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Benefits to direct-shipping cattle

Improved animal health plus reduced costs equal a win-win for seller and buyer

It has long been recognized that stress of transport coupled with commingling of cattle greatly increases stress, shrinkage and the incidence of respiratory diseases.

Auction markets for many years now have put on satellite or internet sales as a way to market larger groups of cattle without them leaving the farm. This is pretty much all upside when we look at the benefit to the seller and the purchaser. It is sort of the on-farm version of reintroducing the formal preconditioning sales with documented evidence of vaccinations, weaning dates, and certification of castration and other treatments.

Selling and shipping directly from the farm eliminates one extra transportation as the cattle move directly to the purchasers’ place (a direct shipment). Time is minimized and there is no commingling unless the purchasers decide to do that on their own premises with other purchased cattle. Shrinkage is minimized, plus the purchaser can get a detailed description of what the cattle have had for preventative shots. This may eliminate the need to repeat procedures such as endectocides for lice, deworming. Vaccinations may still be done at the feedlot and implants are a given they are put in at the feedlot.

The traditional auction system, although it sets the price with competitive bidding, does increase shrinkage substantially. With green cattle just having been weaned, overnight shrinkage at the auction market could approach or exceed 10 per cent. Direct-shipped cattle often have a predetermined shrinkage calculation placed on them depending on where they are to be weighed and the distance moved.

On the satellite and internet sales a sliding grid is established depending on what their final weight actually is when delivered. That keeps it fair for everyone. The bottom line in keeping it fair for both sides — buyer plus seller benefit and potential long-term relationships can be established. An integrated approach should benefit both sides.

Reduced treatments

Traditionally the cattle industry has had a fair bit of redundancy in vaccinating, using endectocides, deworming or even implanting. With “unknown” cattle coming into feedyards, these treatments are often duplicated. However, when the source of the cattle is known directly and it is a large group, the health history can follow the cattle through. If trust is established you know the products were applied properly.

With implanted cattle, for example, it is nice if the date they were implanted is known so implants are not stacked to any large degree. If the former implants are almost used up, then you can start directly with your implant protocol. Seldom would cattle ever come into the feedlot recently implanted unless the market suddenly changed. I would hope that the feedlot would be made aware of this event, so they could adjust implanting time accordingly.

The respiratory disease complex (viruses such as IBR PI3 BRSV and bacteria such as mannheimia, pasteurella, histophilus or mycoplasma) has been the main nemesis of the cattle feeding industry for quite a long time.

If the cattle are preimmunized before reaching the feedlot and have been weaned on farm (preconditioned) that should be worth a premium. The feeder is getting cattle which should have less propensity to get sick and will go onto feed quicker. Some larger feedlots have tried to start cattle on the same ration to make transition that much easier. All of this coupled with direct shipping that reduces stress means calves arrive in much better shape, not having been commingled. This type of cattle in my eyes would be classified as low risk. It is up to the feeder and their veterinarian to decide whether prophylactic antibiotics are in order. The low-stress calves can be left with the plan to simply pull any that do become sick. If covered with antibiotics the morbidity and mortality rate should be much less than highly stressed cattle.

Colour not a big concern

It’s true that taking the entire group off the can mean a few different-coloired calves, smaller ones, or some with slight imperfections such as frozen ears, scarred eyes or warts. But the advantage of getting an entire group not mingled, raised on the same feed and herd health program far outweighs the disadvantages of these non-uniform cattle.

I have always said feedlot pens are generally full of all colours anyways. Sorts are done closer to finishing to feed the cattle that came in lighter a little longer — slight frost damage to the ears is inconsequential. Sure, the producer would sort out the very poor-doing ones but all the others minor imperfections have advantages for both parties to be sold with the group.

Commingling at the auction market or in transportation exposes cattle to a myriad of pathogens just when they are highly stressed. The fewer number of owners’ cattle in one pen the better. Even if feedlots need to put two, three or four owners’ cattle together in a pen that is better than a vast multitude.

In feedlots which buy in singles and doubles to fill an order, you can imagine how many individual animals from different owners they receive. A report several years ago at one 5,000-10,000 head feedlot showed cattle were traced back to more than 2,000 owners. This is an alarming amount of commingling.

By sorting off a single or two from a group you create this double negative. The calf would do better if kept with its contemporaries plus the calf now goes into another group of like animals and is commingled with them. Almost without exception this is why owners who wean and feed their own cattle seldom see a lot of respiratory and health issues compared to the huge feedlots which have to bring cattle in from all over, transported over large distances. Many or most are auction market-derived and they are commingled so minimally high risk. Lots of these cattle become high risk, which is why veterinarians often prescribe long-acting metaphylactic antibiotics.

The presort sales, although they do make the groups more uniform and the sale quicker, also result in many of these major disadvantages. The added stress of sorting, individually weighing and lots of commingling, in my mind, negates the advantages. Often sellers like presorts as the shrink is predetermined and often the larger lots sell at premium.Over time are the feedlots going to shy away from these with the increased risk of sickness and potential higher death loss?

Potent long-acting antibiotics are now available as metaphylactic treatments. These drugs have no doubt greatly helped to reduce death loss and the number of chronics in the feedlot. However, the industry is also trying to minimize use of these products to reduce risk of antimicrobial resistance. Most of the macrolides used are category two antimicrobials so high in importance in human medicine. We need to reduce usage by only using these to treat high or ultra-risk cattle.

The direct-shipping method also helps with livestock traceability as large feedlots may not need to retag as entire pens have the owner’s tag. It may also mean the need for branding is minimized. The auction market still sells them but in a different way (satellite or internet) so fees are saved here as well.

Direct shipping can benefit everyone along the supply chain. Calves should have better gains, plus potentially lower morbidity and mortality. It is definitely worth taking time to pursue! It takes more sectors of the cattle industry communicating with each other to make this happen.

Remember in a year when culling also may be higher, direct shipping cows may have huge benefits from marketing in larger groups.

About the author

Columnist

Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.

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