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Arrival health programs for high-risk calves

Progressive Cattle Editor Cassidy Woolsey Published on 23 September 2020

We’ve learned a lot from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have learned to stock up their pantries and the basics of home cooking; businesses have learned productivity can be maintained while working from home. And, beef veterinarians, well, they have learned there are similarities between managing cattle and human health.

In a University of Nebraska – Lincoln webinar, Dr. Dan Thomson, professor and chair of the department of animal science at Iowa State University, offered some tips when it comes to arrival health programs for high-risk calves – and interestingly enough, they aren’t too different from how COVID-19 has been managed with people.

“Working at a university with COVID is kind of like managing a feedyard of high-risk calves being commingled for the first time with not enough bunk space and finding out they don’t get to eat the same thing they were fed at home,” Thomson told listeners. “If you’ve watched President Trump over the last few months, he has the mindset of every feedlot manager during a crisis or outbreak: We want death loss to stop, we want these calves to get well and we need a vaccine.”

One of the things that stands out to Thomson from the COVID-19 pandemic is the concept of “flattening the curve.” He explained that flattening the curve wasn’t established to decrease the amount of people getting sick, it was so when people did get sick it didn’t overwhelm the hospital system in a way that they couldn’t take care of patients and have a better case outcome.

The same can be said for feedyards, he said. “If we overwhelm the system with high-risk calves, and we overwhelm our hospitals with COVID patients, we have people getting fatigued and we have cattle we miss when riding pens. We decrease compliance on treatment protocols and the cattle are on top of each other in the hospital pen.  It’s no different than all the quandaries we face in the feedyard then in what we see people dealing with when it comes to COVID today.”


When it comes to receiving high-risk cattle, Thomson said, hay matters. But, it takes more than one bale to provide cattle with a dry place to lay down.

“So many times, we have cattle fighting a viral pathogen that just can’t get warm,” Thomson said. “Viral pathogens love animals that can’t maintain a homeostasis, and they love a hypothermic, wet animal. We have found that giving them bedding to warm them up does remarkable things for the health of these cattle.”

A hay processor is what Thomson has found to be the secret to success in many feedyards because “If it’s easy to get hay out, hay will get put out,” he said.

Another thing that can become a problem for feedyards is adding on pens. With cattle often commingled at the sale barn, the order buyer stations and then again at the feedyard, the last thing a feedyard should do is add another round of commingling on top of that.

“If it takes five to seven days to build a pen, a wreck is coming,” Thomson said, explaining how people and even calves can have different strains or different responses to diseases and when commingled it can spread without our knowing. Sometimes all it takes is a ration change. “Have those animals consistent and started from the time they get there. That’s the reason those 100-head pens are the best.”


Once cattle move from the receiving pen to the processing barn, the first question is when do we process them? For Thomson, for every hour they are on the truck, he recommends an hour of rest. So, if they were a 24-hour haul, those cattle get one day of rest, he said. Yearlings, however, can wait a little longer, since they have most likely been doctored before.

Thomson recommended feedyards vaccinate high-risk calves upon arrival with a five-way modified-live viral, clostridial, tetanus (if the animal is banded) and a mannheimia vaccines. While mannheimia vaccines are best if used prior to arrival, Thomson said based on his experience and research, he recommends mannheimia vaccines for all high-risk calves.

Metaphylaxis, or mass treatment with an antibiotic, is key when managing high-risk calves, Thomson said. It will decrease morbidity by 50%. If you are expecting 40% morbidity in a group of cattle, you will only have 20% if you use metaphylaxis. Likewise, if 20% is expected, it will decrease to 10%. It is the number one method he has found of controlling morbidity in calves after they arrive.

More importantly than the vaccines, Thomson said, is cattle handling. Whether a feedyard chooses to use a Temple tub, Bud box or Bud tub, they all work fine, in his opinion. It’s the people and their interaction with those animals and how well they understand the facilities that helps improve performance and immune response to vaccines.

Pen size and bunk space

After the processing barn, pen size and bunk space should be a high priority. The optimum size pen is a one load pen or 100-head pen. Thomson outlined the perfect feeding pen for starting calves as follows:

  • Maximum 200 head, minimum 50 head, mean 103 head
  • Bunk space: Maximum 21 inches, minimum 10 inches, mean 13 inches
  • One-load pens with 116 feet of bunk space

Thomson said one way to predict a health crisis is coming to a feedlot pen is if the calves are not eating 1.5% of their bodyweight by one and a half weeks on feed.

“If I pull up to the yard and see cattle eating, I have a pretty good idea my vaccine is going to work okay. If I can get hay out to these cattle, and I can get them started – get them eating and their belly full – it’s just vitally important. Cattle crave hay.”

Hospital pens

Thomson said hospital pens are the most abused pens in the feedyard. The hospital pen should have the same amount of space or more than the home pen. Oftentimes, the hospital pen can become crowded, and Thomson encouraged listeners to think about how they feel when they are sick: “Do you want to have more space in your hospital room if you are sick?  Do you want to share a room with someone or even five people or 100 head?”

In addition, Thomson noted that the last pens feedyards should fill are the ones next to the hospital pen. Obviously, for biosecurity reasons, but also to leave room to expand the hospital in case of an outbreak.


How many people are needed? What Thomson has found through various surveys with feedlot consultants is it takes twice as many people to take care of high-risk calves as it does low-risk calves. “So, if you’re going to just buy high-risk calves and just have low-risk calves staffing, you’re going to have problems. You need to hire extra people if you’re going to do that, so your hospitals don’t get overwhelmed and your people don’t get overwhelmed and things to that nature.”

Thomson also encouraged feedyards to do better with biosecurity. He recommended getting rid of fence-line water tanks to decrease sharing of germs from pen to pen. Feedyards should also consider how viruses spread by not cleaning water tanks and disinfecting the chute. 

“I see people spraying down our classrooms before kids come in, when do we ever stop and disinfect the chute and processing barn?” he asked.

To get more tips on arrival programs for high-risk calves, you can view the full webinar.  end mark

PHOTO: Newly arrived calves are similar to students at a university, they have been commingled, they are experiencing ration changes and some may already be carrying pathogens. Staff photo.

Cassidy Woolsey
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