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Fluctuations in Feedyard Health Trends

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High market prices make cattle feeders less willing to take chances with high-risk calves. Photo by John Maday

Weather plays a key role in feedyard health and performance, seasonally and from year-to-year.  A significant portion of that variation, however, relates to changes in management and marketing trends, which are influenced by market prices for cattle.

During the recent Academy of Veterinary Consultants (AVC) spring conference, Breck Hunsaker, DVM, PhD, with Feedlot Health Management Services-USA, summarized several years of data from feedyards his group services.

Hunsaker presented data from fall-placed beef-breed calves from 2012 through 2016. These were high-risk steer and heifer calves placed between July and December, from multiple sources.

From 2013 through 2016, the ratio of steer to heifer placements increased, as ranchers expanded their breeding herds following drought and in response to high cattle prices. During the same period, the proportion of calves placed declined as yearling placements increased.

The data show feedyard mortality among those high-risk calves increased by about 1.4 percentage points between 2014 and 2016. Mortality from infectious diseases peaked in 2016 and was lowest during 2014.

Mortality from metabolic causes was highest in 2012 and 2015, likely due to weather those years. Overall morbidity was highest in 2016, about 5% higher than in other years in the data set. Not surprisingly, mortality was highest in bull calves, with mortality in steers somewhat higher than in heifers.

Overall, morbidity and mortality rates among calves was lowest during 2014, compared with other years in the data set. Husaker notes that prices for 500- to 600-pound calves peaked at over $300 per hundredweight during 2014, and prices have declined since.

Part of the change since 2014 could be related to procurement methods, with fewer ranch-direct calves available and buyers more reliant on sale-barn calves. Much of the difference, though, probably relates to the markets. With calf prices at record-high levels, ranchers probably invested more in preventative health programs, and feedyards were more aggressive in using metaphylaxis and other interventions to minimize disease risk in arriving cattle. Also, with the price of calves and inputs so high, cattle feeders simply became less willing to take chances on the highest-risk calves, and focused on placing calves with a higher probability of staying healthy.

More information on AVC conferences, and member access to the full proceedings, are available on the AVC website.

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