Management Opportunities to Improve Animal Health in Receiving Cattle

Figure 1: M. Hubbert

Michael Hubbert, Ph.D. and Tanner Miller1

Successfully receiving cattle is a complex operation that requires three things to be conducted and accomplished in unison. Implementing proper animal husbandry practices, providing an adequate nutrient supply and determining what and when treatment for clinical disease is required are primary to this process. No single part of this trilogy will optimize animal health and performance; rather utilizing a holistic approach that takes each of these factors in unison provides the best opportunity for overall success.

While we will discuss each factor independently, their implementation requires these actions not be taken independently or the overall process fails. Producers always want a ranking as to the importance of each of these measures; however, they all are required for efficient animal production. Without excellent and professional animal husbandry practices, failure will follow. Likewise, there is not a specific drug or feeding program that can help compensate for poorly handled cattle. The following are the questions that need to asked and considered to develop and implement the best practices for starting cattle:


  • What is the buying area?
  • How many days from purchase to your location?
  • How is the handling at buyers facility?
  • What is the time in transit from home range through purchase and transit to your location?
  • What is the quality of the cattle?

Animal health starts with the cattle buyer. Having a good relationship with the person that is purchasing cattle for the yard is important to ensure the highest quality calves are being shipped to your location. To minimize stress in the cattle it is important to request that a maximum of five days be used to fill a load and that all employees treat the cattle with good animal husbandry practices while at the auction facility and when loading cattle on to trucks for shipping to the feedyard..


  • Is the truck clean?
  • What is the transit time?
  • How does he unload and handle the cattle?

The transportation of calves from the buyer to the feedyard is extremely stressful under the best of conditions. It is important that trucks be cleaned between loads to minimize the spread of diseases. Drivers should attempt to transport the cattle as quickly and safely as possible and stopping for any amount of time during transit should be discouraged. It is critical to observe how the driver unloads the cattle since this can be an important indicator of the level of stress the animals encountered during shipping. If proper and humane animal handling are not observed, request that a different driver be used in the future.

Time of day

  • What time should a truck arrive for anticipated weather conditions?
  • What time should the truck arrive for proper evaluation of the cattle on arrival?

During times of high heat and humidity, it is important to try and receive cattle around dawn or dusk. If severe weather is anticipated, it may be better for the calves to be held at the cattle buyer's location for an additional day rather than adding more stress to an already stressful situation. As the cattle are being unloaded, it is important to watch for any lameness or diseased animals. Receiving at a time that allows for good visibility of the cattle is a must.

Receiving facilities

  • Are the receiving facilities clean and prepared when the trucks arrive?
  • Are they well lit if receiving at night?
  • Do the cattle slip or fall during unloading?
  • How fast do the cattle run off the truck and into the facilities?

Careful observation of cattle after they have been unloaded can provide critical information to determine if the receiving facilities are appropriate. Excessive running, jumping, and slipping, either due to improperly designed receiving facilities and handling procedures, can cause lameness and other injuries. Designing receiving facilities that allow efficient cattle flow will greatly reduce the stress of a new location. It is important the receiving facilities are clean and prepared for cattle prior to their arrival to reduce the time they have to wait on the truck while gates are set and receiving pens readied with feed and water.

Preparing the resting pen

  • Is there fresh water in the pen, as most cattle are probably dehydrated?
  • Is your starter ration in the bunk and a bale in the pen?

When receiving calves into a feedyard, it should not be assumed that they are familiar and trained to drink from commercial waterers. Allowing tanks to spill over momentarily when new calves are introduced to a pen will allow them to hear and smell the source or water. Although there are no published articles on water tank space requirements, it is known that water consumption drives feed consumption. To encourage both feed and water consumption, it may be necessary to add large portable tanks to receiving pens, particularly under conditions of heat stress in order to adequately rehydrate calves as soon as possible following arrival. Plan on allowing for - of surface space of water per head in the summer and - in the winter. Most newly received calves prefer to lie down and rest upon arrival; however, it is still important to have feed available. Placing the starter ration in the bunks will allow the calves to get accustomed to the smell and taste of diet they will be receiving in their home pen after processing.


  • If the cattle were hauled over 4 hours do you allow a minimum of 12 hours rest prior to processing?
  • If the cattle were hauled over 8 hours do you allow a minimum of 24 hours rest prior to processing?

These are just recommendations; however, it is vital to animal husbandry and health that calves get adequate rest after arrival and before processing.


