Kansas feedyards implement monitoring systems, strive for reduced antibiotic use in cattleWritten by Natasha Wheeler
David Sjeklocha subscribes to two philosophies in his work as the director of animal health and welfare at Cattle Empire in Haskell County, Kans. He believes that the use of antibiotics indicates that management practices have failed, and he also believes that all drugs are poisons and that therapy comes from a proper regimen.
“I have tried to work under these philosophies for quite some time,” he says.
“But, I do not believe that we can manage our way out of antibiotic use. Also, just because we use antibiotics according to label, it doesn’t mean we are using good stewardship,” he adds.
Cattle Empire consists of four feedyards, ranging from 18,000 to 87,500 head of cattle on feed, as well as a Holstein calf ranch with a 50,000 head capacity. Animal welfare and antimicrobial use are monitored closely throughout the company.
“In 2004, we went BVDV-PI (bovine viral diarrhea virus-persistent infection) free,” notes Sjeklocha.
All of the cattle that go into the company’s feedyards are tested for BVDV-PI and anything that tests positive is quarantined.
“Something else we’ve done is to initiate post-treatment intervals. This was a real learning experience because I didn’t know how long post-treatment intervals should be, and we had lots of feedback from the feedlot cowboys,” he explains.
Efforts appear to be successful, though, he says, as illustrated by a report published in May 2013 by an independent third-party company comparing data from feedlots throughout the country.
Cattle Empire reported data from 93 lots of cattle, with a total headcount of 10,276. Feed efficiency was listed as 6.08, medicine per head averaged at $12.31, and there was a death loss of 1.71 percent over the time period of the data set.
“If we compare that to the Central Plains with a total of 825,215 head, feed conversion was a little worse at 6.39, medicine was up substantially at $20.92 per head, and death loss was slightly higher at 2.03 percent,” Sjeklocha notes.
Cattle Empire has seen similar data reported over the years since they began taking out calves with BVDV-PI and using post-treatment intervals.
“I am pleased to say our numbers are consistently like that, but in the last couple of years, these other groups have started to narrow the gap. I don’t think ours have gone up. Theirs have gone down, so I think everyone is moving in this direction,” he says.
Another measure that has been employed by Cattle Empire is the use of the Southfork system, which consists of high-frequency ear tags for cattle and antennae that run along the front side of the feed bunks.
“When a calf comes up to the bunk and sticks his head in, the antennae reads the ear tag,” Sjeklocha explains.
Calves that aren’t feeling well aren’t likely to eat for very long, if they eat at all.
“The system does not detect if the calf actually eats or how much he eats. It’s just that he visited the bunk and how long he stayed there. This bunk-visit data is entered into an algorithm, and a daily pull-list is created for the pen riders to go in and get cattle,” he continues.
When the Southfork system was installed, Cattle Empire compared the technology to their conventional system using a randomized study. In the Southfork study pens, cattle were pulled and treated for illness based on the data pull-list, and in the conventional study pens, cattle were pulled based on observations made by the feedlot cowboys.
“When we started that study, we believed that the system would pull more cattle than our cowboys would, but it turned around to be the opposite. By virtue of this, our antibiotic use went down. We certainly didn’t hurt ourselves on the number of cattle we lost,” states Sjeklocha.
When the cowboys saw the Southfork pull lists, they were very concerned about the welfare of the calves. The head cowboy then made a wish list, identifying all of the cattle that he wanted to see pulled in addition to the Southfork list.
“The list had about 40 more head that he wanted to pull that day. Eighty percent of those cattle were never pulled during the entire feeding period, and none of them died,” he comments.
Sjeklocha also says that similar systems are available and that technology can help to reduce the use of antibiotics and monitor cattle health.
“As a beef industry, we are finding some opportunities to use our antimicrobials in a more judicious or good stewardship manner,” he states.