The Life of a Calf

calf laying in the grass

Life typically begins in a rural environment.  The particular location could be in any one of dozens of vastly dissimilar locations.  Perhaps the southern coastal areas of Florida, Louisiana, or even Texas; the high-country of Montana, Idaho or Colorado; the grass valleys of Wyoming, California, or Missouri; the plains of Kansas, Dakotas’ or Nebraska; the desert south-west of New Mexico, Arizona, or Nevada; the fertile grounds of Iowa, Indiana or Ohio; or, the hills of North  Carolina, Tennessee or Virginia.  Each location is noted for some unique climatic conditions: heat, humidity, altitude and snow, fine seasonal grazing, winds, severe winter storms, drought and scarce-water sources.  Yes, these babies are born in every imaginable location from the harsh and unforgiving, to the most ideal your mind could visualize.

calf laying in the snow

Given the wide variety of environments where cattle are located, adjusting to that environment is usually no great matter if nutritional needs are met; but weather related issues are often challenging.

Through good weather and bad, they are born typically, alone with their mother, and must quickly find a way to endure and survive.  Except for heifers (first time calvers) assistance is rarely readily available.  It is a wonder of mother-nature how some survive even the first few hours, given some climatic conditions, but they do.  The center of their world is mom and they try to stay close.  Mom usually does not range very far for the first few days.  But soon, she has to get to water.  Here is another miracle of Mother Nature.  There exists a quiet, often unseen, social fabric that exists between cows—some much more than others.  These moms often trade off (within their own little group), regarding who is going to stay with the nursery (the group of new baby calves), and who is going to go, however far it might be, to water.  Cattle usually drink every day; more often if it is handy.  In the case of nursery cows, one may miss a day of watering to watch the babies, and drink the following day.  The nursery cow(s) will not be standing over her changes, giving close attention, but she will certainly remain very handy should a need arise.  Should a predator come close, she will become agitated, vocalize and become aggressive in her attitude.  Within just a few days these new babies are getting around pretty well and begin to follow mom wherever she goes.  Early on, the cow commonly stops frequently looking over her shoulder, making sure her baby is making appropriate progress.

Within a couple of weeks, the pair (momma and baby) is back to the normal grazing habits of the group.  Country (the grazing territory of the involved cattle) can still be good, even if it is considered dry.  Even if forage is a little scarce, it is usually strong (highly nutritious).  In dry country cattle may have to graze two miles or more from water.  In good years they can meet their nutritional needs without having to go more than a mile from water.  The grass close to water gets grazed down; thus, they have little choice but to range farther.  In better country it may only take a few acres (two or three) to run a cow on a so-called, year-a-round basis.  Some of the best ranching country in the world may take twenty-five acres per cow.  But, some of our drier areas (particularly in the south-west) will take a lot more.  My brother bought some cows off a ranch in southern New Mexico, years ago.  The owner told him that his best country would run two cows to the section (square mile, 640 acres), and that his worst country was two sections to the cow.  True-story.  My brother bought two loads (120 Hereford cows, averaging just about seven hundred and twenty-five pounds each—small cows).  He shipped those cows to the Portales, New Mexico area and ran them on good grass (where they calved) until wheat pasture was ready.  When they came off wheat in April, the calves were as tall as the cows.  They were a great set of little cows.   They were little because they were raised in that country, not because their genetics weren’t good.

As young calves grow, they tend to graze on their own, not always at mother’s side.  Cattle have what is usually described as four stomachs.  As a little baby, on milk only, only the fourth stomach (the abomasum) is developed.  But as they begin to graze (consume grasses), they slowly develop their second stomach, the rumen.  For adult animals this is where most of the work of digestion takes place.  In a sense it is a fermentation vat where cellulose (grasses) products are broken down into utilizable food substrates.  By the time a calf weighs six-hundred pounds his rumen function is pretty well developed.

cow and calf pair

An efficient and productive cow

For most of the industry, the calf and it’s mother have a quiet, peaceful time together until it is time for spring (or fall, as the case may be) branding to occur.  In some parts of the country, it is referred to as marking and branding.  At some point in their young lives, these calves will have to be “worked”.  Large ranches schedule these activities to occur when the last few calves will be at least a couple of weeks of age—making the oldest three months of age, or so.  They tend to work pastures, one after another, until all calves have been done.  This time frame is usually measured in weeks.  Smaller ranches may get it done is a week or less.  Some operations, for a variety of reasons, partially work the newborn calf.  They generally want the birth-weight, and go ahead and castrate at that time.

