Health Management: Control and Prevention of Diseases of Feedlot Cattle

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 Take home message | Cattle purchase and introduction to a feedlot | Origin and purchase of cattle | Preimmunization and preconditioning | Backgrounding

This is a fact sheet from the Health Management section of the Alberta Feedlot Management Guide, Second Edition published September 2000. The 1200 page guide is available for purchase on CD-ROM.

Take Home Message

  • Successful and economical control of diseases of feedlot cattle depends on many factors:
    • purchasing healthy animals,
    • a transportation system that minimizes stress;
    • a good feedlot pen environment;
    • an adequate feeding system;
    • a good surveillance system;
    • the judicious use of vaccines, growth promotants, and antimicrobial agents.
Cattle Purchase and Introduction to a Feedlot

The purchase of cattle and their introduction to a feedlot has been a challenge in beef production ever since the development of commercial feedlots where feedler cattle are subjected to a variety of stressors when they are shipped to the feedlot and after they arrive in the feedlot.

Several factors cause stress, which contributes to the occurrence of the acute respiratory disease complex. The routine process of weaning calves at six to eight months of age is often followed by respiratory disease. Any factor that causes stress at weaning time can result in an increased incidence of disease.

Transportation over long distances without adequate rest and feeding periods may be followed by an epidemic or ‘wreck’ associated with acute respiratory disease. Rapid changes in weather and unexpected snowstorms at the time of shipping may result in outbreaks of shipping fever.

The placement of six to eight month old recently weaned calves into the feedlot is associated with much higher morbidity and mortality rates than older yearling cattle. Presumably, this is due to the higher level of acquired immunity in the older cattle.

The acute respiratory disease complex may remain a major source of economic loss in the feedlot industry as it continues the common practice of introducing stressed cattle from different sources, with different immunological backgrounds, into populations of cattle in which disease is endemic.

The major objective is to get the cattle onto a high-energy diet within 21 days which will result in rapid growth as soon as possible. During this time the manager must minimize the morbidity and mortality associated with acute respiratory disease, along with some other common infections such as hemophilus septicemia, and digestive diseases associated with adjustments to high-energy diets.

Origin and Purchase of Cattle

The type of cattle fed will be influenced by the cost and availability of feeder cattle and feed, the expected performance of the animals and the net financial returns. Calves and yearling cattle are most commonly fed in North America.

The decision on what kind of cattle to buy and where to buy them is largely a matter of risk aversion. It is possible to buy groups of uniform feeder calves or yearling cattle that come from one source and in which the disease incidence will be very low. However, these cattle cost more and the gross margin might be smaller than for cattle originating from several sources and accumulated through auction sales yards.

The incidence of disease is much higher in weaned beef calves than in yearling cattle. Steer calves are preferred to heifer calves because of their superior growth rate, higher selling price, and the absence of problems associated with estrus and pregnancy in heifers. Lighter weight calves (less than 500 lbs.) may be preferred to medium weight calves (500 to 750 lbs.) because they cost less per head and have a greater potential for low cost gains.

Yearlings are preferred in some feedlots because more groups can be fed per year and the morbidity and mortality from respiratory disease is much lower than in calves. The disadvantages include higher purchase price, higher feed costs per unit of gain and seasonal availability. Yearling cattle typically originate from a backgrounding operation in which calves were placed on pasture or a growing ration for several months resulting in adequate body size and better gain in the feedlot.

The principles for consideration when purchasing cattle and introducing them to an intensive, heavy feeding environment are as follows:

