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

Part 1

The handwriting on the wall has become pretty clear. Justified or not, the use of antibiotics in managing the beef animal, at any stage of production, is becoming more challenging. No doubt soon it will become a non-option. This may result in a number of effects, particularly in weaning and transition cattle (those who are subjected to acute stress due to weaning, handling, transportation, co-mingling, etc.) Stress is well known to depress the animal's immune system. Combinations of stressors, common in transition cattle increases the immune depression significantly. Stress, in combination with a lack of preparation creates immune depression that often cannot be overcome in a timely fashion.

Historically, the producer's answer to these issues, when the incidence of sickness increases, is to utilize one or more antibiotic products in either an injectable or fed form. In many cases this type of health management has been used when it might have been more useful to improve overall animal management. No doubt this viewpoint will be unpopular among those in the pharmaceutical and veterinary industries. Antibiotic use, in whatever its form, has often proved unpredictable due to a long list of concurrent variables. This article series will focus on the variable circumstances and conditions that result in exceptional stress levels in many of these calves, the depression on the animal's immune system and the resulting potential infection by one organism or another and the concurrent increase in sickness and death loss.

Finally, given the increasing complexity (and cost) of antibiotic use and eventual potential restrictions or ban, this article series will attempt to offer management and nutritional alternatives that can enhance immune response and improve animal performance during this period.

First, Understanding the Situation

Every year, millions of head of growing cattle are weaned off the cow and eventually make their way to a feedyard for continued grow-out and finishing. For the less well informed, this is where your steaks, pot roasts and hamburgers come from. The weaning and transition from the cow-calf operation to either a grazing program (most common) and then on to the feedyard can be extremely stressful on the animal. Despite years of research and practice, cattle growing and feeding operations continue to suffer from significantly high animal sickness and death losses. Some believe it may be more of a problem now than over 10 or 20 years ago. In many cases this is still due to cattle not being equipped from health or nutritional perspectives to handle this process or events. Years of research have shown a variety of issues and frankly, poor management, can depress the animal's immune system. These can include:

1) Improper on-farm nutrition. This can include inadequate protein, energy, minerals and vitamins. Something as apparently simple as a zinc or copper deficiency can significantly reduce the animal's ability to fight off pathogenic organisms or respond to vaccines it may have been given.

2) Improper or non-existent internal parasite control program. Often calves are never dewormed prior to their departure from the farm or receive an inadequate deworming.

3) Poor or non-existent vaccination program and/or processing. This would go along with item 2. Many calves are weaned from the farm that have never been touched by a human and subsequently are taken to the sale barn unvaccinated and loaded with internal and external parasites. In other cases, as referenced above, the vaccination program is inadequate or improperly matched to their location or environment. Also many of the male calves are sold as intact bulls and will thus have to be put through the stress of castration at some point. On top of this these cattle are often from herds that fail to even provide a simple mineral or protein supplementation program. Calves with this background have a better than average likelihood of getting sick or even dying during the transition process. This is unfortunate in that it results in unnecessary loss in productivity and animal numbers. This adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars, industry-wide, each year.

4) Environmental challenges. This may include drought, heat, excessive moisture, extreme cold, mud and snow. Anything that causes exceptional stress on the animal's physiology.

These circumstances, when played out among numerous small cattle operations create a pool of animals that are navigated through the conventional marketing pipelines. These animals are often grossly unprepared for the escalated stress they encounter as they are transported, herded through the auction process, possibly go without feed and water for some period, transported again, handled again and ultimately finally processed which can include any combination of the following: vaccinations and other injections, dehorning, castration for bulls, ear tagging, deworming and branding. Through this they have little time to rest and probably the most problematic is they are put in close contact with other cattle and thus are potentially exposed to a variety of pathogens their systems have never encountered. Often these cattle are then placed in pens where they are expected to consume what is hopefully a balanced ration from a feed bunk. There is some possibility they have never encountered either of these before.

This overall scenario has led to a variety of preconditioning programs that are intended to help reduce stress and prepare these animals for the coming changes and challenges. Ultimately, preconditioning programs are intended to improve the resilience of these cattle and hopefully improve their performance and profitability for the cow-calf producer or whoever is applying transition management. Unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily work this way.

Look at it from this perspective. For the cow-calf producer, applying a preconditioning program that starts prior to weaning requires quite a number of things. First, the producer must have adequate facilities, he must work these animals according to a specified protocol incurring vaccine, dewormer, external parasite and other costs. The same protocol will also require him to dehorn bulls, ear tag, etc. He is required to begin feeding these calves something (more on this in a bit) so they are exposed to feed and eating at a bunk. Thus the cow-calf producer is being asked to incur a large amount of up front expense. And while this practice has been going on for some years, it is not clear if there is a true payback for the time, effort and expense. If the producer is retaining his own cattle all the way through the feedyard, then certainly these practices are to his benefit. But if the cattle are being sold at weaning or shortly thereafter it is not a foregone conclusion that cattle managed and processed in this way will receive a higher price at the auction. So then it is not clear that the producer receives any type of a premium for selling a better prepared animal.

Another potential problem is that there is variability in the processes and programs used by various cow-calf producers. This is especially true when it comes to nutrition. While preconditioning programs normally specify the processes and vaccines that are to be used with a given program, seldom is there any real guidance given concerning nutrition. Proper nutrition affects the calf all the way to conception. If the cow is not fed or supplemented properly from the time the calf is conceived through the time it is weaned, the nutrients delivered to the calve either from the cow's blood stream or through milk may be imbalanced to the calf. This nutrient imbalance can have wide ranging and long lasting negative effects on the calf's growth and development including its immune system.

Secondly, as noted before, with many preconditioning programs, while the vaccines and protocols are specified the feeding program is not. At the very least these programs should specify a nutrient profile (protein, energy, fat, fiber, minerals and vitamins) and include specific additives such as yeast, organic trace mineral, etc. The nutrient levels provide direct support to the immune system. If the nutrient program is compromised, then it is highly likely that the immune system is as well. If the immune system is already compromised the function of vaccines and antibiotics will have a diminished effect. Finally, as we have been discussing this will also increase the effect that stress will have on the animal.

When the situations listed above are spread across numerous animals from different farms that may be co-mingled into groups for grazing or feeding the potential problems are magnified that much more.

How the Market Tends to Deal with this Situation

Creating an animal that is productive, healthy and resilient to the stresses of transition starts on the farm, even as far back as when the cow is bred and conceives a specific calf. Then it becomes the cow-calf producer's role to manage and promote how well that calf performs through these events. The problem is that in many if not most cases the producer is not incentivized to manage these calves in the manner required. For many producers if they cannot see that they will be paid for their investment and effort they will not go to the trouble. Rightfully so. The market, in many cases simply assumes that calves are not processed and “prepared.” They discount the animal if it is not dehorned or castrated. In some of the special precondition calf sales, those cattle do receive a higher than typical market price but it is questionable if these prices will, in fact, offset the added cost. The market prices paid for cattle managed in this way need to be at a true premium level to compel producers to go through the efforts needed to better equip these animals for transition and to improve health performance in these cattle.


Managing cattle before and during transition is complex if these animals are expected to perform better than is typical. Management plays a huge role in this. In Part 2 of this series we will expand on the discussion concerning tools that can be used to improve this performance and potentially minimize the use of antibiotics in these programs.

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 sblez@verizon.net or at (903) 352-3475. For more information please visit Facebook/Reveille Livestock Concepts.

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