The term “worked” simply refers to procedures that must be accomplished.  There may be no perfect time to accomplish it, if all procedures are going to be done at the same time.  Some we would like to do as soon as possible—castrate and dehorn.  It is much easier (less stressful) on the very young calf, as opposed to an older calf.  Other procedures are more efficacious if we wait until at least three months of age—vaccinations in particular.  On larger outfits it is a major undertaking to arrange for all the necessary day help to accomplish gathering and working these calves, so from a practical sense, it is all done at the same time.  Very small cattle operations often fail to even accept the responsibility of working their calves.  They just haul them to the local auction barn.  Thus older calves, five hundred pounds or more, now have to be castrated and dehorned, when it is much more stressful than would have been the case if accomplished while they were young.  When the calves are sold, unworked calves bring less money per pound.  I would like to see that discount become even more substantial, bringing even greater pressure to bear on those producers who do not get it done while they are quite young.  If you cannot accomplish this responsibility in an efficient manner that is easy on the calves, perhaps you should not be in the cow business.  Let us now look more closely at the various procedures that have to be accomplished during marking and branding.

  • CASTRATION: With the exception of purebred breeders that are raising prospective breeding bulls, all male calves need to be castrated as early as is practically possible.  The younger the individual, the easier it is on the calf.  But it certainly should be done while under the nurturing care of their mother.  To delay this procedure, because it is inconvenient for the owner, is irresponsible and completely insensitive to the wellbeing of the calf.  If done properly and early, it is a non-event in the life of the calf.  A necessary and vital component of a “humanely treated” chain-supply of beef source animals—is that this procedure be done as early as practically possible.  Not to have this procedure done is losing touch with reality.  Imagine the daily stress and crippling of the individuals involved, if all these calves were allowed to remain bulls, fighting and injuring each other daily.  That is inhumane!
  • VACCINATIONS: Properly accomplished, administering vaccines substantially enhances the individual immune system’s ability to fight off disease.  The industry’s first vaccines were “killed” vaccines that were very durable and not neutralized by heat and direct sunlight.  Modern vaccines for prevention of respiratory conditions are “modified-live” viral vaccines and are very fragile—neutralized rather quickly by heat and direct sunlight.  Our industry has a history of doing a rather poor job of handling these vaccines.  Based on a monitoring some 400,000 head of calves coming into feedyards from seventeen different states, as much as seventy percent of our producers do less than an optimal job of preparing calves for the high-exposure environment of a feedyard.  At the feedyard level it is obvious which calves have and have not been properly prepared.  A chain-supply is the only way to correct this weakness in the system.  There, they have no choice but to follow established procedures and protocols, because they are all documented and auditable.  Through our own chain-supply, we’ve already accomplished it, and reduced sickness at the feedyard dramatically.  Perhaps here is a good place to mention a critically important fact: all the antibiotics in the world are a drop in the bucket, compared to what a properly prepared and fully functional immune system can do for itself.
  • DE-HORNING: Many, if not most, breeds have horns.  As with castration, if good de-horning techniques, are utilized early on (at time of castration), this can be a minimally stressful event.  The later it is delayed, the more stressful the procedure becomes.  If de-horning is not accomplished, their “horns” become instruments to “bully” other individuals away from feed and water sources.  Responsible owners will handle this issue early, using minimally invasive techniques—no deep de-horns.  They don’t have to be deep to be effective and are certainly less stressful, with reduced healing times.  Only someone who is totally clueless, regarding fighting and injuring other animals would support NOT castrating and de-horning cattle.  But, yes, it needs to be done early.
  • BRANDING: Yes, it hurts—no question about it.  Yet, it is the law in many western states to prove ownership.  Many states have brand inspectors, monitoring the movement of cattle off the current location (ranch).  A written instrument is required before the cattle can be moved.  Their ownership brands will have been individually inspected.   Brands are more durable and harder to disguise than are eartags.  Branding is stressful at any time in their life, but it seems to be of short duration.  Slight soreness the next day and then it doesn’t seem to bother them.  I’ve seen a lot more instances where poorly applied eartags, caused considerably more lingering discomfort, than a properly applied brand.   At the feedyard level, there just is no substitute for ear-tags.  They just serve too many vital functions to do without.
  • IMPLANTS: Yes, the word “hormone” is now going to be used.  So, let us look at the issues.

Why do we use them?  Simply stated, they enhance feed efficiency.  Meaning that they will grow more (increased weight gain), on the same amount of feed and/or pasture (roughage intake), than cattle that have not been implanted.  Typically, we are talking about placing one or more pellets (dosing units) under the skin of the ear, above the cartilage.  Here, these pellets dissolve at a predetermined rate, leaving only slight scar tissue behind.  The ear itself is not used in any human food product.

Why are they allowed to be used?  The manufacturer has conducted all required trials and completed all safety requirements necessary to obtain approval from the FDA, principally, to make them available for sale to the cattle industry.  The products are safe and effective—no question about it.

