For any feedyard, fall is a challenging time. Calves coming in when weather is widely variable are always at risk of health problems, and drought conditions in recent years only magnified the issue. Though many areas have seen some relief, this summer has cattlemen wary of lingering effects and what else the coming season will bring.

By Lyndee Stabel , Certified Angus Beef

Last summer, veterinarian Scott Crain, owner of Cattle Health Management Network in Meade, Kan., recalled some of the effects drought brought to cattle health.

“It’s easy to forget, but a calf’s health starts in the womb,” he said. “And for the last several years we’ve had a cow that’s been challenged, the fetus is challenged and that newborn calf is challenged.”

Those hurdles early in life can limit a calf’s ability to develop a strong immune system. Crain said one problem he has seen from calves with weak immunities is an inability to handle inhaled dirt. Normally, calves can deal with those dirt particles in the lungs, but in a compromised calf they can become abscesses and grow over time. In the stress of leaving the ranch and entering the feedlot, spotty problems can become fatal.

A weakened immune system can be especially detrimental as cattle move through marketing channels. The more places an animal goes, and the more cattle it is exposed to, the greater likelihood it will get sick, Crain said.

With each movement, information for each animal also tends to be lost, he said.

“We need to find ways to streamline the marketing process and retain more information along the way,” the feedlot veterinarian said. “That could help more animals to receive the optimal handling and treatment that will improve overall health, especially during greater periods of stress such as drought.”

Weather conditions may have improved in many areas, but Crain does not expect that to translate quickly into improved cattle health. Many cattle on feed and those soon to enter were carried and born in drought conditions and even with rain, pastures take time to fully recover.

“The timeline to think about is – from conception to yearling to going to the feedyard – about 18 months,” he said.

“So it will be 18 months after the drought is completely over and the grass has returned to normal that I expect to see health as we used to see it, and some of these pastures may need three to five years to really repair themselves.”

In the meantime, he urges producers to keep putting out the minerals and supplements of past years, even if their grass looks sufficient.

“Drought-stricken pastures typically do not have all the necessary nutrients, even though rain has allowed grass to grow,” Crain said.

Cattle today may have the same potential for health problems as last year, but two leading Kansas cattle feeders say as of June, overall health has improved. Cooler temperatures and more rain to settle the dust have helped prevent those early challenges from exacerbating health problems in cattle with compromised systems.

Dan Dorn, supply development manager for Decatur County Feed Yard, Oberlin, Kan., credited his customers as well. “Many of them are focused on quality,” he said. “When the drought first started, they sought to learn from the situation, make improvements and move forward.”

However, he and Nick Chesnut, operations manager for Cattle Empire’s feedyard division, Satanta, Kan., noted higher prices may yet have negative impacts on cattle health. To best support the wellbeing of calves entering feedyards, producers need to maintain good vaccination and weaning programs.

“As feeder cattle of all types – preconditioned or not – bring record high prices, there is less and less incentive to put in the time, effort and money for those programs,” Chesnut said.

“I’m afraid producers will just want to take the money and run,” Dorn agreed.

Only time will tell.

“I’d like to think this year will be better than last, but I don’t want to disappoint myself,” Chesnut said.

For the moment he is just going to expect another season of health problems and hope to be proven wrong.