The ins and outs of processing feedlot cattle

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

During the feedlot challenge hosted by the Department of Animal Science at the University of Pretoria, BScAgric Animal Science students are required to perform all the managerial practices that take place in a feedlot. One of these practices is the processing of cattle prior to their entering the feedlot. Under the watchful eye of Dr Jarred Morris, consulting feedlot veterinarian for Octavoscene, each team processed their 12 to 14 cattle.

The process of processing

Each feedlot has its own unique processing programme, but processing usually occurs two to three times during the feeding period. The first processing takes place when the calves enter the feedlot with booster vaccinations usually given ten to 14 days later.

During the first round of processing, calves are ear tagged (often with an electronic radio frequency identification (RFID) tag accompanied by a colourful, numbered ear tag), weighed, vaccinated, dosed, dipped, and implanted with growth enhancing technology. When the cattle are re-implanted, another round of vaccines can be given if necessary.

When done by proficient processing teams, all of this takes less than a minute per calf while the animal is restrained in a neck and body clamp. The reason for the body clamp is two-fold. On the one hand, it holds the animal in place to prevent it from hurting itself or the people working on it. On the other hand, the pressure of the body clamp was found to reassure cattle, which helps to reduce stress.

Boosting immunity

The stocking density in a feedlot is high. Thousands to hundreds of thousands– or millions in the case of the United States (US) – of cattle are kept in areas of a few thousand hectares. As a result of this dense population, diseases and parasites can spread rapidly throughout a feedlot. In addition, cattle from different origins are co-mingled and put together in pens.

Since they don’t know each other, newly arrived feedlot cattle usually re-establish a hierarchy because cattle are herd animals. This high stocking density, co-mingling, weaning stress in freshly weaned calves, transportation to the feedlot and the initial re-establishment of hierarchy causes high levels of stress among these calves. When animals are stressed, immunosuppression is a real problem because it renders these animals more susceptible to disease.

Vaccination, with the aim to immunise, is done to provide support to the calves’ immune system and protect the animals from getting sick throughout the feeding period. There are a few anatomical predisposing factors that make cattle more susceptible to becoming sick in a feedlot. Bovines have the smallest lung volume to body size ratio of all the livestock species. Furthermore, they have a small right bronchus, known as the tracheal bronchus, higher up on the trachea before the main bronchial split into left and right bronchi.

It is imperative that feedlots have a well-managed processing programme in place. Such a programme includes vaccination with the aim to immunise.

This combination makes cattle very susceptible to respiratory diseases. The dust in the feedlot further irritates the respiratory system and can also carry clostridia bacteria. Therefore, it is important to vaccinate calves against clostridia and respiratory pathogens.

A multi-mineral and vitamin injection helps to replace the minerals lost during the before mentioned stressors and provides further support to the immune system during the initial first few days in the feedlot. External and internal parasites need to be treated as parasites, such as ticks, carry disease and worms can negatively impact feed intake and animal health.

Keeping track

Processing is also a key part of record-keeping and traceability. The electronic RFID ear tags are scanned when the animal is in the neck clamp and data is automatically recorded in the system. The weight of the animal is also automatically recorded.

If the animal needs to be treated for a disease, the tag will be picked up by a sensor and the treatment recorded. The withdrawal period for various antibiotics differ so these electronic systems show when the animal may be slaughtered to ensure that there is no residue of this medication left in the meat. Weight is recorded during processing, reprocessing, and before slaughter, making it possible to calculate average daily gain and feed conversion ratio. Consequently, the feedlot can use these values to determine how efficient their operation is.

In conclusion

Processing may be an initial stressful practise for the calves, but it is imperative to ensure these animals remain healthy throughout their time in the feedlot to continue producing top-quality South African grain fed beef. – Amelia du Preez, technical advisor for Devenish, and Dr Jarred Morris, consulting feedlot veterinarian for Octavoscene

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