Economist Urges Better Calf Health Care

Cow/calf producers can increase the health and value of their calves by being diligent with their health procedures, overcoming obstacles to increase returns at the time of sale, said a prominent university agricultural economist in a letter to Extension Agents.

Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension Livestock Marketing Specialist, said in the Cow/Calf Corner lifetime animal health management is recognized increasingly as a significant challenge for the beef cattle industry.  It has implications ranging from fetal programming, which affects lifetime health and productivity, to genetic identification of disease susceptibility, to improved economic incentives.




The US cattle industry has increased production and productivity in many respects over the past several decades, Peel said.  Total 2020 beef production was projected at a record 27.3 billion pounds; cattle carcass weights have increased an average of five pounds a year for the past 25 years, and beef production per cow has increased more than 100 pounds over the same period.

However, animal health has actually gotten worse, with respiratory disease the biggest problem, he said.  Bovine Respiratory Disease causes 70% to 80% of feedlot illness and 40% to 50% of feedlot mortality.

Kansas feedlot survey data shows average feedlot death loss has nearly doubled from 0.82% in 1995-1996 to 1.60% in the most recent 24 months, Peel said.

Respiratory disease is a significant source of illness and mortality at the stocker and cow/calf levels as well, he said, causing the most economic losses, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that improvements in animal health must begin at the cow/calf level.

It is known that the incidence and virulence of BRD is increased by the stressors involved in cattle production especially weaning, commingling and shipping, he said.  While these things are unavoidable, there are several things cow/calf producers can do to increase the odds that animals are healthy and stay healthy.




Weaning arguably is the most important component of preconditioning, and preconditioning protocols routinely call for a minimum of 45 days of weaning prior to marketing, he said.  And, 45 days is becoming a bare minimum with 60 or more preferred by buyers.  Unweaned calves are discounted 4% to more than 55% in Oklahoma auctions.

Complete vaccinations, including two rounds of respiratory vaccine, are important before calves are sold, Peel said.

Bovine Viral Diarrhea virus is one component of BRD and, although it occurs infrequently in cow/calf operations, causes significant reproductive and pre-weaning losses when it does and is the source of persistently infected feeder cattle that contribute to BRD effects in stocker and feedlot operations.

Castration, dehorning and deworming also are important, Peel said.  Research shows that males sold as bulls are three times more likely to get sick later and have reduced performance from the stress of castration at heavier weights.  Also, the lack of castration is an indicator of inadequate calf health management, so bull calves are discounted roughly 7% at auction




Cash cattle trading this week was reported at $115 to $117 per cwt, steady to up $1 from last week, and at $180 to $184 on a dressed basis, down $2 to up $1.50.

The USDA choice cutout Wednesday was down $0.80 per cwt at $2398.21, while select was off $0.70 at $214.77.  The choice/select spread narrowed to $23.44 from $23.54 with 80 loads of fabricated product sold into the spot market.

The CME Feeder Cattle index for the seven days ended Tuesday was $146.62 per cwt, up $0.08 from the previous day.  This compares with Wednesday’s Nov contract settlement of $146.60, unchanged from Tuesday.