Are we (producers) all in agreement as to their use?  No.  A lot of us would actually prefer not to use them.  But, it is hard to give up forty dollars (for example) per head by not using them.  I think most of us would actually prefer to sell natural cattle, if that market would just let us break even, concerning the dollars we are giving up.  If you use them, a philosophy must be ascribed to.  A less aggressive attitude toward their use will cause little loss of “grade”, yet yield enhanced performance parameters.  An aggressive attitude regarding their use will certainly add more pounds (to sell), but will certainly reduce the grade (USDA quality grade of the carcass) of the cattle as a whole.  Envision that target weights of any and every set of calves going through the feedyard, are pretty well established well before sending them to the packer.  Partially by the kind of cattle they are, and partially by packer desire.  Also, the choice-select “spread” is always a part of every decision.  If the spread is substantial (a significant difference between the market value of a choice graded carcass, over that of a select graded carcass), we are going to err on the side of finishing (putting on more fat or marbling, if you will) cattle a little more.  If the spread is minimal, we are going to err on the side of cost effective pounds—just focusing on getting the cattle into the “select” category.  “Select” grade (less marbling) is the primary beef seen in the meat case at your grocery store.  Most large grocery stores have “choice” or even “prime” beef available; you just have to ask for it.

So, what is the bottom-line regarding implant?  To make the decision not to use implants (hormones), for most of us, requires that lost efficiency (dollars) to be made up (replaced) elsewhere.  Typically, that means you (the consumer) are willing to pay a little more not to have hormone treated beef.  The European Union is a great example to look at.  They do not argue the issue of safety regarding the use of hormones.  They just do not want it in their beef, period.  They are willing to pay for what they want.  We can give them what they want.

After branding and marking activities are complete, these young calves are returned to the pasture with their mothers.  A lot of factors will determine just how much longer that will be the case—staying with their mothers.  Their average weight, forage availability, commodity prices, market conditions, sale contracts that may be in existence at the time, weather issues and environmental stress issues are some of the factors that help us to decide when to wean the calves.  A cow needs minimally two months, after a calf is weaned off of her, to prepare her own body condition to where it needs to be, before she calves again.  Poor pasture conditions and environmental stresses, most commonly cause early weaning.  Cows under this kind of stress need more than two months to regain necessary body condition.  The calves themselves will actually do better, being fed supplementally or moved to improved pasture conditions elsewhere, than they would if left on the cow.

Many producers are too focused on weaning weights.  They tend to use these as a measuring stick of how well they (themselves) have done.  Sometimes, egos get in the way and they attain their target weights, at the expense of the cow.  And, if they get her back into condition in time, they will have given up all they made on weaning weights, buying feed for the cowherd.

Weaning is the next big occurrence in their lives.  This separation from mom is an event of considerable stress.  Interestingly enough, it also occurs in dairy calves that may have never actually nursed their mother.  In that instance, it is the separation from the bucket, or bottle, with the nipple.  Historically, when shipping time (selling the calf crop) occurs the cattle are penned, fairly early in the morning, and the calves are cut off (separated) from the mothers.  The calves are then separated into steers and heifers, sorted and weighed, then loaded onto the trucks, where they are shipped to a grow operation, or to the feedyards.  The longer the trip the more stress is involved.  From the moment these cattle (pairs) are picked up in the morning, on the way to the pens, until they arrive at their ultimate destination, they are commonly without access to feed and water.  That can be a long time—twenty hours or more.  Proper aforethought and planning can minimize some of these negative effects.  As rumen function begins to deteriorate (sustained periods of no feed intake), so too does immune function deteriorate, making them more susceptible to sickness.

It behooves everyone involved to make sure the transit, no matter how many miles, occurs as quickly and efficiently as is possible.  Granted, they will be expected at the feedyard with arrival pens already prepared and waiting; but it may take several days (after arrival) for them to reestablish optimal immune function.  As an industry we have been long guilty of rushing into processing (vaccinations in particular) at their new destination before they are fully restored, with fully functional immune systems.  This compounds the problem because they cannot possibly respond to the challenge of the vaccine, building antibodies against future sickness, anywhere near normal.  So, as mentioned, coordination needs to occur between the buyer and seller to minimize the effects of no access to feed and water during the trip, before they (the cattle) are loaded into the trucks. We should remember that just separated calves are a lot more interested in where mom is, rather than eating and drinking.

If there is to be no weaning process at the point of origin, the sooner these cattle get to their new destination the better.  We as an industry, tried to stop at some way-point and unload, feed, water and rest the cattle, but found that it only created more sickness.  It did not really solve any issues; likely created even more.  All of this is measurable.  Every option can and has been measured (in lost performance and dollars).  The real answer is to wean at home (point of origin), get them properly vaccinated there, and onto to some supplemental feed (accustomed to a feed-bunk).  The weaning process is much less stressful there, rather than at their next destination.

There are a variety of ways to wean at home, some less stressful than others.  Some more labor intensive on the owners.  Some owners do not feel like they have the option to wean at home, perhaps lacking the facilities.  Personally, I think it’s all about the money.  Producers want to get paid to go to all the extra trouble. There is some validity to that.  The value is there, and is known; so why can’t we put a price premium that is adequate to receive compliance, on home-weaned calves—getting it done in that low-stress environment?  Feedyards receive a lot of calves, commonly in excess of 100,000 per year.  We know cattle.  We know sickness.  We have access to data you would not believe.  It is quite easy to “see” which calves have been well prepared and which have not.  Likely the real answer, is to buy all calves at market-price, and give set-aside premiums back to producers based on level (preferably very low) of sickness and carcass quality (percentage of choice carcasses produced).  This way those that did a good job of properly preparing calves for the feedyard environment get paid for it.  Sickness (morbidity) is a critical issue in feeding cattle; and, can be largely avoided if a program called “Doing the Basics Perfectly” is followed.  We started it at the feedyard level of production; and then began to get our source producers to adopt it as well.  It really does work.

