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Shift gears on calf healthShift gears on calf health

Today’s calves need more animal husbandry.

Kevin Schulz

October 13, 2023

6 Min Read
Cows lined up, eating feed on ground
STRONG FOUNDATION: Modern calves grow faster than those of decades ago, and that added growth can jeopardize the calves’ respiratory system.dusanpetkovic/Getty Images

Data show that we are not winning the battle of cattle respiratory diseases, and there may be a number of factors leading to that.

Brett Terhaar, beef cattle technical consultant for Elanco Animal Health, shared a chart showing a steady climb in heifer and steer mortality from 1997 to 2021. “A lot of things have changed over the years,” he said in a webinar sponsored by Elanco Animal Health the last week of September. “Genetics is certainly one of the things that is very different. Twenty-five years ago, you’d see a 700-pound steer that we would call a yearling. Now it’s, not uncommon to see a 700-pound steer be 7 months old.”

Finished cattle are also being fed to larger sizes, where 20 years ago “finished cattle may have weighed 1,150 pounds — and by 2010, the finished steer may weigh 1,300 — and now, certainly in the Midwest, I am seeing steers leaving the feedyard at 1,600 pounds, and that may be the pen average,” Terhaar said. “The body size of these animals coming into the yard and leaving is greatly increased.”

Even though the physical size of these animals has changed over the years, a calf’s lung capacity has remained at about 12 liters, as compared to a horse that has a 40-liter lung capacity. “So their lungs are relatively small to their oxygen requirements,” he said.

While a variety of beef producers’ favorite antibiotics — Micotil, Nuflor, Baytril, Advocin, Excede and Draxxin — have been introduced over the years, Terhaar overlaid a chart over the aforementioned chart, showing the timetable of those antibiotic introductions. Regardless of antibiotic use, the mortality trendline continues upward.

“Management isn’t in a bottle,” Terhaar said.

Antibiotics still have a place in herd health management when necessary, but nothing trumps good old animal husbandry. That starts when bringing in new calves, ensuring a high-stress time is as low stress as possible.

“It seems a little boring, and there isn’t much to sell there or talk about, but the way we manage our cattle is really important,” he said.

Starting with husbandry and management, Terhaar outlined the steps to get the most out of calves this fall.

  • Solid nutrition. “Making sure that we’re not trying to ask these calves to do more than they can on a poor feed,” he said. “They need a 12% to 14% protein feed because they’re having to respond to a lot of things. Even when we vaccinate, we’re asking them to divert energy and protein to deal with a vaccine.”

  • Vaccination. Terhaar referred to research done by John T. Richeson in the West Texas A&M University Department of Animal Sciences, that showed the negative impact of moving high-risk calves into a high-risk situation. “What really helps is vaccinating calves 30 or more days prior to weaning or moving into a high-stress situation. And we don’t do that well,” he commented. “There’s a lot of cattle that are not vaccinated in the United States before they move into the marketing channels.”

  • Strategic treatment. “I always tell people to have more than one antibiotic on the shelf because you may have a treatment that fails and will need to follow-up,” he said. Terhaar also cautioned producers not to put off treatment. “If you see a calf struggling this morning with what looks like the very early signs of respiratory disease, it needs to be treated this morning. Not tonight, not tomorrow morning. That window is pretty critical.”

  • Accelerate gain. “Implants are still one of the best inventions ever made for animal agriculture,” he said. “To place it in the ear can get up to two-tenths of a pound on these backgrounding per day. So, in a situation like this, if you background calves for 100 days, we’re talking about 20 pounds times almost $3. That’s a big return on investment.”

Health of the herd

Early in his veterinary career, John Groves focused on the individual calf when health issues arose. “As I grew as a practitioner and as the operations grew that I worked with, over time I viewed the ‘patient’ as the population; so instead of thinking about what happened in individual animals, I often thought about what happened in the population of animals,” he said in the Elanco webinar.

Groves has a private, exclusively beef practice in Eldon in central Missouri, where about 75% of his practice deals with feeder cattle and 11% cow-calf operations, and the balance as a consultant.

When switching from that single focus, Groves now looks at percentages. “Percentages of animals in a pen that required a second treatment or percentage of animals that died. So that’s quite a different perspective.”

As Terhaar suggested, Groves said herd health needs to start with animal husbandry, “which is the careful and meticulous and prudent management” of our animals. However, he acknowledged the introduction of vaccines and antibiotics have allowed cattle producers to stray from the principles of animal husbandry.

Though usually thought of as a way to prevent foreign animal diseases or disease eradication, Groves said cattle producers need to take a close look at biosecurity and biocontainment to control how microbes spread throughout populations.

Herd health simulation

Realizing that his clientele are visual learners, Groves uses a computer-based herd health simulation “as a new way to look at disease dynamics.” His simulation looks at a group of calves that is either immunologically naive or immune calves; calves infected with an infectious microbe; and calves that have recovered.

“We model the bad-luck probability, the randomness that is in systems,” he said. “I will run my model multiple times — it will always come out different because helping cattle is not well defined, it is not deterministic. It’s what we call stochastic, which means there are various just luck and randomness [situations] involved.”

In these simulations, Groves controls the random probabilities, and plugs in a 5% probability that a calf is infected when it enters the herd. In a lot of 100 calves, that means five are infected. Through the modeling, those five infected calves “will randomly walk around and bump into other calves and, based on the probability equations, infect them.”

As his simulation proceeds through Day 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42 and 49, one sees how disease works its way through a pen or herd. He usually stops the simulation at Day 42 or 49 to coincide with the industry’s 45-day weaning. “If you can get 45 days weaned, you’re solid … we like to point it out that disease will almost always have stopped spreading on Day 45 in well-vaccinated farm calves.” He added that the 45-day rule is abandoned in naive populations, as disease stops spreading closer to 70 or 80 days on feed.

Use of actual client production records

While controlling the randomness in the simulations, Groves plugs in actual production records from his clients to build the models, so producers can see a scenario built on their operation.

Groves stresses the importance of calf health management, especially with high-risk cattle. “Disease dynamic as it relates to days on feed is a powerful point of leverage in people that handle naive cattle, and we can develop these tactics [based] on how long it takes to populate a pen and where you pen the cattle,” he said.

Through his simulations, Groves showed the effectiveness of where and how to pen calves if they do not arrive all on the same day, and he encouraged producers to create a map of their facility to think “about how can I use time and space to separate cattle by days on feed. You can really lower the rate at which these epidemics occur in your yard.”

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

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