhance health in cattle in general but particularly in the transition cattle of concern.

Remember, in moving forward into this new production “world,” the producer will still have essentially the same access to conventional injected antibiotics. As most producers know, the newer, therapeutic products are expensive, require handling of the animals and in some cases have been shown to have a longer lasting, potentially detrimental effect on the animal.

So with these thoughts in mind the industry and specifically the producer is actively searching for alternatives to fed antibiotics and other means that can reduce stress, support the animal's immune system and reduce the use of therapeutic antibiotic products (whether fed or injected) in managing health issues in the transition animal.

Steps to Improving Health Performance in Transition Cattle

The main thing to keep in mind, overall, is that some steps need to be taken to prepare the calf for this process. These preparations make the animal better suited to deal with SOME of the situations and factors it will encounter as it leaves its momma and the farm. It really boils down to one word: management! But there are also a variety of options and possibilities that come into play with doing the best management job possible. One qualifier – we are going to assume that the cow/calf producer will be paid by the market for these cattle. I might refer back to a previous article that will truly make this process complete: and

A. Properly managing pre and post weaning cattle for transition – Management

1. Beginning the management process for transition calves can begin shortly after birth. Initial processes such as ear-tagging, navel treatment, dehorning and castration can be handled at or shortly after birth. The earlier dehorning and castration can take place the less stressful it is for the calf which reduces performance depression. Injections such as a 2 ml dose of MultiMinTM, (mfg. MultiMin USA, Fort Collins, CO; dist. various) which provides a dose of key trace minerals, have also shown to increase the trace mineral status of the calf which research has shown to improve immune response is helpful. Finally, a dose of a probiotic gel product such as LifePrepTM (mfg. for Reveille Livestock Concepts, Sulphur Springs, TX) can also enhance overall gut health and improve resistance to environmental pathogenic organisms.

2. As the calf grows, strategic vaccinations to enhance immunity can be administered. This may include vaccinating with a 7-way clostridia (blackleg) plus pasteurella (Mannheimia haemolytica) at 1 ˝ to 3 months of age. Others that may be indicated depending on location and past histories are a 5-way modified-live vaccine and an IBR intranasal vaccine. Again, all of this contributes to the calf's antibody base and improves its overall immunity.

3. Follow up vaccinations should be given 30-45 days prior to weaning. As with other vaccinations, work with your veterinarian to develop this strategy. This will give you the opportunity to determine what will be of the greatest value for both the pre transition stage, during and after.

4. Use a proper deworming program. In addition to preserving consumed nutrients for the animal's use and thus improved gain performance, a proper deworming program will also help support the immune system and reduce stress.

5. As with internal parasites, external parasites should also be controlled. Flies, lice, grubs, ticks, etc., all serve as a nutrient drain and reduce performance in addition to simply being a nuisance for the animal and management alike. Fly tags, oilers and feeding of a mineral containing IGR (Insect Growth Regulator), pour-on products such as CylenceTM (mfg, Bayer Animal Health, dist. various) can all be useful to reduce external parasites. Use all products according to label directions.

6. Exposing calves to waterers and feed bunks are beneficial. Young cattle that enter the transition process or are moved into a conventional feeding program that have never been exposed to either feed bunks or water troughs are at a disadvantage. This can result in cattle that become dehydrated and do not consume adequate calories. This magnifies the already challenging stress levels and serves to further depress the immune system which is already challenged. Cattle that have gone off feed and water are already in a “slide” that they may have difficulty recovering from regardless of what antibiotics may be administered.

7. Handle calves before transition calmly and quietly. Do not use dogs or electric cattle prods unless absolutely necessary. This helps keep the animal's calm and helps them grow accustomed to being handled and reduces stress. Stress is typically measured by cortisol levels in the body. Stressful handling has been shown to increase cortisol and other stress related hormones in the body with subsequently act as an immune system suppressant.

8. Provide the best free-choice mineral supplement available. Mineral blocks, salt blocks and sulfur blocks are of little value as they do not provide adequate amounts of necessary minerals and vitamins. A good mineral does not mean the most expensive. The mineral you supply to the cow herd and to the calves (which will start to consume at least some mineral as early as a couple of months of age) should match the forage base. It should also be palatable and thus consumed at recommended rates. DO NOT cut the mineral with salt or put out free-choice salt in addition to the mineral you are providing. This decreases proper mineral intake and also amplifies intake inconsistency. A sound free-choice mineral targets an intake level of about three to four ounces per head per day for a mature cow and .5 to 2 ounces per head per day for a growing calf.

All mineral and vitamin levels in the product should be properly formulated to meet the cow's requirements. Depending on your location it may be necessary to change the product or the formulation depending on the time of the year or the herd's stage of production. Use of organic or chelated sources of certain trace minerals may also be indicated at some time during the year to improve absorption of these trace minerals, particularly Copper, Manganese, Selenium and Zinc.

