These factors also make it hard to be profitable in the stocker business.

Cattle come with varied backgrounds and shot protocols. Calves have been commingled and introduced to potential for disease since they left the original home. Dealing with the unknowns separates the men from the boys in a tough segment of the industry.

“When a load of calves comes in, a lot of times, we don’t know anything about them. The cattle were commingled in the market and they don’t know what a feed or water vessel is,” says Dr. Dale Blasi, extension specialist, Kansas State University.

“These cattle are called ‘high-risk’ for a reason. We have to start from scratch with them and assume they are naïve. Commingling these cattle is a real challenge,” says Brian Nichols, livestock consultant, Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Oklahoma.

Preparing the facilities for arrival is sometimes overlooked, but it’s an important part of the receiving protocol. Each operation has a different skill set and ability to handle a new load of cattle.


“I think a lot of it comes down to each operator’s skill set and knowing what they are capable of doing,” Nichols says.

“Work with your vet and nutritionist to set the receiving protocol up for success. Don’t overwhelm the facilities or your labor force; you are in the business of keeping these cattle healthy.”

“Evaluate your facilities; make sure they are ready to receive cattle. If you have to bring in aggregate or clean the apron to help provide the right environment, do it before the cattle arrive,” Blasi says. “Know your facilities and your labor force. We have the tendency to overlook our capabilities sometimes.”

Acclimating cattle during the receiving process could be the most critical step. Transitioning these cattle is a delicate task that requires skill and know-how. Getting cattle up and going after the long trip can be a good start.

“Hay is a good starter ration. We like to use long-stem prairie hay and then we’ll top dress the second feeding with a high-quality feed. We’re pretty heavy on the roughage in the beginning,” Blasi says.

“Make sure the cattle can find the bunk because most of them don’t know what it is. It’s critical to get them to eat. If they aren’t eating, they aren’t replenishing their needs and it leads to sickness.”

“Start those calves with high-quality grass hay that is very palatable. I like to recommend a 14 percent feed with a high TDN in the beginning,” Nichols says.

“It’s really important, especially with high-risk cattle, to get them eating some good-quality stuff right off the truck; otherwise problems tend to multiply.”

Water has always been referred to as the most important nutrient. Getting cattle to drink is another influential part of the protocol that requires some forward thinking.

“Good clean water is essential,” Nichols says. “Place those waters and feedbunks in the fence lines so cattle may stumble across them when they are walking the fence trying to get settled.”

“It’s surprising what’s in those water troughs when you are getting ready to receive cattle. Make sure they are free of old feed and other foreign material,” Blasi says.

“Cattle will let you know when they aren’t drinking and it’s time to check the water source. Good, fresh, clean water makes a big difference.”

We all like rest and recuperation time after a long trip. It’s the same with cattle in the receiving protocol. Giving them time to recover from the trip will dictate when it’s time to work them through the chute.

“Let them rest. Most calves want to drink and lie down for a while after a long ride. We are losing a lot of good guys who know the art of driving a bull wagon.

Know if those cattle are down in the trailer or beat up when they arrive,” Blasi says. “We like to give them 24 hours to recover and get rid of the residuals from the trip.

Sometimes weather dictates how much time we let them rest before we get them through the chute. Time is critical, though, because it gives their body and immune system time to mount a good defense.”

“The general rule is if they arrive in the p.m., work them in the a.m. or vice versa, and I think it’s a pretty good rule,” Nichols says. “Sometimes weather will dictate we work cattle on a little different schedule to make sure we’re not stressing them any more than we have to.”

Each load of cattle may have a little different history, which will also play a role in the receiving protocol. Current market price dictates a “handle with care” sign on all loads of cattle to try and build in that profit.

“When we know our capabilities and something about the cattle, it gives a target price to pay for these cattle. Obviously, if we know a little more about them, it will dictate how we handle these cattle,” Nichols says.

“If I don’t know a lot about the calves and even if they come from a local sale barn, I am going to treat cattle like they are naïve. These cattle need a high degree of care whether they come off the truck with an affidavit or they are high-risk.”

“The biggest variable for a lot of operators is whether to utilize an antibiotic or not. We have cattle we know something about and can get along without using antibiotics. At the same time, there is data on put-together cattle where we did use an antibiotic and still experienced high morbidity,” Blasi says.

“If you know cattle have been represented well and the calves have been intentionally managed, you know what you’re getting. These cattle should be more durable with changing environmental conditions.”

Sick cattle do not pay in any management scenario. In the receiving process, a “wreck” can end up costing a lot and also impact cattle down the production chain.

“All things that accrue during this process go to the expense account, and costs could be substantial. If you have to doctor that calf, then lung integrity has been compromised, which will hurt performance,” Blasi says. “One ‘wreck’ out of 10 loads of cattle makes a bad deal. Things are always changing and we can’t go back and re-create the scene of the crime.”

Changing conditions and different facilities could encourage stocker operators to change up the program a little to benefit the cattle. Knowing when to re-vaccinate is another important factor.

“Grass traps are a luxury, and a lot of people use grass traps to help in the receiving process. If cattle are eating well and cleaning themselves up, some green grass is the best thing in the world to help those cattle,” Blasi says.

“Most cattle harboring viruses want to break again in two weeks. Re-vaccinate those cattle in 12 to 14 days. It is important to maintain a good working relationship with your veterinarian, especially with all the new regulations we’re facing today.”

Getting cattle off to a good start is critical in maintaining the profit picture. Knowing the product and the financial burden that comes with being a stocker operator is half the battle.

“The stocker business has changed a lot,” Nichols says. “You have to have a good receiving protocol and be prepared to take whatever steps you have to keep cattle healthy with fewer dollars.”

“Stocker operators are dealing with a lot more money these days. You have to do everything right. If you buy them right and use some market protection, the value of gain is so high there is an opportunity,” Blasi says.

“Stockers are a perishable product. No different than fruits and vegetables. If they have been improperly stored or mistreated, shelf life decreases. In cattle, stress shows up in sickness and there is a price to be paid.”  end mark

Clifford Mitchell is a freelance author based in Oklahoma.

Make sure facilities and your labor force are both adequate to handle the herd size. Photo by Lynn Jaynes.