What happens on a feedlot?
The feedlot industry is very quiet... probably because they get pressure from producers (cow-calf guys), packers (slaughter houses), and consumers (supermarket shoppers). It's not a comfortable place to sit, they're busy, and they typically avoid the limelight. I've been thinking about posting this for awhile, and since I've worked on several yards and will likely be going into feedlot medicine - it's fascinating and fun - I feel qualified to write this.
Consumers say they want transparency.... so I've done 100% transparent for you. Little lengthy but I believe I covered far more than the basics.
Who are the cattle on a typical feedlot? Calves from 300-900 lbs are fed out to slaughter weights (1300-1500 lbs) over a period of 120-360 days. Most come in about 700 lbs and are fed about 150 days.
Where do they come from? Many are from the U.S. but also Canada and occasionally Mexico. Most will be beef cattle (Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, some eared cattle like Brahman), but Holsteins make up a significant portion. Dairy steers arrive about 325-350 lbs and are fed about 340 days.
How big are these feedlots? Most are about 1000-5000 head Mom-and-Pop operations. Seriously. 1,000 head sounds like a lot, but it's not really. Two to three people can run these size yards very easily. The 30,000-100,000 head yards make up a much smaller percentage of the feedlots out there; I believe there's about 50 yards in the U.S. with those types of numbers. Since these are the type of yards most people get upset about when discussing "large feedlots" - that's what this post will be covering.
What type of cattle do they feed? Most are commercial, but natural and hormone-free cattle make up significant niche markets. Some yards also contract with dairies and raise their replacement heifers from 350 lbs to springers.
Who owns these cattle? Feedlots are either custom or private, or a combination of both. I recently spent 2 weeks with a company that feeds about 100,000 head, of which 80% are fed for customers (not company-owned cattle). Feedlots are like a giant hotel - it's better to have all rooms full, and better to have other people paying for those rooms. Most cattle on large feedlots are owned by the cow-calf producer (the cow-calf people call it "retained ownership" where the person who bred, calved, and raised the animals continues to own them until they are slaughtered) or are owned by people who bought groups of calves at weaning. Either way, most are not owned by the feedlot.
What jobs do people on these yards do? There's a yard manager (mostly does customer relations, finances, inventory of cattle and feed), assistant/operations yard manager, office manager and related office people, cattle manager (responsible for arrivals, movements, shipping), feed mill manager, hospital supervisor/head doctor, yard/maintenance crew, and mechanic crew. The biggest crews are the cowboy crew, hospital crew, processing, maintenance crew, feed, and mechanics.
How many people are on these yards? Usually about 1 "doctor" per 10,000 head, 2 cowboys per 10,000 head, 1-2 feed trucks per 10,000 head, miscellaneous mechanics, and people who are cross-trained and work in multiple areas... figure 3-5 people per 10,000 head. A 40,000 head yard will employ about 50 people including management.
What does the cowboy crew do? They ride pens once a day to look for sick cattle; anything that doesn't look right gets moved to the hospital. Cowboys will also move cattle from pen to pen, bring cattle to shipping pens, processing, etc.
What does the hospital crew do? Anything that the cowboys pull from its home pen is moved to a hospital, where it goes through a chute. Temperature is generally taken and some places also utilize a stethoscope. All health information is entered into a computer - whenever a group of cattle is shipped, multiple people are required to review the lot's treatment history and sign/confirm that all cattle getting loaded have passed any withdrawal times.
What are commonly encountered health issues at a feedlot? Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) makes up about 50%, digestive issues (bloat, acidosis) another 25%, and then 'other' or miscellaneous musculoskeletal issues (bullers, broken legs, hit by feed truck, caught in fence, drowned in water tank - all caused by poor choices/excessive curiosity, or misbehaving penmates - then liver or kidney disease, etc) the remaining 25%. Holsteins are notorious for 'other' causes of morbidity or mortality - a significant number of the "other" category is simply because they're black and white.
What are cattle given at the hospital? Antibiotics if sick (Baytril, Advocin, Draxxin, Nuflor, Excede, etc - same stuff folks on the forum use; we don't have access to anything unusual). Animals with nervous system signs will receive thiamine (vitamin B1). Some places also use vitamin C, banamine, and probiotics (especially on naturals). Bloats typically receive mineral oil, therabloat, or magnalax. Dexamethasone (anti-inflammatory corticosteroid), Lutalyse (prostaglandin), and oxytocin for abortions, calvers, and retained placentas are occasionally found on the shelf as well.
