High-risk calves a welfare concern

Vet Advice with Dr. Ron Clarke

High-risk calves a welfare concern

Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) accounts for 65 to 80 per cent of the morbidity (sickness) and 45 to 75 per cent of the mortality (deaths) in feedlots.

Dr. Dan Thompson of Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine, speaking at the University of Calgary Veterinary Medicine 2018 Beef Cattle Conference on managing high-risk calves, highlighted the fact that little has changed in the way we manage high-risk calves over the last 50 years. As an industry, we might understand more about what causes BRD and the epidemiology of pathogens involved, but are still left wanting in the control and prevention of BRD in calves deemed high-risk. We reach for newer and more powerful antimicrobials to treat sick animals, yet overall morbidity and mortality statistics remains much the same. BRD costs the North American feedlot industry nearly $1 billion annually. The outlay for treatment and control averages approximately US$30 for every animal entering a feedlot.

The 2018 summit shifted managing high-risk beef calves and grappling with bovine respiratory disease into the realm of animal welfare. Rather than let the battle against respiratory disease continue unabated, many answers lie in the application of common-sense changes in husbandry practices as industry prepares young calves for a change of address. The conference raised the consciousness of those attending that industry can and must do better. The consuming public and outside parties with a finger on the welfare button will hold industry more accountable for the way calves are weaned, marketed and finished. Although BRD has plagued the feedlot industry since its inception, no single predictive biomarker of the incidence and severity of BRD in feedlot cattle exists — that will change. While our ability to examine an animal’s response to disease at molecular levels has been achieved, applied, chute-side technology remains elusive — that too will change.

Simply put, high-risk calves are cattle unprepared to enter a feedlot. They tend to be lighter calves originating from multiple sale barns in commingled groups. They can be calves that have been freshly weaned from a ranch and often shipped for long distances. They are naïve animals exposed to new diseases and feedstuffs — all elements associated with stress.

Thompson went on to say, “Health may or may not be the reason for the label ‘high-risk.’ Buyers classify them as high-risk because predicting economic outcomes is speculative. Most procurement people and order buyers aren’t sure if high-risk cattle are going to get sick or not, the expectation being: four per cent of high-risk calves die before the end of the feeding period, compared to less than one per cent of low-risk cattle.”

A receiving plan covering facilities, health and nutrition needs to precede every load. In the past, receiving plans for lightweight, high-risk calves meant treatment with an antibiotic, a good-luck pat on the back with instructions to pen riders to cross their fingers that the cattle survive 60 days without falling apart. All too often, the same benediction continues.

Necessary changes to bad habits borne of tradition can be easily altered with a mind to do so. There are people in our industry that thrive on dealing with high-risk calves. It all starts with a leg up on producers selling lightweight calves into a market where price discovery depends on how cheap things can be bought and where quality is discounted.

Simple practices that could diminish the risk of moving calves from ranch to market while reducing the threat of BRD include:

1. Make processing cattle through the chute a quality event, not a timed event. Feedlots can convert low-risk calves into high-risk calves with improper handling. A key to lowering health risk is the application of low-stress animal handling principles.

2. Avoid sale barns by selling calves directly off the ranch.

3. Avoid buying commingled groups of calves or those freshly weaned from a ranch. Give them a chance with low-stress weaning practices and proper immunization (preconditioning).

4. Performance of high-risk cattle varies. At one time origins were hard to trace. Compulsory I.D. is now a tool to trace herd and region of origin.

5. Uniform pen weights.

6. Staggered arrival of small groups to a feedlot remains another part of the commingling puzzle. Taking longer than a week to fill a pen means mixing cattle from different places, with different pathogens and different levels of immunity.

7. Off-loaded calves need rest, pen space and long hay. Processing immediately after unloading can affect response to vaccines, level of sickness and GI problems. If pens can’t be cleaned, at least clean a track around the perimeter of a pen and put down bedding, which reduces both heat and cold stress.

8. Pen riders need time to spot sick cattle. Smaller pens (around 100) with 33 centimetres of bunk space per animal are ideal. Large volumes of high-risk cattle entering a facility at once can negatively influence management of low-risk cattle.

9. Metaphylaxis (treating all animals with broad-spectrum antimicrobials on entry) trims morbidity and mortality figures by 50 per cent. New pressure being placed on prudent antimicrobial use will definitely influence the industry’s dependence on metaphylaxis.

10. Vaccination protocols, especially for IBR and BVD are important for newly arrived calves.

11. Consideration of adverse weather patterns and availability of highly trained personnel are important factors.

12. Appropriate management of pregnant heifers is a major economic and animal welfare consideration.

13. Animal welfare audits, despite the growing emphasis on animal welfare, are still not adopted to the degree they should be. Only 50 per cent of feedlot consultants routinely audit/assess feedlot client’s welfare and animal handling practices.

The incidence of BRD in feedlots will become a stamp of public approval for good animal husbandry and concern about animal welfare. It’s about how well the industry cares for and handles animals offered for sale at the meat counter.

— Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent via email to Canadian Cattlemen or the WCABP.

About the author


Dr. Ron Clarke

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).



Stories from our other publications