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Get rid of your cattle if they’re getting too big

Heavier cattle — particularly ones with small frames — can develop 
feet problems, especially if they suffer heat stress

Don’t keep big, fat cattle around because it could increase animal welfare problems.

Animal welfare icon Temple Grandin has recently been sounding alarms about more lameness in beef cattle and part of that is related to heavier weights and genetics.

“There are certain genetic lines of beef cattle that are repeating a mistake the pig industry made back in the 1980s and early 1990s when it just selected for production traits and ended up with leg conformation issues,” the Colorado State University professor told Australian newspaper Farm Weekly last month.

There are some challenges that can arise with heavier cattle, said feedlot veterinarian Joyce Van Donkersgoed.

Joyce VanDonkersgoed

Joyce VanDonkersgoed
photo: Supplied

“It really depends on the frame size of the cattle,” said the Picture Butte-based veterinarian. “If they have the frame, they can carry the weight. You get exotic breed cattle like Charolais or Simmental Cross, those are big-frame cattle and they can carry the weight. It doesn’t impact them.

“Where we tend to see more issues are in the British breeds, like the Angus or Herefords.”

Smaller-framed animals that are raised to 1,500 to 1,700 pounds can become stiff in their gait.

“They don’t quite walk, they waddle,” said Van Donkersgoed. “If you keep them at that size for a long time, you will have feet break down on you.”

Fat cattle, especially ones that are black, will also have more trouble with heat stress.

Cattle with founder (laminitis) — a condition caused by feeding too much grain — can also develop sore feet.

“The heavier you make them, the harder it is on their feet,” she said. “Their feet are sore to start with and then you put more weight on them. And then it hurts more. Those cattle will get stiffer and stiffer and get pain in their feet.

“Those cattle, you shouldn’t keep them around. You should sell them as quickly as you can.”

The performance of cattle with founder will go down and they won’t gain any more, she added.

‘Peel off the heavy ones’

The trend for size comes and goes depending on market price and the availability of feeder cattle.

“Feedlot guys make cattle bigger depending on the price of feed, the price of fat cattle, the price of buying replacements, and the availability of replacements. They’re also looking at whether they have a contract to fill,” said Van Donkersgoed.

Warm winters can make a difference in the speed that animals gain. This year’s winter was mild, so cattle got bigger faster than they were projected to gain. If a packer changes their contract and delays shipping, this can add to the problem.

“If the (feedlot owner) had an agreement with the packer and then they can’t ship cattle for another month, the feedlot guy is still going to have to keep them and feed them for another month and then they’ll just get bigger,” she said.

When prices drop, the feedlot owner may keep on feeding cattle while waiting for a better price.

There are a few things that producers can do to minimize problems caused by heavier cattle.

Van Donkersgoed recommends sorting cattle into different weight classes, by weighing or ultrasounding them.

“Peel off the heavy ones and send them right away,” she said. “Put the lighter cattle into different marketing groups and you can feed them for different lengths of time.

“Get a consistent package of cattle going to the packer, which he wants. This makes sure that the packer doesn’t give massive discounts on overweights. Producers can get dinged big time for overweight cattle.”

Also, manage the cattle in groups, and try to ship them on time. Pen riders should be trained to find cattle that have foundered, pull them and ship them. And provide lots of water to reduce heat stress.

“Cattle don’t sweat so if there’s no wind to cool them off, you need to make sure you have a lot of water for them,” she said.

In cases of extreme heat stress, cattle need to be fed early in the morning and late at night. If the ground is too hot, put out straw for bedding. Sprinklers can also help cattle cool off, as long as they aren’t running during mid-afternoon.

But when in doubt, it’s best to ship.

“If you have a pen of big black heifers and it gets humid and hot, those cattle are going to be in trouble for heat stress. You need to get them gone. They need to go on a truck and go bye-bye.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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