Receiving programs for feedlot cattle (Proceedings)


Respiratory disease continues to be the major cause of disease in feedlot. On average about 15% of feedlot cattle will have respiratory disease compared with less than 2% for digestive or any other disease problem.

Respiratory disease continues to be the major cause of disease in feedlot. On average about 15% of feedlot cattle will have respiratory disease compared with less than 2% for digestive or any other disease problem. The first step in controlling respiratory disease in a feedlot is a receiving program geared towards the health of the calf. Many time cattle are processed on the feedlots schedule not on the calf's needs.

Ideally we would like to feed calves that have a functioning immune system, received all vaccines, accustomed to eating ration from a bunk, have been castrated and dehorned as baby calves and arrived at the feedlot stress free. However, those calves are hard to find and usually cost more than a breakeven analysis allows. Therefore, feeders buy high risk calves because they are cheap enough that they are still profitable even with increased morbidity. Before even thinking about placing calves in the feedlot producers need to make sure they are ready. Smaller farmer-feeders need to make sure that other farm activities such as harvesting will not coincide with receiving cattle. Producers should be able to devote at least 14 days of increased care to make sure that calves acclimate to the feedlot. Labor needs should be assessed to make sure that there is enough labor available to process and treat calves when required.

Feedlot pens, bunks and water tanks should be cleaned out prior to placing new calves. New calves should be received into dry clean pens. If it is wet or cold pens should be bedded to allow calves a warm dry place to lie down. In winter shelter or windbreak should be utilized. Calves in outdoor pens need at least 150 feet2 of pen space and calves need 16 inches of bunk space (12 inches for yearlings). Young calves should have access to long stem grass hay for the first few days. Additionally, even if calves have been backgrounded on a concentrate ration they should be started on grass hay if they were received under stressful conditions.

Calves are usually evaluated on the risk status and receiving program is adjusted accordingly. Information such as age/weight of calf, origin (sale barn or direct), co-mingling, distance traveled, weather and nutrition is evaluated to determine risk category. Most calves risk status can be identified prior to arrival at the feedyard. However, it is important to visually appraise the cattle when they arrive and adjust risk category accordingly. Unexpected weather or travel delays can occur. Evaluate the calves shrink and if it is greater than 7% calves may need additional care. Calves should be observed for evidence of respiratory disease or lameness. Weight of calves is important for determining immune competency. A rule of thumb is that calves less than 600 pounds do not have complete functioning acquired immunity.

Low Risk cattle would include yearling cattle that have had minimal stress. Moderate Risk cattle would include yearling cattle that have been stressed (poor nutrition, management or transport) and calves that have been pre-conditioned for at least 45 days and have not been stressed. Any other calf would be considered high risk. No matter what the risk category receiving programs need to address the 3 R's of receiving.


Most cattle should not be processed on arrival. Calves need a chance to rest before they undergo the stress of processing. Most calves need 12-24 hours of rest but extremely stressed calves can rest for 48 hours or longer before processing. Cattle should be visually appraised and when cattle are up and drinking and eating they can be processed.


If calves have been given adequate rest they will have had an opportunity to begin to rehydrate themselves. Cattle need adequate access to fresh clean water upon arrival at the feedlot.

Rumen restoration

Cattle also need an opportunity to regain proper rumen function. Long stem grass hay is the best feed source for receiving cattle to restore rumen function.

There is some evidence that dehydrated calves or calves with a negative energy balance will not respond to a vaccine. Therefore, processing should be delayed until calves are metabolically capable of responding.

Cattle handling

Incoming cattle are already stressed so feedlots need to make sure that they are not adding to the stress. Processing cattle is not a timed event, having processing crews slow down and adjust to the needs of the cattle will help cattle start out right. Processing crews should review cattle handling strategies by Temple Grandin or Bud Williams and adopt appropriate methods for their operation. Calves should be observed at least once a day (twice a day may be beneficial on very high risk calves or problem pens) making sure every calf in the pen is observed at least once a day.

Vaccination protocols

Vaccination is a fundamental part of a cattle receiving program. First priority is to make sure that vaccines are being handled properly and Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) guidelines are followed. With current vaccine production practices, feedlot cattle should receive a Modified Live Viral (MLV) vaccine. A standard 5-way (IBR, BVD I & II, BRSV and PI3) should be considered as a component of all receiving programs. Low risk cattle will probably not benefit from a bacterial (Mannheimia, Pasteurella or Histophilus) vaccine. Some higher risk lighter weight calves may get some benefit from a bacterial vaccine. Typically, these bacterial vaccine will not prevent pneumonia but may decrease the severity or increase treatment response. If the calves have not had a clostridial vaccine before then it is advisable to use a 7-way vaccine.

Revaccination in 10-14 days is usually not necessary. Current vaccines provide adequate stimulation of the immune system. Working calves again in 2 weeks adds more stress to the calves then we gain with increased immunity. Generally, it takes 30 days for a calf to fully recover from a highly stressful event such as weaning or transportation. Minimizing additional stressors is important during the receiving phase. Making sure calves are ready for the 1st vaccination is the best way avoid having to revaccinate in 2 weeks.

Metaphylaxis has become a common practice in many feedlot receiving programs. With current concern of overuse of antibiotics in agriculture veterinarians need to assess the need for metaphylaxis on each pen. If properly used metaphylaxis is beneficial to the cattle and has a positive return on investment. However, methaphylaxis should not be used to cover up poor management. Goal should be to not have to use metaphylaxis on a routine basis.

Proper care or cattle up front will decrease problems later in feeding period. It is critical that veterinarians and feedlot personal pay special attention to incoming cattle and make their transition to the feedlot as stress free as possible.

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