What does the feed crew do? They'll drive a feed truck that carries about 20,000 lbs of a given "ration" and feed 1-3 times per day. Other people load hay or grain into the mill, which may be mixed at the mill, or dump the components into a truck which then mixes feed. One person is considered the "feed caller" or "bunk reader" and drives the yard checking to see how much feed is left between feedings, and then modifies the amount that pen of cattle receive that day. This is one of the most important jobs. This person is responsible for the cattle not developing digestive problems such as acidosis, going off feed, bloat, etc.
What types of feed do the cattle get? Depends on the area of the country, but it may include hay, haylage, silage, corn silage, distillers grains (by-product of ethanol production), whole/cracked/flaked corn, potatoes, soy, bran, sorgum, onions, liquid protein, tallow (<3% of ration, we'll discuss this later), mint, straw, rye, wheat, etc.
Where does the feed come from? Most feedlots raise some of their own, usually 10-25% of what they feed. The rest often comes from local farmers - the manure is composted and given/sold to local farmers, and then hay/grain from those farmers is contracted for the following harvest.
How much feed do these cattle eat? Depending on the weight of the cattle, a 40,000 head yard will feed 1.5-2 million pounds of feed per day. Figure 1,000 lb calves eating >3% of their body weight per day (typical) = 30 lbs x 40,000 head = 1,200,000 lbs of feed.
What else is added to the rations? These are called 'micro' ingredients and may include Rumensin/Bovatec, Tylan, MGA, Optiflex, CTC, miscellaneous vitamins and/or minerals, and miscellaneous yeasts and good rumen bacteria.
Right... so what are those micro ingredients?
-Rumensin and Bovatec are ionophores that influence the rumen population to prevent acidosis (intake control) and prevent coccidiosis (protozoa parasite that causes diarrhea).
-Tylan is an antibiotic fed at low levels to prevent liver abscesses - this one is a welfare issue. Cattle not fed Tylan can have >28% of livers condemned due to significant abscesses (e.g. natural fed cattle).
-MGA is a progesterone fed to heifers so they will not come into heat while at the feedlot (more on this under hormones).
-Optiflex is a beta-agonist (same category as some asthma meds) fed the last 30 days of the feeding period with a 4 day withdrawal. It increases muscle and decreases fat in the final carcass and typically adds 17 lbs of muscle to a carcass.
-CTC is an antibiotic fed to decrease morbidity (sickness) in the first 30 days on feed for control of shipping fever, anaplasmosis, bacterial enteritis (e.g. diarrhea) and pneumonia. It's often fed 5 days straight, off 2 days, on 5 for 2-3 "runs". It has a 4 day withdrawal but is normally fed only during the first 30 days on feed.
How are cattle categorized at arrival?
Low-risk (for BRD) animals - yearlings, backgrounded/weaned for 30-45 days minimum, know how to find feed/water, bunk-broke (they know what a feed bunk looks like), vaccinated, castrated, dehorned, from a single source. An example of these would be Canadian yearlings wintered on pasture.
High risk (for BRD) animals - calves, weaned on the truck, salebarn origin, from multiple sources, different sizes/breeds/weights, not vaccinated, not castrated (bulls, castrated later or not, have 2x the sickness of steers), not dehorned, never seen a feed bunk or water tank. An example of these would be south-eastern U.S. calves, which are typically from people who only own a few head.
And then everything else falls somewhere in between those risk categories.
So let's talk about numbers for a minute...
Expected morbidity (sickness) for low risk calves is less than 10%. Expected morbidity for HR calves is greater than 10% and may be over 50%. Translated, that means 10-50% of the high risk calves might be pulled from their home pen and treated at least once for BRD.
First treatment success rate - we want about 75-80% of those calves to recover after the first treatment and not need a second treatment. If that number is too high, then we were probably treating calves that didn't need to be pulled. If it's too low, the antibiotic isn't doing its job or the cowboys are pulling cattle too late.
A certain percentage of animals will not respond to any antibiotic for any reason (already a chronic, non-responsive disease e.g. mycoplasma, abscess present, compromised immune system, BVD-PI, etc) - and a certain percent will respond regardless of what we do or do not treat them with. We monitor our antibiotic results with those expectations, watching for variations in the number of animals whose outcome we can affect.
Case fatality rate (CFR) means the number of dead cattle divided by the number treated for the first time. We want this about 5-10% - too low and we're treating too many cattle, too high and we have serious problems with the cattle, cowboys, or antibiotic.
As an example - let's say we have a lot of 300 head of high risk calves arrive. Let's say we have 30% morbidity - that means 30% x 300 = 90 calves receive at least one dose of antibiotic. Let's say our first treatment success rate is 80% - that means 90 x 80% = 72 calves are not retreated. Let's say our CFR is 10% - that means 9 calves die out of 90 treated for the first time. That means 9/300 = 3% mortality for this lot, which is a high enough number that people would be concerned. If that number occurred in the first 30 days on feed, there'd be some meetings. If it occurred over the entire feeding period and was a 3% mortality at close-out (ship to slaughter), it could be tolerable depending on the length of time the cattle were at the yard (e.g. 120 days vs 340 days).
