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A good start leads to a healthy, strong finish

Craig Belknap for Progressive Cattle Published on 26 July 2022
Calf eating

It’s that time of year when many producers will begin weaning calves, and new cattle will be entering stocker and feedlot operations. During this stretch, stress is the number one issue that will influence health and performance.

How those calves are managed early in the feeding period will have a tremendous impact on how well those calves perform all the way until finish. Getting them acclimated to their new environment and started on the right nutrition program will significantly impact both their health and performance, directly impacting your profitability.

Here’s what you should keep in mind during the starting period and how to help cattle make a smooth transition to their new setting.

Reduce stress at arrival

Transitioning cattle from the pasture or backgrounding operation into a feedlot is a stressful time. Not only are some cattle just getting weaned, but they are also undergoing a change in diet and environment, are hauled, have feed and water withheld, are commingled, and they might also be vaccinated and implanted, among other things.

All of this causes a disturbance in the rumen and severely disrupts the rumen bacterial balance, reduces rumen bacterial populations and decreases rumen fermentative ability. To reduce stress, allow cattle to rest after arrival and prior to processing. Depending on your animal-handling techniques, people can add to stress or help prevent it. Utilize low-stress cattle-handling practices while loading and unloading at the ranch and feedyard. Be sure to minimize yelling, running and the use of electric prods.

Ensure cattle are comfortable in a pen that protects them from the elements and is clean, dry and well bedded. Have a sufficient supply of clean, fresh water available and located where it can be easily found. Limit grain offering within the first 24 hours and make long-stem grass hay and palatable feed readily available to get their rumens going again.

Take care of the rumen first

Getting cattle acclimated to a new ration is a big deal. New arrivals may eat poorly for the first few days until they become accustomed to their new surroundings, their new penmates and a new ration. Work with a nutritionist to provide a nutrient-dense diet that contains adequate energy, protein, vitamins and minerals.

Start cattle off on long-stem hay to get the rumen going again. The primary goal is to get cattle eating and to keep them healthy. You’re not trying to maximize gain, but instead to get cattle ramped up to an adequate and consistent intake. You’ll want to work with your nutritionist and take cattle up slowly. Feed at the same times each day and keep an eye out on those that aren’t coming up to the bunk to eat. That could be the first sign of sickness, or they could be candidates that present a higher risk.

In order to get rumen function moving in the right direction, consider drenching calves at processing with a product designed to support rumen health. This can help jump-start the rumen microbiota and optimize the rumen environment. An oral drench is easy to use, inexpensive and takes mere seconds to administer. However, it can pay off handsomely in terms of helping to get cattle to eat and helping to restore optimal rumen function, especially in calves that are more timid at the bunk.

Another approach that works well for some producers to help stimulate rumen function is to provide a lick tub to the cattle upon arrival. Several feed manufacturers offer “stress tubs” that contain key nutrients as well as rumen and immune support technology to help get cattle up on feed and avoid the sick pen. The licking action that takes place helps in producing saliva, which is a natural rumen buffer. This, combined with the sugars that are within the tub, as well as other key ingredients, is also an excellent tool for helping to restore rumen function, feed intake and overall health.

Optimize immune strength

The vast majority of an animal’s immune cells lie within the gut. In addition, what cattle consume can also affect the efficiency of their immune systems. The animal’s skin and epithelial tissues provide a barrier to keep pathogens outside the animal. If, however, viruses or bacteria get past the barrier, the immune system springs into action. The health of cattle is dependent upon both innate immunity and adaptive (acquired) immunity.

Outside of the physical barriers mentioned previously, innate immunity is the first line of defense against a wide variety of pathogens. Responses of the innate immune system are “non-specific” – meaning they do not distinguish between invaders. Instead, they respond to features that are common to many types of pathogens. Innate immunity provides fast-acting recognition and removal of pathogens like viruses and bacteria.

However, innate immunity is not specific to a particular pathogen and if the pathogen survives or evades removal, then adaptive immunity comes to the rescue. Adaptive immunity is targeted protection against specific disease-causing agents. Adaptive immunity works alongside innate immunity to protect against specific disease-causing agents. This includes specific species of viruses and pathogenic bacteria. Adaptive immunity involves a “memory” of the pathogen and takes time to produce specific immune cells and antibodies to fight the infection. It also takes more metabolic energy, which then takes away from energy available for maintenance and growth.

By providing a highly fortified starter diet, as well as an immune support product to the animal on a daily basis, you can optimize the animal’s natural immune strength. The resulting benefit not only includes a greater resiliency and resistance to getting sick, but also can lessen the severity of sickness and improve treatment success if antibiotic therapy is needed.

Final thoughts

All incoming cattle will experience stress of some kind. Steps that can be taken to lessen stress in newly received cattle, as well as to help them recuperate, will pay extra in terms of improved health and performance. By reducing stress at arrival, taking care of the rumen first and optimizing immune strength, a smoother transition can be made to get cattle started on the right track. And when you help calves through periods of stress, you set them up for success for the rest of their lives.  end mark

PHOTO: The primary goal is to get cattle eating and to keep them healthy. Photo by Lynn Jaynes.

Craig Belknap
  • Craig Belknap

  • Business and Technical Manager
  • North America Beef
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