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Tempering the weakest link

By Martha Mintz

Riverbend Ranch crew gathers a group of cows and calves for branding and health treatments. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)
Riverbend Ranch crew gathers a group of cows and calves for branding and health treatments. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)

A surgical, lightning-fast flick of the wrist sends a twisted nylon rope flying. The loop slips vertically under an Angus calf’s belly, perfectly positioned for his forward momentum to deposit both hind legs squarely in the cowboy’s snare. Slack is gathered with a sharp upward jerk of a gloved hand and an eager, well-trained mount steps gingerly backward to finish the catch.

It’s a mesmerizing display of cowboy workmanship, but this is no rodeo. It’s a branding, and the catch is one of the least important jobs of the day–just don’t tell the cowboys. The day’s namesake isn’t the most important bit either. Branding in today’s livestock industry is actually all about establishing a strong immune system for the calves. It’s about using properly selected, timed and administered vaccinations and other health protocols to set them up for a lifetime of success.

“What the end product is going to be months down the line is determined by what I do in my job,” says Rhett Jacobs, Dubois, Idaho, Riverbend Ranch unit manager. Jacobs manages 1,700 cow/calf pairs from breeding through weaning. “I take an unborn calf all the way until it’s ready to be fed. I deal with the whole imprint of that calf’s life.”

Jacobs knows keeping that calf from ever getting sick is essential. Even if it recovers, it will never be on the same level in growth throughout its life or quality at processing as its healthy peers. As per their consulting veterinarian’s advice, Jacobs and the other Riverbend Ranch unit managers are sure to vaccinate their calves between 30 and 60 days of age.

“We’ve got issues on some of the ranches like dust pneumonia or overeating disease so we want to make sure we get vaccines in those calves before they get too old so we can eliminate those problems before they get started,” Jacobs says. “If we’re treating sick animals too often, then we’re not doing our job. It’s all about prevention.”

All the hands helping out with branding are carefully instructed on the proper way to administer vaccines. Shots given incorrectly even in the first few months of life can resurface as a marred cut of meat 18 months down the line. That’s something Dell, Montana, unit manager Tom Lappe wants to protect the processor and consumer from dealing with.

“One of the biggest things I can do as a manager to ensure a good eating experience is to make sure my crew is placing those shots right,” he says.

The Great Test

Weaning throws down the gauntlet at the feet of cattle managers, attacking from all angles the barriers they’ve put in place to protect the calf crop they’ve nurtured. The stress of being weaned, worked through corrals, hauled and started on new rations is the biggest health challenge most cattle face in their lives. As in any battle, those who have strengthened their forces and are strategic in navigating the process will come out ahead.

Riverbend Ranch purchases around 8,000 head of calves at this trying stage of their lives for the stocker program. Calves come in at 450 to 500 pounds, are started in a lot where they’re overwintered and then turned out on grass to keep gaining through the next fall.

It’s no surprise when Steve Harrison, Riverbend Ranch general manager, is buying calves he seeks out ranches that have proven to deliver calves with better than average health. He says there’s no doubt that entering into the stocker phase of life is the weakest, most vulnerable link in the cattle production chain.

“It’s not just about the death loss. It’s about the resulting loss of performance when cattle do get sick. There’s a lot of research that’s proven out that compromised immune systems or sickness affects marbling scores and overall performance throughout the feeding process,” he says.

Start strong/finish strong

Harrison’s relationship with cow/calf producers through the Riverbend Ranch customer investment program gives him an inside track on calves that have been managed to be healthy. It also creates a relationship where he can help producers tweak their programs for the better.

“If we have a problem with a group of cattle, we try to communicate with the sellers, help them analyze their programs and see if we can prevent problems with future calf crops,” Harrison says. He notes often it’s seemingly tiny things that can have a huge impact.

“It sounds simple, but dusty corrals at shipping add to stress and can result in respiratory problems,” Harrison says. Simply watering down corrals prior to shipping can resolve the problem. Other areas where good intentions can be sabotaged are if vaccines weren’t handled properly before administration or were administered incorrectly. Sometimes a tweak in a producer’s mineral program can put cows and calves in a better place nutritionally so that immune responses are stronger and vaccines are more effective, he says.

“The biggest thing for all of us is to continue to pay attention to the fundamentals of establishing good health,” Harrison says.

Once the baton is passed to Riverbend Ranch, Harrison and his consulting vet make sure good, healthy cattle stay that way. Calves entering the backgrounding program are treated with a modified live vaccine program, dewormed and put on a highly palatable, high energy ration. After two weeks the cattle are reprocessed with a booster vaccination and are put on a high roughage, low energy ration for the rest of the winter. This ration keeps their rumen working while not really pushing gain.

“We want them to gain 1.5 to 1.75 pound per day in the lot,” Harrison says. “We don’t want them to get too fleshy. Instead we want them to take advantage of the grass to gain when we turn them out on pastures in the spring.”

The calves get another vaccine booster and are dewormed before they’re turned out on grass.

“By the time the feedyard purchases cattle from us they’ve had three rounds of vaccine, been on a solid mineral program year round and had good feed and good water. We handle the cattle in good facilities and as calmly as possible and make sure we have enough good help on hand to make the gather and shipping process quick and low stress,” Harrison says.

He notes it’s more important than ever to work herd health from every angle, including prevention and keeping a watchful eye for any developing health issues.

“As the value of these calves continues to accelerate, death losses and decreased performance is really going to cost all of us and that cost will continue through to the end user,” he says. “The benefits, or negatives, of health will filter all the way to the end of the feeding process.”

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