In low risk calves we're expecting mortality below 1% of the group.
We also monitor numbers such as days on feed at death, days from first treatment to death, different causes of death, percent of deads that died without being treated (we call them "pen deads" and the standard is 0% (ideal) to less than 10% of the population). We also monitor the percent of chronics, bullers (cattle who are ridden by penmates), and rectal temperature of cattle at their initial pull.
Skimming through some data from a large yard, <1% of their population is pulled and sent to the hospital for any reason (respiratory disease, digestive issues, bullers, miscellaneous injuries, lost ear tag, etc) on a monthly basis.
What happens on feedlots that is controversial?
Antibiotics - yes, they are fed and injected. Mass medication (metaphylaxis) of antibiotics at processing/arrival decreases morbidity (sickness) by 50% and mortality (death) by 40-50%. I hear the concerns about antibiotic resistance, but it's almost a welfare issue if it's not done in high risk calves. And... for what it's worth, we don't have proof that it causes antibiotic resistance (number of antibiotic resistant bacteria lower on carcasses than in supermarkets per recent non-agriculture research).
All animals shipped to slaughter MUST have passed withdrawal times. This is usually a minimum 18-30 days, but some drugs that are rapidly eliminated from the body are down to 4-8 day withdrawals. Paperwork must be reviewed and signed by multiple people prior to shipping. A "hot" animal arriving at the slaughter plant can cost the yard manager their job - I saw a hot animal accidentally shipped once, and there was one incredibly stressed manager as he dealt with locating and preventing the animal from going through the slaughter plant.
Antibiotic residues - just because we follow withdrawal times doesn't mean that we'll never have an animal with residues at the plant. Especially in sick animals or with kidney/liver/heart problems that do not eliminate the medication at the expected rate, withdrawal times may need to be extended. Residues did come up at one yard I was at - they had a residue somewhat recently in an animal that they waited twice the label time before shipping. It was later removed from their FDA record when the computer system proved the date, time, drug, route, and amount given to the animal matched with the label and approved withdrawal. Testing at the plant is increasingly more sensitive and can catch miniscule amounts (parts per billion or micrograms) in filtering organs such as liver and kidneys.
Hormones - yes, they're fed and injected. There's a couple types:
1) Lutalyse or Estrumate (prostaglandin) given to pregnant heifers at processing. Feedlots aren't set up for calvers, and it's an animal welfare issue if we allow them to calve at the yard. (Obviously calvers happen occasionally, but we try to prevent it as much as possible.) These are common drugs used in synchronization programs by cow-calf and dairy producers.
2) MGA (progesterone) fed to heifers to prevent them from coming into heat. Heifers eat less and are at risk for bulling (riding) injuries from penmates when in heat. MGA is also a common progesterone used in synchronization programs to AI groups of cattle within a specified window of time.
3) Estrogen and testosterone - the classic "implant" people think of when discussing hormones. The implant is about the size of a tic tac breath mint, and is placed under the skin of the ear (ears are removed at slaughter). It increases feed efficiency up to 15% (less feed fed per pound of gain), and increases liveweight by ~86 lbs/hd.
The amount of estrogen in a 3oz beef steak from an implanted animal is 1.9 nanograms, and 3 oz of steak from a non-implanted steer has 1.3 ng. Might that 0.6 ng have health repercussions for people? Well, in contrast, the amount of estrogen secreted *daily* by a non-pregnant adult human woman is 480,000 nanograms. (The difference between implanted and non-implanted is 0.0001% of the daily estrogen production by a woman.) 3oz of cabbage contains 2,000 ng of estrogen. Personally I'm not seeing a reason to be concerned about a 0.6 ng difference.
Space - yes, there are a lot of cattle in a small amount of space. How much, exactly? Depends on the amount of rainfall and slope of the ground (consider drainage). We give 150-400 square feet per head. So if we have a 100 head pen, they'll probably have about 25,000 square feet. Keep in mind cattle usually travel in a group, so they won't be evenly spread across that pen. Go measure your own pens, divide by the number of animals, and get a feel for what space per head looks like. We build mounds (not manure storage piles) deliberately in the center of pens so cattle have dry clean areas to sleep. Bunk space varies but there are dozens if not hundreds of research studies on the topic. It's measured in inches per head and varies dependent on the type of animals (calves, yearlings, Holsteins, finished cattle, new calves, etc). Usually going to be 4-18" per head, and ironically, since feed is available 24/7, it doesn't appear to influence performance (weight gain or health).
