Healthy calves make for more profitable calves, according to Mark Hilton, Purdue University clinical professor in the department of veterinary clinical sciences.
“Health matters when calves are put in feedlots. Our research shows when calves are treated once for sickness, it can decrease profits by about $15 per calf,” said Hilton. “But when calves are treated two or more times, it can affect profits by as much as $140 per calf.”
When cattle prices were inflated in 2014, treating a calf made a difference of $100 per calf on profits. Hilton said high-risk calves—not prior weaned or castrated or lightweight calves—must have a very good health protocol when they are sent to the feedlot or profits are greatly affected.
“Health starts the day the cables are conceived. Cows need good nutrition and proper vaccinations to make sure her calf starts out life healthy,” said Hilton. “You cannot short the cow of what she needs at any time to be able to save money. It will cost you money in the end.”
Hilton said 75 percent of the calf’s growth in utero happens in the last two months of gestation, but the placenta develops early in gestation.
“If the cow is not getting good nutrition early in gestation, 18 months later the calf will have respiratory problems. The lungs develop early and need proper nutrition to develop properly,” said Hilton.
Protein supplementation during gestation leads to heavier weaning weights, heavier carcass weights and better health for the calf. The calf needs proper colostrum after birth and will be three times less likely to get respiratory disease once placed in a feedlot. When calf vigor is high at birth, the calf is more tolerant and gets up more quickly to nurse.
Hilton said proper vaccination of the cowherd will help have better calf health. Giving vaccines that are needed at the proper time is only 2 to 5 percent of the total cost of raising cattle and can make a difference in reducing the cost of treating calves for illness.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all vaccination program. It’s important to work with the herd veterinarian on a health program,” said Hilton. “With nearly all herds purchasing animals to add to the herd, herd health becomes even more important for disease prevention.”
Purchased animals should be dewormed and quarantined upon arrival to analyze their health. Hilton said producers should have their veterinarian call the vet of the producer whom they are purchasing the cattle from in order to know what the health plan has been on those animals.
Parasite control is more effective in an injection or oral dosage versus a pour-on. Hilton said to follow timing and frequency guidelines on the package directions and pour-on should only be used for lice once or twice per year.
“Beef cows are supposed to be low maintenance. Our goal is for zero sickness. With great nutrition, a good vaccination program and a good environment, we will see less sickness,” said Hilton.
Hilton suggested the Sandhills calving system as a good way to help ensure a clean calving environment. In the system, cows start in one grass paddock and after several calves are born, the cows yet to calve are moved to a clean area. This system is continued throughout calving. Hilton said the system helps provide a clean environment for the new calves.
“Sometimes all it takes is a change of the environment to improve health,” said Hilton.
Heifers should have a body score condition of 6.5 to 7, and cows should have a body score condition of 5.5 to 6 for calving. Having bred females in proper condition can improve the quality and quantity of colostrum and will improve the percentage of females that breed back in a reasonable time period.
“If cows are too fat, I’m wasting my money, but if cows are too thin, I’m wasting my investment,” said Hilton. “It’s important to have cows in the proper condition at calving.”
Hilton suggests testing hay and balancing a winter ration for cows to improve calf health in utero, cow colostrum and rebreeding.
Some of the improvements can be made by crossbreeding cattle to improve calf vigor. Hilton said generally a crossbred cow will also live 1.2 years longer than a purebred cow.
Good health helps to market calves also by adding value to the calves. Hilton said feedlot operators like to purchase calves that are preconditioned, have excellent dispositions and have had two rounds of modified live vaccines. An internasal vaccine in June or July can also lead to better immunity. Hilton also suggested castrating calves early and using fly tags to prevent diseases carried by flies.
“Preconditioned calves that have been fed 45 to 60 days post-weaning should bring more at sale time,” said Hilton. “This preconditioning usually improves profits as they require less labor once they enter the feedlot.”
Hilton said calves that have been weaned and are on feed will always bring more money at the salebarn. Eliminating high-risk calves will increase profits.
Reducing stress and having calves that go to the feed bunk is important. Feedlots will generally pay more for calves that have been properly cared for in all aspects of their lives as those calves are more profitable in the end.
“Healthy calves will produce the best possible product for the consumers in the end,” said Hilton.