Managing high-risk stockers

Commingled calves arrive at Clifford Oldham Cattle Co. in Shamrock, Texas, with a high risk of sickness and poor performance. Lightweight and stressed, they may have traveled from sale barns as far away as Florida, California and Canada to the yards located seven miles east of the intersection of Interstate 40 and Highway 83.

Clifford Oldham describes the turnaround he tries to effect in his pre-conditioning and growing yards. As he does, 21 years of experience resonates: "We get "em going and straightened out, back on feed," he says, "with a very minimal death loss. Of the 2,270 head we have on site now from California, we have lost less than 1 percent, closer to 0.3 percent, in 30 days."

The highest incidence of illness occurs within the first two to three weeks of arrival with some months and calves presenting greater challenges than others. They excel by giving incoming calves the time and attention needed to get them healthy and gaining in 45 to 60 days.

The exception to the rule, however, is the time period between October and December, primarily due to great temperature swings. Usually after Jan. 1, when hard freezes have hit the East, incoming calves are in better health and shape, better acclimated to weather conditions.

"Where feedlots have 50,000- to 60,000-head capacities, we have a 3,000-head capacity," Mr. Oldham says. "We spend more time with the calves, give "em more TLC, and it's a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week proposition."

Good preconditioning yards serve as specialists in readying cattle for high performance in the feedyard, according to Jim Simpson of Simpson Nutrition Services in Canyon, Texas. Critical to successful receiving programs is getting calves bunk-trained and eating, and minimizing exposure to digestive upsets.

"A calf that gets sick is less likely to grade than one that stays healthy. And, if it's pulled two or more times, it'll likely never grade Choice, based on the results of the ongoing Texas A&;M Ranch-to-Rail Program. A $90 difference in value exists between a calf that gets sick once and a healthy calf. That difference increases to$100 to $150 for a calf that gets sick two or more times," Mr. Simpson notes.

Upon arrival, the calves receive an eight-way black leg vaccination, antibiotic, modified live IBR, dewormer, vitamins and an autogenous bacterin shot. They are tagged or branded and the bull calves are castrated or banded. Fresh water, hay and a little feed in the bunk await them in their pen. "We baby them along," says Mr. Oldham, who strongly believes in providing clean water and freshly mixed rations and in gradually increasing the ration as calves become healthier and more aggressive at the bunk. He also appreciates the good climate, just 23 to 24 inches of rain annually, and his proximity to major feedyards in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

The calves receive a highly palatable total mixed ration with liquid molasses, rolled corn, high-quality chopped alfalfa hay, cottonseed hulls and a commercial supplement. The ration for Holstein calves also includes a buffer to prevent bloating.

James Biter and Luke Carter ride the pens each morning. "The big thing is knowing when to pull cattle," Mr. Oldham says. "Knowing that a calf is sick before it is really sick. When its head is down and snot is running, it's too late!"

Hanging back from the feedbunk is a telltale sign. Not eating aggressively often signals a calf that's not feeling well. "That's why old-timers say you can see more on a feed truck than on horseback," Mr. Oldham says. He believes this is an inborn talent, something an individual has or doesn't have. Sometimes they will miss a sick calf. They are not always 100 percent, but it is intuition like this that can make the difference for Mr. Oldham and his customers. 

"For every day you miss a calf," Mr. Oldham says, "it takes 48 to 72 hours to get it back to the weight and performance level it should be."

Sick calves receive treatment immediately and are re-treated in 48 hours. They also receive special dietary considerations to help restore rumen function to optimal levels. This starts with a round bale of grass hay placed by the bunk. The hay helps get the rumen working and helps the calves find the bunks and the feed ration.

Getting the rumen working is critical. Stress and sickness can negatively affect rumen performance, as do large quantities of antibiotics. If the rumen isn't functioning properly, the calves can't fully break down the feed ration and can't benefit from all of the nutrients it contains. Without these nutrients, the calves struggle to fend off disease, restore their immune systems and overcome what is affecting them.

That is why the sick-pen ration is top dressed with Diamond V XP yeast culture. It nurtures the rumen microbes that break down feedstuffs. It helps return the rumen to optimally functioning levels. Ruminants heavily depend upon rumen microbes to make the nutrients in feed readily available for absorption and use, according to Mr. Simpson. "When flourishing populations of rumen microbes exist, digestibility levels are high," he says.

Feed intakes increase as doctoring decreases. When shipped to feedyards, the calves are eating 3 to 4 percent of their bodyweight in feed and are cleaning the bunk. "They are bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and aggressive at feed time," Mr. Oldham says. And that's good because "the next guy expects the calves to be straightened out: to hit the feedbunk and never look back!"

Mr. Oldham strives for quality, but nothing in life is guaranteed. What he guarantees is that the calf gets 100 percent from him.