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Health at Every Stage


Health at Every Stage

Don’t let illness kill performance, beef quality

Seasoned cattlemen have long suspected a link between calf genetics and health. A mounting body of research proves them right. Even the best genetics are easily derailed if cattle get sick at any time in their lives.

Selecting those superior genetics gives them an instant advantage, but the right management will affect health and profitability at calving, weaning, in the stocker phase and in the feedyard.

  • Selecting
    for Health
  • Calving
  • Growing
    Strong Calves
  • Stocker
  • Feedyard

Selecting for Health

A 2006 USDA Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) study looked at genetics and bovine respiratory disease (BRD):

  • More than 18,000 records, encompassing 12 breed types across 15 years, showed varying levels of disease occurrence among breeds.
  • The average for Angus cattle was the most favorable at 10.2%.
  • Crossbreeds were in the middle and the highest rates, 32% to 35% illness, were seen in four other pure breeds.

Researchers say health is “lowly heritable,” like fertility traits, compared to the moderate heritability of carcass traits.

But given the economic impact an Iowa State University (ISU) study suggests producers consider BRD resistance when designing breeding programs.

That research points to a .10 to .11 heritability for BRD resistance in Angus cattle, compared to .02 to .06 for Simmentals, indicating selection within the Angus breed could yield more progress. The ISU work also indicates several helpful correlations between BRD resistance and other traits, such as a negative relationship with birth weight and a positive association with marbling.

We’re trying to identify
which genes would tell
us that they’re more
likely to be resistant
or susceptible to
respiratory disease.

DNA seems to be the easiest way to identify breeding tools.

“Most bull producers aren’t going to expose cattle to respiratory diseases and then report it on their registration forms,” says Larry Kuehn, of MARC. “Understandably, they’re trying to keep calves from getting sick. DNA is probably going to be the most efficient way to study this. We’re trying to identify which genes would tell us that they’re more likely to be resistant or susceptible to respiratory disease.”

All of this is good news for an industry that loses an estimated at $750 million a year to respiratory disease alone.

Individual producers can keep a look out for the new DNA technology to help with selection and chose Angus genetics in the meantime.


For more information on stocker health, read the Best Practices Manual for stocker and backgrounders.

Calving Health

Born Healthy

The first critical point for calf health is birth, after which colostrum (first milk) prepares the immune system to ward off health challenges. 

  • Select to minimize calving difficulties, especially in virgin heifers. Difficult births stress both dam and calf and may reduce the amount and timeliness of nursing. Calves need colostrum within the first 12 hours to maximize antibody absorption.
  • Calving ease is largely determined by birth weight and can be accurately managed using Birth Weight (BW) and Direct Calving Ease (CE) EPDs.
  • Tag and record identity and sex of calves.
  • Consider castration of male calves.
Scour Prevention

One of the first health challenges for a calf could be scours.

  • Research has developed management systems to minimize the threat by rotating to fresh pastures while calving.
  • Some managers may choose to vaccinate cows prior to calving, especially in corral or drylot environments, to provide disease protection through colostrum. If the cowherd has not been vaccinated, an oral vaccine in newborns prior to nursing can provide immediate protection in the gut. A scours vaccination program should include protection against:
    • Rotavirus, coronavirus
    • K99 E. coli
    • Cl. perfringens Type C

Growing Strong Calves

To calves, weaning is stressful. To get through it without major health challenges, you must have a plan to prepare their immune systems.

4 to 6 Weeks Pre-weaning

  • Use a vaccination program that includes protection from IBR, PI-3,
  • BVD, BRSV and clostridial diseases. Vaccine labels vary for administration to nursing calves, so work with your veterinarian to develop a program.
  • If calves will be weaned within 30 days, consider de-worming. Calves treated now will be parasite free at weaning.
  • If not done earlier, castrate male calves to minimize stress.
At Weaning

Various management strategies, such as fence-line weaning, have been shown to minimize stress.

  • All booster vaccinations should be given at weaning time. Do not booster clostridials at weaning if done previously.
  • If not done at pre-weaning, de-worm.
  • If pre-weaning vaccinations were not administered, give first round of vaccinations. Follow these with a booster 14 to 28 days later.
  • A medicated starting ration may be used for at least 60 days to reduce sickness and digestive problems (bloat). Rations with an ionophore and coccidiostat are recommended.
  • Calves should go through a minimum 45-day preconditioning program before shipping. This gets them through the stress of weaning, accustomed to eating from a bunk and drinking from a waterer.

Stocker Health

Receiving time
represents the
single best
opportunity for
stocker cattlemen
to ensure
healthy cattle
that will perform
and be most

Cattle health matters at every segment, but it could be the single biggest profit determinant for the stocker phase. The first weeks of ownership are some of the most critical. Receiving time represents the single best opportunity for stocker cattlemen to ensure healthy cattle that will perform and be most profitable. Here are a few suggestions to follow:

  • Build on any records of a prior health program and vaccinate new arrivals for consistent gains.
  • Ask previous owners about the health history of the purchased calves.
  • Let cattle rest (12 to 24 hours), eat and drink before initial processing. Calves that are adjusted to their new surroundings respond better to vaccination.
  • Work with an experienced veterinarian to develop comprehensive health management protocols based on the health and treatment status of the cattle. Provide the appropriate level of vaccinations based on past history.
  • If not done at weaning, de-worm and apply controls for internal and external parasites specific to your region.
  • Practice sound biosecurity and bio-containment: minimize commingling of groups and the use of hospital pens.

Ask your veterinarian about the use of Haemophilus somnus, Mannheimia haemolytica or Pasteurella multocida vaccines. Please keep in mind that your local veterinarian should always be consulted when developing your health programs, and may be a resource for your suppliers as well.

The stress associated with weaning, commingling and transportation can compromise the immune system and make newly received stocker cattle more susceptible to disease. Lower performance, morbidity or even death among calves that must be treated for Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) or other disease can negatively affect profitability.

Research shows that treating calves two or more times for illness can equal a per-head loss of more than $180 in profit through decreased gains, treatment costs and death loss.

Feedyard Profitability

It’s no secret that healthier cattle are the most profitable ones. Not only do they have lower treatment costs and time investment, but they also tend to perform better in the feeding phase and on the rail. That fact is amplified in the feeding phase, where health can either bolster or bust profitability.

Research from the Iowa Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity (TCSCF) shows those factors lead to a $190 net difference between cattle treated twice and those that never needed health treatment.

The cattle that remained healthy during the feeding phase had:

  • Heavier delivery weights
  • Heavier final weights
  • Strong gains
  • Fewer days on feed
  • Higher carcass marbling scores

The heavier delivery weights indicate that the cattle most likely to stay healthy in the feedyard are those that spent more time in the back grounding stage, had a solid pre-condition program on the ranch, and/or have more in-depth health protocols before arriving in the yard.

Setting calves up for good feedyard health is particularly important if you intend to retain ownership. If not, keeping good records of a solid health program and proven health performance will certainly give you the leverage you need to demand more for those cattle at auction.

Effect of health treatments