If a supply-chain is in place (bring a branded beef product to the marketplace), then serious lines of communication between the producer and the feeder are in place.  Required procedures and protocols demand documentation and are auditable.  Compliance will be there if they are to stay in the supply-chain.  This solves a lot of issues.  The system demands integrity.  Thus when you (the consumer) receive a branded beef product that meets your needs and/or desires (source-verified, no hormones or no antibiotics, humanely treated, etc.), you know that you are getting exactly what you should be.

Even with cattle that are properly prepared, arrival at the feedyard causes a good deal of stress.  They have arrived into a totally different environment.  No longer in pastures, but intensive, confined feeding operations.  Lights are on at night, feed trucks running everywhere, a grain-based ration rather than forage based ration, cowboys in each pen once or twice a day, and the bedding ground is now dirt rather than the grass turf they were used to in the past.  So, yes, there are a lot of new changes relative to their environment.  If they remain healthy (having been properly prepared), it does not take much time, if they are handled kindly and gently, for them to get acclimated to their new surroundings.

Feedyard Processing Barn

Feedyard Processing Barn

cattle processing barn chutes

View inside the processing barn

For many, it is actually a couple of steps up from what they were used to.  Professionally created, warm rations are available twice a day.  High quality hay is available initially for those who are not yet accustomed to eating out of a feed-bunk, and the water trough is cleaned regularly.  As soon as they appear to be completely over the stress of shipment, they are processed (vaccinations, de-wormed, identification tags applied and scrutinized for other problems that may need attention).  These new vaccinations are utilized to raise their protective titers (antibodies) that will hopefully enable them to remain healthy through the feeding period.  When they are brought back to the chute at a later date for booster vaccinations or implants, they are again reevaluated.  Computerized health and processing records are likely better than that in a human hospital.  Why?  Because we are extremely conscious concerning drug residues in particular, due to the fact that these animals are going to be providing beef for the table.  Every product that is utilized for any reason (pharmaceuticals) is noted into the record with exacting protocols reflecting product used, dosage amounts, route of administration and when it was administered.  The computer (software) will keep up with each individual record and bring it back up any time they are in the chute for evaluation.

When animals are determined to be immune-compromised, they need to leave the feedyard immediately.  Due to pending residues (antibiotic residues in particular) they cannot simply be sent to the local auction-barn.  They must be held until all residue issues have been met.  Ideally, these cattle are simply removed to low-exposure environments (locally available pasture) and given time for their immune systems to improve.  Historically, these cattle were kept on site in holding pens awaiting residue resolution.  This was and is a bad choice.  The death loss in these pens is high, and suffering is great.  Following “Genuine Care & Concern for the Individual” guidelines, we offer:  when active treatments have failed, and no immediate exist strategy exists, humane euthanasia is mandated.

I personally have become passionate about the issues of stress, critically supporting the immune system and supporting socialization requirements.  These issues are real and they are measurable.  A price (lost performance) is extracted every time we allow these items (stress—the number one enemy to good health, sickness due to lack of support for the immune system, and lost sense of well being, due to lack of support for socialization issues) to negatively affect the animals involved.  These negative effects are largely preventable if we are willing to accept the new philosophy, and are willing to make some immediate changes that will update our animal care level.  These changes are cost-effective and practical.  The only requirement is for producers to accept that it is your desire that we adopt the philosophy of “Genuine Care & Concern for the Individual.”   It is simply doing what we already know to be the right thing to do, just shedding the cloak of a few traditional practices.  To know better and not do better is a reflection of our character.

The industry will provide you any particular beef product that you desire, when you make it clear to your retailer that you want it.  I had visited with WalMart/SAMS, and then visited with Costco.  Costco is a company all about doing the right thing.  They wholeheartedly support the idea of humanely treated cattle.  But, before we even attempted to work out the details, they contacted the three primary packers with whom they do business, to ascertain their willingness to give us the “shift-spots” we would need for these supply-chain cattle.  Their answer “We have seventeen of our own lines of branded beef items.  If we give you what you want, it would actually cost us money.  We would have to cut back on our own lines of branded beef.”  Why am I not surprised?  Originally, there were many, many packers serving a variety of locations and functions.  Today, packer buyouts have created consolidation down to a point that most people who know the packing industry would agree that it is a monopoly.  Instead of serving America, they serve themselves.

THE FEEDYARD:  For all the negative mental images that some of you may have regarding confining cattle during the finishing stage of production, let me share a personal perspective.  I find great joy in being immanently involved in the beef cattle industry and particularly in the feedyards.  Depending upon one’s perspective, and certainly to those unfamiliar with confined feeding operations, one might be put off by all the activity and perhaps the smell as well.  Personally, I find the feedyard to be a necessary and cost-effective way to fatten cattle.  If well managed, a calf wants for nothing after they have become acclimated.  It is kind of like sending your son or daughter off to college—there is an adjustment period.

