Cow-calf management has big effects in feedlots

In-utero management of calves can assure a better functioning immune system

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Making minor adjustments to health management may result in higher returns for cow-calf and feedlot operators.

“I think there’s money being left on the table,” said Greg Dimmers, Metzger Vet Services veterinarian. “And potential things that could be done a little bit differently that can end up with a better-finished product at the end and everyone else with a little bit of extra money.”

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Why it matters: Enhancing the health of cattle from birth to harvest can potentially lead to higher quality end products, better health for cow-calf and feedlot animals and stronger financial gain for producers.

Dimmers told attendees of Grey Bruce Farmers’ Week that there are opportunities to adjust calf-to-harvest management resulting in better overall health, and high-performing feedlot cattle with a consistent consumer-desired end product at harvest.

These initiatives could generate extra funds across the whole chain.

“We’ve got a huge window of opportunity to take a close look and see how we can do some of these things a little bit different to make some really substantial changes,” he said.

“We’ve taken a lot of our management and put it in a very narrow window of time in that calf’s life,” Dimmers said. “In doing so we’re expecting to create a perfect animal at harvest, 800-900 days after it was conceived.”

Pointing to calf management, he said calves are left alone until weaning when they encounter substantial life changes such as vaccinations, castration, dehorning, transportation, co-mingling and the impacts of weather.

Dimmers suggested there are areas where traditional treatments have room for improvement including the two months before a calf is born.

Revolutionary pre-natal programming research suggests how a mother cow is exposed to her environment, including heat and cold stress, mineral deficiencies and nutrition, impacts how the calf’s DNA-embedded instructions will express themselves throughout its life.

“If we change how we manage that cow during pregnancy we can actually affect the performance and how that calf responds, maybe from the perspective of a disease, well after it’s been put in a feedlot,” Dimmers said.

For example, the immune system of a calf develops in the second trimester. Depending on how the mother cow’s nutrition and exposure to weather are handled it could reflect an increased immune response for the calf in the feedlot.

Dimmers said this research could potentially impact cow management as a tool to influence the development of growth performance, carcass characteristics and immune function in-utero.

Feedlots spend many resources managing variation, whether in weight, frame size, immunity, breed, bulls, heifers or steers, to transform it into a consistent product.

There are cow-calf management aspects that could create more consistency for the feedlot such as; testing feed and feeding mineral; managing the breeding season differently, and cow and calf vaccinations.

Sixty-six per cent of western cow-calf producers test feed, with only five per cent not using the results to modify feeding strategies and manage deficiencies. In Ontario 66 per cent of cow-calf operators never test feed.

“If we take a close look at setting the cow up for optimal reproductive performance, a large part of that has to do with a cow’s nutritional status,” said Dimmers. “Good nutritional management of the cow leads to a better reproductive performance.”

It’s not only managing rations to mitigate severe deficiencies where abnormalities are evident, he said, but marginal deficiencies where the consequences reveal themselves when the calf arrives at the feedlot and fails to respond due to an under-developed immune system.

The initial cost of mineral and feed testing may appear steep, but Dimmers believes the payback is there through narrower calving intervals, heavier calf weights and easier calving management.

Pulling the bull is a huge missed opportunity in Ontario, where most bulls remain with the herd.

Dimmers suggested cow-calf producers use the Beef Cattle Research Centre value of calving distribution calculator to compare their calving distribution against the industry average. The tool shows a lost opportunity or net return depending on how bull management is adjusted.

Using 100 cows as a sample, Dimmers’ calculations indicated a $20 to $40 per head increase if bull management was adjusted for tighter calving distribution. It would provide the feedlot with a more uniform calf crop and a reduced risk of calf scours or pneumonia because disease is easier to manage with tight calving intervals.

Vaccines have value

Finally, Dimmers touched on two essential viruses to vaccinate against Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR), which can reduce abortions by 60 per cent and Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), which can reduce abortions by 45 per cent and increase pregnancy rates by five per cent.

“These viruses are massive. They cause reproductive problems in the cow-calf herd. They cause immune system problems in the calves,” said Dimmers. “I think everybody should be vaccinating. To me, it’s very straightforward. There are benefits to everybody involved using those vaccines.”

A 2015-16 survey indicated approximately 40 per cent of cattle producers are not vaccinating against BVD and 50 per cent against IBR, with eastern Canadian cow-calf operators under-vaccinating compared to their western counterparts.

The BVD vaccine costs approximately $9 per head, said Dimmers, but the cost of an infected calf is $60, increasing to $80 for every animal exposed on the feedlot by one infected calf.

Dimmers said to his knowledge there are no commercially available vaccines that don’t include both BVD and IBR, which means more education needs to happen around why they are necessary to increase usage.

About the author

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Diana Martin

Diana Martin has spent more than two decades in the media sector, first as a photojournalist and then evolving into a multi-media journalist. Five years ago she left mainstream media and brought her skills to the agriculture sector. She owns a small farm in Amaranth, Ont.

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