Modified stocker situations can help cattle stay healthy
By Kylene Scott
When times are tough or grass is short in supply, traditional livestock production systems often can be modified to include parts of other management systems to take advantage of a factor or factors that may work.
For stocker producers, the greatest potential value historically has been gathering and managing lightweight, high-risk animals for a short period of time and then turning around and selling them. Using a forage-based system is one of the lowest cost solutions to produce quality stocker cattle.
At the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., researchers worked on a study for a number of years about the rapid receiving and pasturing of stocker cattle. Ryan Reuter, assistant professor at the foundation, said the program can be risky and depend on a couple of factors; it can be profitable if managed right.
Instead of traditional methods of gathering stocker cattle from various sources and penning them together until sufficient numbers are bought and feeding them commercial rations and later health issues are managed after they are turned out. Researchers at Noble in the initial study used their demonstration to see if they bought healthy, fresh cattle and got them turned out on pasture as quickly as possible after purchase, how it would affect the health of the stocker cattle.
“It’s just a rapid receiving system to receive and straighten stocker cattle out,” Reuter said. “Kind of a different mindset than the traditional buy cattle and put them in a dry lot and haul feed to them for five days.”
Getting cattle out of the pens and out grazing is part of the protocol, and has several benefits.
“There’s likely a decrease in cattle stress. It’s probably less stressful for the cattle to be scattered out on a bigger area that’s not dusty,” Reuter said. “It’s probably a better environment for those cattle. It’s got fewer pathogens, and the pathogen load concentration’s lower. The cattle can get out, and spread out, so it’s less stress for the cattle.”
The pathogens, pathogen exposure, or physiological or psychological stress on the cattle from being in a new environment they are not used to plays a pretty large role in the well being of the new cattle.
“Typically those lightweight stocker cattle that we get here and a lot of stocker producers get—they haven’t ever been in a dry lot pen where they have to drink water our of an automatic waterer and eat feed—milled feed out of a feed bunk, to being in a pasture with grass and having ponds and stuff like that,” Reuter said.
Getting them back in an environment that they are used to is one benefit, he said, and it helps lower stress on the animals because the cattle are not forced to adapt to a different environment and learn new things. Another benefit to that system is the cattle know how to eat the feed that’s available for them.
“They’re grazing, which they’ve been doing their whole lives so they don’t have to learn how to eat feed out of a feed bunk and come to a feed bunk and eat something unfamiliar,” Reuter said. “It also can be lower labor, and lower cost for the producer because you’re not having to mix feed and harvest feed and haul it to the cattle. They’re out there harvesting that feed themselves. So there’s several advantages.”
As far as processing goes, the protocol will be variable, depending on what each producer wants and is comfortable with.
“To a degree it’s going to depend on the kind of cattle that they get,” Reuter said. “But we always recommend that producers work with their veterinarian to write up a protocol that they can use for processing.”
Typically, most protocols include things like: tagging, branding, vaccination, dehorning, castration, implants and deworming. Some get an antibiotic injection depending on the plan.
“Those would kind of be the basics of a lot of the processing protocols that we see,” Reuter said.
Most often stocker cattle come from the sale barn or a private producer, but those who come from the sale barn, Reuter classifies as high-risk, exposed cattle.
“That means they’ve been exposed lots of different pathogens by being commingled at a sale facility and have gone through the stress with going through that system,” Reuter said. “That’s just a reality of the way the cattle are traded today.”
On average, those cattle would be expected to have a little bit higher cases of morbidity and mortality, but they’re certainly probably more variable in that regard in that response, too, than cattle that come from a single source directly off a ranch. The lowest risk cattle are those cattle weaned and have gone through a receiving and pre-conditioning phase for at least 45 days.
“If we can find those cattle, then we expect those to be pretty low-risk cattle,” Reuter said.
Although the study ran for a couple of years, Reuter said some producers have adopted part of the practice.
“They’re aren’t a lot of people doing it at the same intensity that we ran at this demonstration, but we do see more and more all the time, people are trying to incorporate some of these features into their receiving protocols,” Reuter said.
Producers now are starting to use grass traps to start cattle and when some get a truckload of calves they might keep them in a dry lot pen for a day or two before turning them out on 5 or 10 acres.
“A lot of times they will have concrete bunks or feeding facilities in it and they’ll still go a head and feed those cattle with some sort of commercial milled ration or a mixed ration that they put together that they’ll feed them,” Reuter said. “But they do try to get cattle out on the grass traps so the cattle can spread out and get some of the benefits of that in that low-stress environment, where they’re out on pasture in that kind of a setting. So we see people kind of adopting some of these features of this demonstration that we ran.”
The lack of suitable pastures in some areas because of the drought is a big disadvantage of the demonstration system. Having to rely on feeding the mixed rations can get expensive, and remains a big variable in the use of the system.
“We don’t have that expense (of feed), but we are relying on having good high-quality forage available—that’s how we’re going to feed those cattle,” Reuter said. “If we have weather that impacts us or some mistake that we make in forage management or forage production and we don’t have that forage available and we’re kind of dead in the water on being able to do our system.”
Reuter said stocker producers can’t buy cattle until the forage is available, and it often can turn into a big trade-off in this system.
The supply of suitable stocker cattle can also be a hindrance, and this often depends on the area of the country a producer is in.
“Obviously the cowherd nationally is down quite a bit in numbers and our calf crop is smaller in terms of numbers,” Reuter said. “There’s always competition for these stocker cattle to go into these systems. Typically, so far anyway, we’ve been able to buy the kind of cattle that we need—for the most part—it’s just a matter of what they cost.”
Typically those kind of cattle will be in the sale barn somewhere within a week or two, and we just need to make sure we’re bidding enough to get them if those are the cattle we want when we want,” Reuter said.
Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.