The acclimation process likely takes three weeks, if they remain healthy, to become mentally at ease with their new environment and the rumen having had time to adjust its bacterial flora to match the new feed stuffs.  All their nutritional needs will be professionally met.  If we meet their other needs concerning socialization issues, pen, bunk, and water-trough space, quiet and gentle handing, and efforts to make bedding conditions as good as the environment will allow, these animals will be happy.  Happy cattle perform well.  They make everyone happy.

Once acclimated, the vast majority of these calves would not trade back, for their old pasture lands.  They were going to be without mom regardless of their next location.  Toxic weeds, predators, scarce grass, and dirty tank-water, they don’t miss.  They now get looked at and individually appraised for health issues every day.  They get all they want to eat.  Water is clean and plentiful.  Sometimes, they do get a little bored, I’ll not argue that.  These cattle get fed and have access to clean water, every day, no matter what the climatic conditions.  Blinding, white-out snow storms does not stop the feed-wagons.  Ten below zero does not stop drinking water from flowing.  Cattle are treated and doctored every day that it is necessary.  Feedyards never stop making and delivering feed—twenty-four, seven.  Christmas day, Thanksgiving, graduations, weddings, funerals, doctor appointments, doesn’t matter, the feed trucks are going to run and the cattle are going to be monitored.

I love feedyards—at least well managed yards that truly have compassion for the animals under their care.  In the old-days, we looked at industry averages regarding death loss, morbidity (sickness), and out-cattle (usually chronically ill and/or chronically crippled cattle).  As long as our numbers were in line with industry averages, everything was OK.  It is not OK, any longer!  Today, we have “Genuine Care & Concern for the Individual”.  Every individual is important.  Preventative health issues are a core interest.  Every time we have to treat an animal for sickness, is like a small, personal failure of our preventative health program.   Reducing stress is a core interest.  Creating happy cattle (an elevated sense of well being) is a core interest.  Supporting socialization issues is a core interest.

The beauty of this philosophy is that it makes everybody a winner—a true win/win scenario.  By keeping the cattle happy (elevated sense of well-being), they give us maximum performance.  Great performance by their cattle makes the owners happy.  Treating them kindly and gently makes you happy.  Making you happy, gives our industry sustainability.  The Industry is now happy.

Feedyards operating under this new philosophy are a great place.  Calves are properly prepared for their arrival in this high-exposure environment.  Because they are well prepared and well received, acclimation occurs rather quickly.  No place within the entire industry can you find more professionals working in synchronized fashion to meet the needs of the cattle.

Feedyards come in all sizes, from a few hundred to well over 100,000 head.  My own experience has been in yards with capacities from 45,000 up to 90,000 head.  So, let us look at a typical day in the life of a calf in one of these high-plains feedyards.

12:01 am:  The night-watchman drives the feed-alleys, closely monitoring activity in each pen of cattle.  Most feedyards have night lights that are very similar to street lights that enable visualization of the cattle.  He also has an above-the-cab spotlight enabling improved visualization of individuals in the pens as might be necessary.  In many instances, he also receives cattle (unloads the trucks) in the middle of the night.  If they were expected and look as anticipated, he will place them into a prepared pen that was awaiting their arrival.  Anything out of the ordinary, he will contact management.  He is also head of security over the feedyard, until personnel begin to arrive around 5:30 am.  He knows his responsibilities and whom to contact when the need arises.

6:30 am:  Feed trucks are busy delivering warm, freshly mixed feed.  Every pen is scheduled to receive feed at a specific time.  Every truck has a set of built-in scales and a time-clock associated with each feed delivery.  It is all computerized.  What was fed (which ration number), when it was fed, and how much was fed, is immediately accessible by administrative staff.

Feed truck delivering feed to cattle

Feed truck delivering feed to new arrivals

At large feedyards, the feed-mills, never shut down.  There is even a night-shift to oversee the steam-flaking of the corn.  It is surprising how long this corn stays warm.  Even after it is mixed with the other ingredients (as prescribed by the consulting nutritionist) the mixture is still warm when it is delivered to the cattle.  In the winter time the cattle are anxiously awaiting their own delivery of feed.

The entire feeding schedule is synchronized so that any given pen is fed at the same times, every day.  That truck will rarely be off more than five minutes.  The cattle in that pen know when to expect their own delivery.  When you look across a pen and see a lot of cattle lying down, chewing their cud (a part of the rumination process), you know it is nowhere close to when they will be fed.  When cattle begin to stand up, stretch out, all looking toward the feed-bunk, it is getting close to time.  When a third of the pen is standing at or near the feed-bunk, it is only moments away from their feeding time.