  • Purchase healthy cattle;
  • Obtain cattle directly from the farm of origin if possible;
  • Purchase yearling cattle instead of feeder calves;
  • Adopt the all-in-all-out principle where the cattle are purchased as a group, fed as the same group, and sold as a group. This tends to break the chain of infection from one group to another. An important related principle is to minimize the mixing of recently arrived cattle with cattle already resident in the feedlot. Because of fluctuations in the supply of cattle that occurs, feedlots will often assemble and make up groups of cattle over a period of several days or weeks. As recently arrived cattle are added to existing groups, new outbreaks of disease occur, which may be perpetuated for several weeks;
  • Purchase preconditioned cattle if possible and if economical;
  • Transport the cattle to the feedlot in the shortest time that is economically feasible;
  • Develop a reporting system that regularly informs the cattle buyer of the condition of the cattle received and their subsequent performance. This will assist the buyer in the purchase of healthy cattle, avoiding unhealthy cattle and ensuring that they are transported by the most economical and least stressful method of transportation. If the cattle are not preconditioned, the feedlot should attempt to determine what vaccines the animals have received before they were shipped to the lot.
In the simplest system, a cow/calf producer weans the calves at six to eight months of age and places them in the home farm feedlot. These calves get vaccinated for the clostridial diseases and infectious bovine rhinotracheitis and other common infectious agents associated with respiratory disease. The calves are gradually brought onto a growing and then a finishing diet and marketed at 14-16 months of age. Alternatively, the calves may be kept on a maintenance and growth diet until they become yearlings at which time they are sold to a commercial feedlot. If these cattle are kept in their original groups until market, the morbidity and mortality is less.

Preimmunization and Preconditioning

Preconditioning is based in part on immunological and nutritional principles intended to reduce the stresses of moving calves from the home environment into a feedlot.

The first principle is that effective immunity against infectious diseases can be achieved only if animals are vaccinated in sufficient time before natural exposure occurs after arrival in the feedlot. Preimmunization or vaccination of calves two to three weeks before shipment from the ranch to the feedlot against the common infectious agents associated with acute respiratory disease is the first principle in preconditioning. In addition to vaccination, calves are introduced to feedbunk feeds on the ranch which later helps the calf make the transition to the feedlot.

Preconditioning of beef calves includes the following:

  • Be at least four months of age prior to being vaccinated;
  • Weaned for a minimum of 45 days;
  • Castrated and dehorned at least three weeks prior to sale or shipment;
  • Given IBR, PI-3, multi-clostridial (7 or 8-way), and Haemophilus somnus vaccines three weeks prior to sale or shipment;
  • Treated for parasites at least three weeks prior to sale or shipment.

When these preconditioned calves are placed in a feedlot, they usually begin to eat and drink on arrival, and are able to withstand the usual stressors much better. Surveillance on a daily basis is still necessary to identify cases of illness.

The proper preconditioning of calves involves cost to the primary producer. The rancher must gather and handle the calves early to vaccinate them and after weaning must provide an adequate diet until shipment. The loss of weight following weaning must be made up before the sale.

A major deterrent to the acceptance of preconditioning has been the lack of uniform procedures and certification by an impartial third party. Some Canadian provinces and American states have sponsored and encourage preconditioning programs but most have been abandoned because of the inability of the feedlot operator and the cow-calf producer to agree on the value of a preconditioned calf. In most situations, a premium price would be necessary to compensate the cow-calf producer for the costs of preconditioning.

Early weaning of calves has beneficial effect on cow winter maintenance requirements which must be incorporated into the calculation of the economics of preconditioning. This suggests that there is a need for an examination of the economics of the entire system of producing calves for beef production from the cow-calf producer to the feedlot operator.

Currently, the availability of relatively inexpensive antimicrobials and the development of relatively effective postarrival management protocols continue to encourage the shipment of recently weaned calves to feedlot.


Backgrounding is a variation of preconditioning in which recently weaned calves are grown to yearling feeder cattle weight usually in a smaller feedlot. The principal objective is to prepare yearling cattle to adjust to a high-energy finishing ration in a feedlot with minimal problems. This is achieved by feeding the calves a growing diet that yields rapid, efficient body weight gains without fattening. Maximum use is made of roughage type rations. The spectrum of diseases that occur in backgrounding operations during the first 45 days after arrival of the calves will depend on whether the calves were preimmunized or preconditioned or obtained without preconditioning.

The infectious diseases of the respiratory tract (pneumonic pasteurellosis) and of the digestive tract (coccidiosis) may account for most of the losses. Cattle that have been through a backgrounding program usually go onto a high-energy finishing diet in a different feedlot with a minimum of problems. The ideal situation is to maintain the groups as they were formed in the backgrounding feedlot.

O. Radostits, DVM, M.S., Dept. of Internal Medicine, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, 2000. Alberta Feedlot Management Guide.

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For more information about the content of this document, contact Delores Peters.
This document is maintained by Joan St. Amand.
This information published to the web on October 25, 2007.
Last Reviewed/Revised on March 25, 2011.