Feed - yes, they do get fed a lot of grain. Usually the receiving ration when they arrive at the yard contains 40-60% grain. The finishing ration is typically 70-90% grain.
Beef tallow is an allowable additive (since there's no bone or nervous system contents). There's about enough fed to bind the ration together (needs to be somewhat 'wet' so the cattle cannot sort through the feed for their favorite ingredients; sorting leads to acidosis). Wet distillers grains and potato slurry are sometimes used instead or in addition to bind the ration together. Tallow is also fed for the same reason people feed corn oil. We do not feed any other animal products (from any species) due to BSE concerns.
Cattle handling - animals are handed fast and efficiently at the large yards. We design facilities to improve cattle "flow" (a term that means cattle rarely stop/turn/refuse to enter alleys/chutes). These include Temple Grandin and Bud Williams (my preference) designs. A well-designed facility and competent crew will run 70-150 head an hour through a chute while vaccinating, deworming, tagging, performing pregnancy diagnosis, administering implants, minerals, and antibiotics (read previous paragraph on metaphylaxsis). The quicker they get through, the less stress on the animals and the sooner they can get back to their home pen with feed and water. Processing 600-1000 animals per day is fairly typical on these yards.
We have standards for handling usually that look like this: hotshot use on less than 10 animals per hundred, vocalization by less than 5 animals per hundred, animals slipping/falling after leaving the chute (indicates speed of leaving) less than 10 per hundred. (Obviously there's some slight variation for Holstein bottle calves vs Florida swamp cattle.) Most operations have tractor tire mats within the alley leading up to the chute and woven tire mats outside the chute for traction when cattle are leaving. Personnel are trained in Beef Quality Assurance guidelines (where injections can be given) and cattle handling. Large yards have regular audits by outside sources (often non-ag related) to track cattle handling compliance.
Euthanasia - the large feedlots have euthanasia protocols. Smaller (<1000 or 1000-5000 head) often don't (but they should). What does a "euthanasia protocol" mean? Anything down more than 24 or 48 hours is automatically euthanized. Cattle with broken legs may or may not be euthanized immediately depending on where the break is and what the options for care are. For instance, an animal with a closed (skin not broken) cannon bone fracture of a front leg in a small pen with easy access to feed and water may be monitored rather than euthanized. Calves heal fairly quickly. Back leg fractures, especially above the hock, usually require immediate euthanasia as cattle cannot get up. Chronics (cattle that do not respond to antibiotics) may need to be euthanized if their condition gets worse. We don't want animals to struggle to breathe and suffer for weeks - that's where the euthanasia protocol comes in.
Downers - again, cattle down more than 24 or 48 hours (depending on the yard's policy) are automatically euthanized by management or the hospital crew.
So: what type of downers are we euthanizing? While I was at a large feedlot last month, we put down two calves with broken legs, one with a dislocated hip (a problem that is almost never fixable in cattle), one that had done the splits and had probable pelvic fractures, nerve and muscle damage. He could stand with help but not stay up. We put down two chronic pneumonia cases. We treated and saved two downers with neurological signs (probable thiamine (B1) deficiency).
So one concern I hear is that large operations don't care about individual cattle and put down animals that might be able to recover with TLC. Right? And the statement that some of these might recover with TLC is accurate. But, many/most of them will not. The calves in that list above all needed to be put down. Right, wrong or otherwise, large operations are held to a higher welfare standard than hobby farms. We euthanize them because 1) it's an animal welfare issue, and 2) it's a public relations issue. We cannot have situations where we have down animals for weeks - can you imagine the headlines? Suffering cow at XXX Cattle Operation: It hasn't stood in 2 weeks, is a Body Condition Score 2/9, has pressure sores from being down, hasn't eaten in 8 days or drank in 2, grinds its teeth (pain not being managed) and X body part (hoof, udder, etc) has sluffed off. The media and every sensible cattleman out there would crucify that operation, as they should. Even in a veterinarian clinic, a DVM who had allowed an animal to reach that condition would be looked at very critically, regardless of the past/present treatments it was being given. We have a responsibility to take care of the animals we're sent - which is why we handle downers and chronics as we do.
Consulting veterinarians visit the large yards, typically on a monthly basis, to look over the herd and health performance data. Some yards, especially smaller ones, use local veterinarians on an as-needed basis.
We're not perfect - no one is - but the majority of yards are progressive (in the cattle industry, you either keep up with the latest research/information or you get left behind). We do our best to improve cattle health and welfare on a regular basis through data and use of consultants (veterinarians and nutritionists), and take the best possible care of the cattle in our care.
Remember that since most cattle are not owned by the feedlot itself - they are owned by the person who bred and raised them - it's in everyone's best interest for the feedlot to take excellent care of the animals they are sent.
So.... what else do y'all want to know about feedlots? Bring it on!