There is a shared philosophy, between management and the consulting nutritionist, regarding how long they want the cattle to be out of feed, before the next delivery of feed.  It might be a few minutes or a couple of hours or more.  There are good reasons for everything that is done.  In the case of Holsteins, when they are fed out for beef, we never let them run out of feed.  We want a small amount left in the bunk when their next delivery occurs.  If we underestimated what they would eat during the period since they were last fed, that amount will increased before being fed the next time.  If they do run out, completely, and there are wet, lick marks still present, we are OK.  No damage done.  But, if the bunk is empty and dry, we should expect some GI (gastro-intestinal) issues over the next several hours, and will be on guard for that event.   Feed management is a critical component of a successfully feedyard.

9:30 am:  Pen-riders (cowboy on horse-back) go through each pen every day.  We hope that every individual is appraised at each visit.  At the AzTx feedyards we had to completely disallow them to carry cell-phones, because it was just too easy for them to lose concentration.  There is an old story involving an Indian who tells the cowboy:  You look, but you no see.  This is exactly what we are talking about today—everyday.  These cattle must be seen and appraised, individually.  Cattle lying down must be made to rise and take a step or two, making sure there is no lameness involved.  Their primary focus is respiratory issues (pneumonia), but lameness, eye and ear problems, abscesses and bloat can occur.

cowboy riding a pen at the feed yard

A pen-rider at work

This process of riding pens is usually completed by very early afternoon, at the latest.  Usually the pen-riders then ride feed alleys, reevaluating each pen (that they had actually been in that same morning).  They might see something that was missed earlier, or see something that is apparent now, that was not apparent this morning.  It is just a second opportunity to monitor those cattle under their charge.  Computerized records are kept enabling management to actually know just how good a job each cowboy is doing.  It is a factual representation of their abilities.  Good pen-riders attain incentives; poor pen-riders are soon working elsewhere.

Individual cattle that are “pulled” are left in the back-alley until that particular row of pens have been ridden, then they are gently moved to the hospital.  In larger feedyards, every section of the feedyard has a treatment hospital.  We do not like to move sick cattle any farther than we have to.  In some instances, they are even hauled to the hospital.

10:15 am: the water-trough man comes through the pen.  This man’s primary job is to clean water-troughs.  It takes about six to eight minutes to thoroughly clean the trough (usually stainless steel), and he is on to the next pen.  When a set of cattle are moved (permanently) from a given pen, that trough is cleaned again before any new cattle are placed back in that pen.  Otherwise, our goal is to regularly clean every trough (in the feedyard) every fifteen days.  New cattle (fresh cattle) will have it cleaned even more often.

10:45 am:  The whole pen is picked up by the cowboys and moved to the processing barn for a scheduled visit.  It might be the initial processing, revaccination (usually occurring 17-21 days after arrival), implant, or perhaps an Endovac booster if pinkeye has flared up in the group.  Every calf carries an individual, personalized eartag.  Every time that anything is done to that calf, his or her individual record is brought up, and whatever is about to happen is documented into their record.  Regardless of location, everything that is done to a calf is documented into the computer.  It is really not a hassle to do so.  What is going to be done to this pen of calves are already been entered into the computer by the “processing barn” manager.  As they come through, each individual tag is scanned, verifying its presence and adding this action to its individual record.  Records are always up to date and immediately accessible from many locations throughout the feedyard.

Calf displaying necessary ear-tags

Calf displaying necessary ear-tags

1:00 pm:  A treated calf (pulled earlier that morning) is returned back to the home pen.  Under “Genuine Care & Concern for the Individual” guidelines, if it was a respiratory condition that was treated, they are administer a long-lasting antibiotic, efficacious for 7 days, or more), identified with an eartag denoting date of treatment, and returned to the home pen as soon as possible.  Recovery rates are substantially higher if allowed to return to their home-pen, as opposed to staying in hospital pens with other sick calves.  Some feedyards even have a delivery vehicle (bobtail truck) with a hydraulic ramp that allows that truck to drive up in front of the designated pen, and deliver the calf, over the feed-bunk, right back home.  The sooner we get them back home, the better they do.

animal ambulance

“Animal Ambulance” is used to deliver pulled cattle back to their “home pen.”

3:30 pm:  Feed trucks are now delivering the afternoon feedings.  A bunk reader (name of his job) will have already checked this pen at least once, monitoring consumption levels. If he or she adjusts the level of feed coming to this particular pen, they can do it electronically from their vehicle.  The truck driver will see the change on his monitor in the truck even if it is just moments between the two, and deliver the adjusted amount of feed.

Interestingly enough, in the feedyard we all drive like we are in England—on the wrong side of the road.  This allows the feed truck drivers to move around unimpeded.  Delivery of feedstuffs occurs from the driver side of their truck, so the rest of us stay out of the way.

Fresh cattle (new arrivals) are commonly on #1 ration (higher in roughage percentage), and as their time (and weight) in the feedyard increases, they progressively move up to more concentrated rations.  Commonly the last, finishing ration is #5.

