Decreased feed intake is commonly the first sign of an animal in adverse health. In a feedyard, maintaining feed intake is the name of the game. Increased feed intake yields increased daily gains, carcass weights and, ultimately, the pounds of beef produced.

Weaning management practices

A potload of bawling calves being unloaded at a feedyard is a common sight. Compound this with the typical stressors associated with entering the feedlot (vaccinations, being in a new environment and new feed resources), along with the time spent in the truck traveling, and it is not surprising that cattle health is a challenge in the new feedyard environment.

When compared to calves that have had poorly managed vaccination planning and were weaned on the truck as they move to the feedyard, preconditioned calves have a drastically decreased sickness and significantly improved feedyard growth performance.

Preconditioning, which includes calves receiving the veterinary-recommended vaccines and weaning 45 to 60 days prior to sale, not only increases the selling price of calves but, with proper feed management during the preconditioning period, the cost of gain during the precondition period is significantly less than the value of the gain.

If preconditioning doesn’t fit your management capability, consider fenceline weaning. In a study conducted at Ohio State University, cattle fenceline weaned prior to feedlot entry had almost 50 percent fewer morbid calves compared to calves weaned on the truck and 60 percent fewer sick calves when compared to calves weaned in a drylot.


Though researchers did not see significant differences in feedlot performance (daily gains and dry matter intake) in the first 28 days, think of the dollars spent on labor and medications.


Bunk and water tank recognition taught to calves during preconditioning or fence-line weaning management, will also ease the transition for new cattle into the feedlot. Calves that are able to eat out of a bunk and recognize feed put before them will “know what they are doing” and will maintain intakes early in the feeding period.

Calves that are creep-fed while still on the dam or those that are fed from a bunk in a drylot or pasture-feeding scenario will be better prepared to eat out of the bunk when they enter the feedyard.

When bunk-breaking calves, make sure they are able to reach the bottom and opposing edge of the bunk. Typically, cattle consume forages as young calves, so filling a bunk with hay as you begin bunk-breaking calves will provide them with a familiar feed.

Slowly transition calves to a more concentrated diet, as they gain more confidence at the bunk.

A pond, stream or big metal tank out in the pasture, as well as the water tank in a drylot pen, can provide cattle water but offer different water consumption experiences.

Typically, pasture tanks offer more space for cattle to drink whereas waterers in feedlots often provide little more than 1 linear inch per head of drinking space. If cattle are not used to this space limitation, water intake may decrease and lead to adverse health, dehydration and cattle going off feed.

If water has an “off taste,” extra effort needs to be taken to make sure cattle adapt and begin drinking quickly. A 600-pound calf needs between 6 and 7 gallons of water per day under normal conditions, and their water requirement more than doubles during the hot summer months.

Remember, water is the most important nutrient in any animal’s life, and adequate water consumption is critical to cattle health. Nothing causes cattle to go off feed faster or cause sickness and mortalities more quickly than cattle not drinking enough water.

Vaccination protocols

“Wrecks” at a feedlot often refer to poor health scenarios, and typically these drastic conditions are due to poor health protocols prior to feedyard entry. Calving, branding and weaning are key times to administer vaccinations crucial to calf health. Building a strong immunity early in the animal’s life will benefit their health and growth for the rest of their life.

Establish a herd health program that addresses timing of vaccinations and parasite/fly control. Being familiar with viruses or diseases prevalent in your area and vaccinating against them is important.

This is established through a working client-veterinary relationship. Consult your veterinarian annually to make adjustments in your herd health protocol as needed.

When visiting with your veterinarian about vaccinations needed in your cow herd, ask if they recommend scour vaccines such as rotavirus, coronavirus and E. coli scours vaccines be given six to eight weeks prior to calving.

Scour vaccines given at this point will provide passive immunity through the colostrum to calves. Note, however, that the “Sandhills Calving System” has proven to be very effective at preventing exposure to scour-causing organisms.

At calving, provide sanitary facilities and ensure colostrum consumption. Earlier in the calf’s life is the best time for dehorning and castration. Utilize techniques that will minimize discomfort and visit with your veterinarian about pain management. The calf’s first vaccinations should be given at 2 to 3 months old prior to pasture turnout.

Typically calves will receive a four-way respiratory viral and seven-way blackleg vaccine, and if late summer/early fall pre-weaning pneumonia is an issue, an intranasal respiratory vaccination is given also.

Having the calf receive their first round of vaccinations while still with their mothers can reduce stress and increase effectiveness of the vaccine.

Prior to weaning, check in with your veterinarian about adjustments that may be needed in your health program, but typically calves should receive their second four-way respiratory viral and seven-way blackleg vaccination.

At this stage your cows will be pregnant, so visit with your veterinarian about the safety of vaccines given to calves nursing pregnant cows. Control of internal and external parasites at this time is also common.

Other points to consider include the marketing plan for the cattle as well as future management conducted on the calves and how this will affect current health protocols employed.

Feedyards monitor incoming cattle and vaccinate against diseases or viruses prevalent to their area. Feedyards receiving calves of unknown medical history commonly administer a full complement of respiratory and blackleg vaccines. Timing new arrival processing when calves reach the feedyard is important.

Stressed calves, which are often the case with incoming cattle, will not respond as well to vaccinations. Getting the cattle to eat and drink water is the first step. After a couple of days of the calves settling in, then cattle processing can be conducted.

Training the cattle caregiver to recognize the early signs of disease is critical. The “D.A.R.T.” (visible “depression,” loss of “appetite” or lack of gut fill indicating the calf may not be eating, changes in “respiration” rate or character) is enough to have the calf pulled to the hospital for examination. If the calf’s “temperature” is above the cut-off rectal temp the veterinarian assigned for treatment, the calf is typically assigned to an appropriate treatment protocol.

In the near future, antibiotics used in feeds will require a veterinary prescription. These will be called “veterinary feed directives” or VFDs. If the feed medication is used for respiratory disease, the VFD will require key personnel to know how to use the disease identification system outlined by their veterinarian.

Many veterinarians will use the DART system, so learning to use it now may give you a head start in preparation for the feed antibiotic use under the VFD regulation.

Feedyard personnel need to diligently monitor withdrawal times assigned to all medications used to ensure cattle are safe to harvest. This simple but important task is important for protecting our consumers and maintaining their confidence in the product we produce.

Many cow-calf producers are excellent at preparing cattle for feedyard entry. However, there is always opportunity for improvement, and examining ways to continue to excel is important.

By cow-calf producers working to develop low-stress preconditioning and weaning practices, bunk- and water tank-breaking their calves and developing a sound herd health management plan, calves will be ready to stay healthy, grow fast and be economically efficient after arriving at the feedyard.  end mark

  • Meredith Bremer

  • Nebraska Northern Panhandle Beef Extension Educator
  • Sheridan County Extension Office
  • Email Meredith Bremer