An exacting mineral formulation can only be determined through analysis of pasture and hay samples. Forage sampling should be a regular part of the management program.

B. Nutrition

Nutrition is the key factor to any health management program. Sound nutrition is the platform upon which the immune system is built. Without proper nutrition through the life of the young and growing animal 1) it will not grow to its genetic potential 2) its immune system will not function properly and it will not be able to fight off pathogens and other insults and 3) it will not be equipped to handle stressful events such as heat, cold, excessive moisture and the rigors of weaning and the transition process.

Steps must be taken to assure that proper nutrient levels are provided for the calf from birth to weaning and its departure from the farm or ranch. During the early stages of life its nutrient source is the cow's milk. Thus during the nursing period, proper nutrition must be provided to the cow to insure proper milk quantity and quality. This is particularly true at calving when the calf must consume colostrum to essentially “inoculate” it's system with antibodies from the cow. Proper nutrition for the cow helps insure the colostrum is of proper quality.

As the calf grows at some point the nutrients it requires can no longer be completely provided by the cow. Even before then the calf will begin to graze or consume other forages available. It will begin consuming free-choice minerals as mentioned above or other supplements that are made accessible to the cow (feed supplements, liquid feeds, tub supplements), all of which can increase its nutrient intake. In some cases, use of a creep feeding or grazing system may be of use to further provide for the needs of the growing calf. Creep feeds must also be properly formulated to insure excessive energy is not consumed which can cause calves to become overly fat.

Nutritional “tools”

On a number of occasions in the past we have discussed a variety of tools that can be fed with feed supplements that can help assist with support of the immune system. Generally these function by providing improved nutrient digestibility through enhancing rumen or lower gut function or provide a layer of protection to the animal. Some of these include:

1) Yeast products – yeasts have been fed for years as a means of providing for improved rumen function, rumen function and stress mitigation. Newer yeasts such as RYeast 40TM (mfg. ICC, Sao Paulo, Brazil; dist. York Ag Products, York, PA) also contain higher levels of their cell wall components (Mannanoligiosaccharides (MOS) and Beta(β )-glucans) which have been shown to bind pathogens as well as mycotoxins and also stimulate the immune system resident in the intestinal mucosa. MOS and β-glucans provide an additional level of protection to the animal, thus assisting in the performance of the immune system in general.

2) Essential Oils/Plant Extracts – EO's are gaining a great deal of momentum on the market as a means of enhancing the rumen fermentation process and also increasing performance of the immune system. Numerous studies recently have shown improved health performance in newly received cattle with reductions in both morbidity and mortality. The exact mechanisms are not well understood at this point and there are a wide varieties of individual EOs and combinations on the market. Essential oils used in a transition cattle feeding program may hold promise as a way to reduce dependence on fed antibiotics.

3) Mycotoxin (MT) binders – Mycotoxins have been found in recent years to have profound effects on all species when consumed even at very small dosages. Research has shown that 1) there are a very wide range of MTs, 2) they can have significant effects on a wide range of physiological processes the most prominent of which may be immune response and 3) a variety of products exist which may bind and facilitate the removal of MTs from the digestive tract.

Binders may be fed at a low level to which the MTs will adhere, become neutralized and are transported out of the body through the digestive tract. A variety of clay and yeast cell-wall products have been shown to provide at least some degree of protection from these MT and the inherent damage they can do to the animal if ingested in significant quantities. Use of a MT binder or combination of binders is becoming more common in the feed industry.

4) Enzyme products – while the use of enzyme products is still under debate in ruminant nutritional programs, work with other species has made it clear that various enzyme products can and do enhance the digestibility of critical nutrients in the animal. By improving nutrient digestibility the animal's nutritional plane is enhanced and thus the immune system, in association is likewise enhanced. In ruminants, enzymes have been shown to improve forage digestibility as well as digestion of specific nutrients including protein, fats, and carbohydrates (fibers and starches). More work is needed to better define enzymatic effect and which diets can most benefit from inclusion.


The cattle industries movement away from antibiotics, initially in feed, is a foregone conclusion. It's just a matter of time. Fortunately we know that sound management and nutrition is a key to reducing our dependence on the products and potentially drive even greater performance than has been previously accepted. Finding the right practices, processes and products is the key to making an antibiotic free program work. The industry has made some headway but it will take efforts at all levels of production to truly realize the potential.

Note: The reference to specific products within this article in not an indication of endorsement and is for informational purposes only.

Copyright 2016 – Stephen B. Blezinger, Ph.D., PAS. Dr. Stephen Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He can be reached at or at (903) 352-3475. For more information please visit Facebook/Reveille Livestock Concepts.

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