Weather events will cause cattle to change their eating habits (the amount consumed and the time between feedings). This often causes an inadvertent change in the PH level of the rumen.  GI (gastro-intestinal) disturbances and/or bloat are a common end result.  Bloat (gas accumulation in the rumen) in particular can be immediately life-threatening.  Even, just more wind (higher velocity) than usual, can cause cattle to lie down for longer periods of time which will also cause the aforementioned PH changes.  When a significant weather event is anticipated, we go to “storm rations” (higher roughage content), which helps to diminish GI disturbances.  We give up a little performance during this time, but we reduce health issues.  Holsteins are the exception to this rule, except in emergency situations.

more new cattle arrivals

Feed-wagons at work—more new cattle

4:30 pm:  We are preparing pens for late night and early morning arrivals (new cattle).  If they are coming from a good ways off, we will have a large, round, metal water trough (usually 16 to20 feet across) added to the pen and filled to capacity.  This will allow for as many as possible to drink upon arrival.  Plenty of fresh, high quality feed and hay are also commonly available.  Our number one priority is to reestablish hydration and rumen function (of the newly arrived cattle) as quickly as possible after arrival.  At bare minimum we want at least one-fourth of the cattle to be able to drink at the same time and every one of them to be able to easily access the feed and hay.

Their activity (processing) schedule is not started until they are completely over the stress of their travels.  This may take one day or ten days.  We have had some we waited three weeks on.  It is a waste of time and money to vaccinate these cattle until rumen function and immune function, which go hand-in-hand, have been restored.  Any cattle (individually) showing signs of sickness are quickly, quietly and efficiently medicated.

As management makes their last round of the day (up and down feed-alleys), they always look at new arrivals and “problem” (higher sickness levels) pens of cattle.  They often make several phone calls as they are looking, establishing tomorrow’s priorities, and changes they desire, depending upon what they have just observed.

feedyard manager

Larry Bilberry near end of day, establishing tomorrow’s priorities

Ultimately, management is responsible for everything that occurs, be it credit or blame.  There is no replacement for good management.  They have a huge job.  Most very good managers surround themselves with good people.  It is the only way you are going to be able to attend any of your son’s little league games; or your daughter’s volleyball games.  For most feedyards, there are never enough good people.

Personnel issues are likely the greatest challenge of feedyard management.  I believe that if we really knew the costs associated with lesser quality employees—the losses sustained because they failed to do what needed to be done, regardless of the time of day and who was or was not watching, we would hire only the very best and pay them whatever it took to make them happy.  I believe it to be absolutely economically justified.  But, most of the industry does not agree with me, so the people shuffle continues.

There are no days at the feedyard when cattle do not have to fed and cared for. That feedyard has to be fully staffed every, every day!  If a cowboy and his horse falls down in a slick pen and breaks a leg, someone has got to be riding that pen tomorrow.  A feedyard should actually be slightly overstaffed, but that is rarely the situation.  A good manager will have a good assistant manager, a good office manager, a good cowboy boss and a good doctor (one who actually does the treatment of the animals as per the protocols of the consulting veterinarian).  If he does not, he is going to miss a lot of little league games. The pressure is there: fighting packer buyers, explaining to owners why their cattle did not meet their expectations, keeping the office efficiently cranking out the paperwork, and putting out the fires of interpersonal relationships that smolder among employees at most feedyards.  It is a hell of a job and you gotta love it!

HARVESTING: the end product of all our extensive efforts finally comes to past.  Yes, ultimately, every one of these big-eyed beauties will go to harvest.  There are always a few individuals that we have created attachments to.  Yes, I do hate to see them go.  But, all the effort, energy, blood-sweat-and-tears, that we all have shed working to make them all they could be (like the Marines), has been completed; their time has come.  They are finished and ready to go to market, bringing you (the consumers) the finest, most wholesome and safest beef in the world.  We are proud of our efforts.

When I personally sit down to a good steak, I cannot but quietly say to myself, “good job buddy”, for they became the best they could be.  And I am talking about the big-eyed beauties, not the efforts of myself or other personnel at the feedyard.  But, ultimately, it is only through all our efforts at elevating their sense of well being throughout their lives—particularly at the feedyard, can we can enjoy their offering.

Fat cattle nearing harvest time.

Fat cattle nearing harvest time.

So how does the harvesting process begin?  Every week packer-buyers look at cattle on the show list at each of the feedyards.  Some weeks these buyers have priorities as to the type of carcasses they are looking for.  They have got to be able to look at the live cattle and know what kind (quality grade) of carcasses they will hang up (produce).  They have each received their “marching orders” from packer management.  This relationship between the packers and the feedyards has changed a lot in the last few years.  There used to be room for at least, limited negotiations.  That is no longer the case.  The packer-buyer makes an offer for the various pens he is interested in.  It really is a take it or leave it offer.  You may like the guy, but he can only do what packer management tells him to do.

You are going to sell him the cattle—this week or next.  He has all the power.  The packers have a captive supply of over seventy percent.  Yes, they own, directly or indirectly, the vast majority of the feeder cattle in the feedyards.  As an independent feedyard you are going to take their offering; it’s just a matter of when.  Given the short buying session, you don’t have much time.  Next week, it could be up or down from today’s offering.

