The fall run is tough on calves but we can do better

The health problems seen in the feedlot don’t come out of the blue and 
careful handling should start at the home ranch

The fall run is tough on calves but we can do better
Reading Time: 3 minutes

With the fall run underway, cattlemen and women are faced again with the challenge of morbidity and mortality in calves.

By the time calves land in the feed yard, they have often been handled and transported several times. How they fight off disease during that extraordinarily stressful period is related to their age and weight. Light calves are more challenged and confused.

The previous history of a calf impacts its future. Vaccinated calves have a better chance of surviving as long as they are not mixed with non-vaccinated calves. Long hauls on the truck are tiring and standing on cement without feed and water triggers shrinkage. Weight can be lost both through excretory or tissue shrink. When it’s the latter, and dehydration and starvation have set in with moisture being pulled from internal tissues and organs, it is more difficult to keep that calf well and eating.

Preventing shrink (and subsequent health problems) requires care when handling and that starts with cattle on pasture. Rough-and-ready roundups are stressful and a loading facility that is in poor order and allows for shadows and noise adds another level of stress. The density on the truck makes a difference as does diet, dust, cold, heat, and the length of travel. At all times, strive to keep calves clean and dry.

If cattle go to auction they may stand for long periods and lose weight from shrinkage while they do. Unable to readjust quickly because of age, temperature, density or diet change, they may ignore water or feed that is provided to them, thus magnifying the problem.

As the process is repeated again, the calves are challenged and ready to host a variety of pathogens that are shared via air, contact, feed, or fecal matter. Hungry and tired, their immune system compromised and often with elevated temperatures, they arrive in the feed yard where all efforts are made to ensure they go on to feed quickly and not succumb to disease.

All of this history plays a part in the survivability of the calf. It is like getting through customs with the determining factors like who you are, where you came from, and how you got to this point.

As not every calf has the same background, sex, age, or weight, they are sorted into same like pens on arrival. The social order needs to be established and the youngsters will share their germs like it’s a giant outdoor daycare. It is at this point that the accumulation of all the marketing events evolve into symptoms of disease, usually a respiratory problem.

Commingling has been last on the research list for many years as scientists focused on the diseases that were active in the pen. I have always found this curious because responding to active cases leaves little time for addressing the cumulative cause. Addressing commingling when thousands of calves are arriving is tough, but there are strategies from the farm to the feedlot that mitigate the related risks.

Starting at home or at the community pasture is important. Groups of calves are best kept separate and provided water and feed, room to rest, and not left standing for long hours. Loading should be done quietly on a non-slip floor and the ride time should be as short as possible, preferably direct to the feedlot pen. If going through an auction, there will be additional weight loss and there will likely be commingling. Sorting at home — something I term the ‘power of the sort’ — is the best option.

Communicating the background of those cattle — including feed and vaccination, implants, weaning dates (please wean 45 days or more), and age verification — are selling points and that information is helpful at the feed yard. As cattle shed pathogens they have been exposed to at 14 days after arrival, sorting quickly and quietly (preferably from the processing barn), and then sealing the pen is vital. Never introduce cattle into an established pen at any point. Treated and finished cattle also must re-establish the social status in the pen and are at risk.

Several feed yards have ‘opened the gate,’ allowing for low-density grazing or low-density feeding on arrival in a very large space. Others have reduced the overall pen space to have smaller, tighter groups. Both reduce morbidity and mortality.

For those calves that do become ill, sick pens need to be away from the processing and arrivals area to mitigate commingling and the continuous transfer of pathogens. Sorting by a set of specific genetic traits (genomic testing) is also a predictor and helps the sorted cattle to stay together as a unit for the duration of their stay.

Commingling is one of the major stresses that are a precursor to morbidity and mortality on the ranch, farm, and feedlot. As calves are entrusted to your care, please remember to mitigate these risks this fall.

(To view the preparation of one Alberta feed yard prior to calves arriving, go to and search for ‘kolkfallrun.’)

About the author

AF Columnist

Brenda Schoepp

Brenda Schoepp works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website at All rights reserved.



Stories from our other publications