  • Is the processing unit clean?
  • Is the processing unit quiet?
  • Is the processing done with smooth efficiency?
  • Do the cattle move quietly during processing?
  • Are cattle placed in their outcome pens with minimal stress?

When preparing for initial processing, all the pharmaceuticals and equipment should be available and ready. Proper administration of vaccines and other pharmaceutical products requires that all employees are adequately trained for their specific responsibilities. Processing at the right time of day is essential. Cattle should not be processed into the late afternoons where heat stress is an issue. Process cattle as quickly and quietly as possible, without sacrificing quality. This is possible through easy flow facilities and a strong crew that works well together. By doing these procedures correctly, we can return cattle to their new pen quickly, where fresh feed and water should be awaiting them.

Proper and safe handling of antibiotics and vaccines - Are employees trained to follow BQA guidelines?

Ensuring employees are properly trained to handle livestock is vital not only for the animal's safety and health, but of individual's and co-workers' health and safety as well. Certain pharmaceuticals can be very harmful if accidentally injected. Proper administration techniques are important to minimize harmful residues and carcass blemishes. All injections should be given as directed by the veterinarian. Those interested in learning more about the BQA guidelines and certification can visit Online training videos for employees of all aspects of the beef industry can be found at

Tips for proper storing and handling of vaccines (Beef magazine, April 1, 2011)

Optimize the effectiveness of your animal-health dollars by properly storing and handling vaccines. (Heather Smith Thomas) The biggest reasons for disease breaks in livestock often have little to do with the vaccine itself, but more to do with how that vaccine is handled and administered, says Dale Moore, director of Veterinary Medical Extension at Washington State University. Vaccines are sensitive to heat and freezing and have special requirements for storage before use, she says. Always check the expiration dates on vaccine products, follow label directions, and be sure to keep vaccines refrigerated at proper temperature until use.


Are the cattle started on a ration that is palatable?

Getting cattle on feed after processing can be a difficult task and is different for each pen. Formulating a starter ration that entices calves to eat, and even more importantly, figuring our the right amount for them to eat, is essential for maintaining a healthy animal. Many cattle that have not consumed silage before take some time to adjust. The concentrate level and associated nutrient level must be designed for the cattle's consumption. Ingredients are not consumed on a percentage basis, rather on weight.

Example: A 16% crude protein diet for a yearling consuming 16 pounds of dry matter will meet the protein requirements. However, on a highly stressed calf to reach minimal requirements it may take 10-14 days. An added complication is health; sick animals take longer to get on feed and thereby are in a nutrient deficiency longer.

Feed Management

How do you determine how much feed a pen should receive?

Filling the bunks provides the anticipated feed for the day. This estimate of feed required comes from what the cattle ate yesterday. We call this bunk management. However, we are feeding cattle not cement troughs, so we adjust during the day feed delivery to the animals to their reaction to the feed. This system also provides an excellent view of the cattle as they come to the trough for fresh feed.

Pulling cattle

What criteria are used to pull sick cattle from pens for treatment?

With cattle being a prey species, they have become very capable of hiding sickness from animal health personnel. Through optimal feed intake management systems, it becomes easier to visualize sick animals as the ones staying back or laying down during feeding. Having all employees trained to pick out sick animals can allow all parts of the feedyard to work together to adequately respond to sick cattle.


  • Is the hospital unit clean?
  • Is the hospital unit quiet?
  • Is the doctoring done with smooth efficiency?
  • Do the cattle move quietly during doctoring?
  • Are cattle returned to their home pens with minimal stress?

Much like processing, we are moving animals with compromised immune systems through a chute system. Animal health personnel should be trained to move and treat the cattle with care and efficiency. Proper BQA standards must be followed. Have protocols setup by a veterinarian to ensure sick animals are getting the proper medicine. Return cattle to their home pens quickly and with minimal stress.


Evaluate the last load and what can be improved. It's important that this is done every time, to address the labor and facilities. If this is not done, standards are difficult to maintain.

This list is not my list alone but a copulation of things that we have been taught over many years of receiving and processing cattle. People include processing crews, feedyard management, veterinarians and the crew here at the Clayton Livestock Research Center. We would also like to thank Dr. Mark Branine and Bobby Nix of Pfizer Animal Health for reviewing our facilities and manuscript.

1 Tanner Miller, Kansas State University, Beef Cattle Institute, CVM Class 2014