So, they buy the cattle.  Usually it is about two weeks before they will pick them up.  Sometime before then, they will confirm the pick-up date and the time.  If the packer is running two shifts, there could be two different pick-up times (if very many loads of cattle are leaving that day).  Early shipments start about 5:30 am.  Cattle have been carefully and slowly brought to the load-out dock area.  There, they are counted, weighed and placed into individual pens holding a truckload each.  Afternoon shipments usually occur during or just after lunch, utilizing the same procedures.  When the cattle cross the scales, they officially belong to the packer.  The only thing you see in the eyes of these big, gorgeous things are: Where is the feed truck?  They have been on a tight schedule for a long time.  How long is that time?  Heavier cattle coming in may only be there 160 days.  Lighter weight cattle will be there longer.  Holstein calves (arriving at three-hundred pounds, will be there a year.  But, they will also leave there weighing 1400 pounds.  I happen to believe that a 1440 pound Holstein is one of the prettiest things on earth.  They are gorgeous.

From the time these cattle are picked up by the packer until they reach the “knock box” they are never alarmed.  They have been in many chutes and many lead-ups before.  They are not afraid of people. They are perfectly comfortable until they are very near the end—the knock box.  Then they sense a smell that makes them uncomfortable.  The side-walls of the lead-up are solid.  They cannot see ahead.  But, they don’t like the smell.  The cattle have been handled almost “ultra quiet” during their time behind the chute.  There is no reluctance to moving forward into the knock box. I can positively assure you, that they never see it coming.  They are immediately rendered unconscious from the “bolt gun” that drives a bolt into their head.  It is instantaneous and effective.  Videos are actually available.  I do not find it pleasing to watch.  I enjoy no part of it.  But, I do feel that it is absolutely humanely accomplished.  A much more humane ending than I see a lot of people go through.

Those of you, who may have grown up on the farm or ranch, may have experienced “butchering” a broke-legged calf or a milk-pen calf that was fed out for home consumption.  It was as natural as catching the school bus.  We also got to eat a lot better for a while.

Protein is a vital, required nutrient in our diets.  To attempt to do without animal protein (in our diets), often leads to health issues.  My own niece, the only vegetarian in seventy-five generations, actually broke her ankle, getting up from the toilet.  Perhaps she was the exception, because a goodly number of people take a lot of vitamins and minerals and seem to do just fine, without beef.  It is your choice.  Just quietly allow those of us who do appreciate it, to enjoy our steak.  Do not for a minute, hide behind “humane treatment issues” in your efforts to cause the demise of animal agriculture.  These beef source animals are treated exceptionally well from the time they are born until harvest.  Can we do better?  Of course; we are not perfect.  Even under the old philosophy of “Protecting our Investment”, they got first dibs on family income.  We had to take care of them first!  Their basic needs were a higher priority than our own.  We are now seriously elevating our game plan with “Genuine Care & Concern for the Individual”.   If you want to pick a fight concerning “humane treatment” in the beef industry, you better find someone else.  You’re gonna lose this one.

Is that to say that someone, somewhere, can’t find an incident where someone (usually a new and/or untrained employee) has dropped the ball, exposing a weakness in our system?  Of course you can and it has already been done, more than once.   Are we embarrassed?  Of course we are.  We’d like to skin and hang every individual that failed to properly train the people that have been involved in those video clips.  We have some cleaning up to do.  Yes.  Great pressure has been brought to bear on all of us.  We can’t just shoot the guilty parties.  But, you can safely believe that they are off the Christmas list.

Let me close with this.  As a veterinarian with thirty-five plus years, more if you count my time as a youth on the ranch, of experience dealing with cow/calf, stocker and feeder operations, I am proud of the efforts of farm and ranch families who help to sustain the beef industry.  They are good people who work hard at caring for their animal charges.  They work long and hard to sustain their needs; to sustain their sense of well being; and, to sustain production efficiencies, for without that, we cannot stay in business very long.

All our beef animals are ultimately going to be harvested for food.  It is a fact of life—the young and the old.  That cycle has never changed.  I love the beef cattle industry and I particularly love the feedyard environment.  I am as familiar with the birth to death cycle as anyone is. I have worked as hard as anyone in keeping them alive and productive.  No one is any more focused on the well being of the individual animal than I am.  I’m there.  I’m on their side.  I want the best for them every day, every hour, every minute, but they are a food animal.

Yes, I hate to see those big eyed beauties go to the load-out dock.   But, I will support what we do, I am even proud of what we do.  No one in the world does it better.  Their cycle from birth to death is just as natural as our own.  Sleep well tonight and be not concerned about animal welfare in the beef cattle industry.  Though we are not perfect we are always trying to upgrade our animal care level across the industry.  “Genuine Care & Concern for the Individual” can become the new industry standard.  But, everything works backwards from marketing.  Tell your retailer that you want your beef source animals raised under the “Genuine Care & Concern for the Individual” philosophy.  Tell Costco in particular—I’d love to supply it—we just may have to build our own packing house.