Back to Research & Development

Quarterly feed newsletter

Stay informed with the latest research, news and insights from MLA’s feedlot research, development and adoption program.

Subscribe

Feedlot animal health and welfare

Feedlot or intensive finishing environments present significant animal health challenges due to a large number of livestock being confined to a relatively small area. The more pathogens that livestock can be exposed to before the feedlot or intensive finishing system entry, the more likely they are to mount a successful immune response to a challenge once on feed – this is done through backgrounding.

Backgrounding 

Moving into a feedlot or intensive finishing system from a farm environment represents a significant change for livestock. The impact of this change can be minimised by preparing livestock for the feedlot or intensive finishing environment from a young age. This is achieved through yard weaning and an appropriate vaccination program, and then backgrounding the livestock prior to entry into the feedlot or intensive finishing system. This allows livestock to interact, experience low levels of contagions and develop immunity.

Backgrounding refers to the grouping and adaption of animals prior to entry into the feedlot or intensive finishing system. This practice delivers significant weight gain and productivity benefits once the cattle are on feed including: 

  • improved socialisation
  • improved feed intake
  • reduced animal health issues
  • improved animal welfare.

Backgrounding also allows cattle to be grown out to a uniform weight before entering the feedlot, providing for easier management on feed and improved production. 

'Poor doers' can also be identified during backgrounding and culled from the mob before entering the feedlot or intensive finishing system. 

Animal health 

Nutritional diseases 

All ruminants, when confined and fed, have special dietary requirements that must be observed to maintain good rumen function – this ensures good animal health and maximises production.

While the incidence of nutritional disease in Australian feedlots is very low, diseases to be aware of are:

  • acidosis
  • feedlot bloat.

Acidosis 

Acidosis occurs in ruminants when they are introduced to grain too quickly or changed from one grain to another. In this situation, the rumen does not have time to adapt and excessive lactic acid is produced.

Sub-clinical acidosis can cause reduced feed intake and production while more extreme cases can result in lameness (laminitis) and even death. 

The best way to prevent acidosis is to feed sufficient roughage and gradually introduce grain to the ration. Rumen buffers, such as bentonite or sodium bicarbonate, can be also added to feed.

Feedlot bloat 

Bloat can occur for several reasons in feedlots, but is usually associated with a nutritional imbalance, such as too much high quality lucerne hay, or as a result of acidosis. It’s important to ensure sufficient roughage in the diet, remembering that high quality lucerne hay does not always constitute roughage. 

Infectious diseases 

Lotfed livestock are vulnerable to a range of infectious diseases with bovine respiratory disease (BRD) the most significant for cattle.

Viral infections such as pestivirus and infectious bovine rhiotracheitis are extremely contagious but generally cause only mild signs in young stock. However, they cause marked transient immuno-suppression whilst the virus is present in the blood and this allows more serious pathogens to establish. This is particularly important for conditions such as BRD which is caused by bacterial pathogens that are commonly found in the upper respiratory tract of cattle. 

Many infectious diseases such as BRD and enterotoxaemia (pulpy kidney), can be effectively vaccinated against during backgrounding and induction. 

Lameness and footrot 

Lameness and footrot can be a problem if the feet of lotfed animals are damaged. Preventing muddy conditions through maintenance of the pen surface and good drainage in the pens (especially around water troughs) is essential to ensure feet problems and lameness are reduced. 

Parasitic diseases 

Most internal and external parasites that can cause disease in lotfed animals, such as lice and worms, can be effectively controlled during backgrounding and induction.  

Feedlot flies 

Flies are a problem in many feedlots, due to the abundance of available food and breeding medium (dung). They can pose a problem due to their number and annoying behaviour which can result in agitation and reduced feed intake. Flies also have disease carrying potential. 

It is recommended that feedlot operators develop and implement an integrated pest management (IPM) program to control nuisance flies on their feedlots. IPM programs should follow the rules and incorporate cultural, biological and chemical methods to provide cost-effective fly control with minimal insecticide usage. 

The effective implementation of an IPM for nuisance flies in feedlots can lead to:

  • improved animal welfare
  • production gains.

Only a few types of fly are of concern due to their numbers, annoying behaviour or disease-carrying potential.

Animal welfare 

Socialisation 

The backgrounding process involves grouping livestock destined for a feedlot or intensive finishing system in mobs that will be maintained in pens when they enter the feedlot. 

Cattle and other livestock have strong social groups or mobs so mixing or disrupting mobs can be a significant stressor. By mixing mobs several weeks or months before feedlot entry and then maintaining those mobs while on feed, livestock adjust and establish a new social group, which they maintain throughout the time on feed. This means that the time on feed is not spent adjusting to a new social environment and feed intake can be maximised. 

Feed intake 

The backgrounding process often involves feeding and the introduction to feed bunks and trough water. If livestock have not previously been bunk fed or exposed to troughs, feed intake can be reduced until they become comfortable with the environment. 

Bunk feeding during backgrounding allows livestock to become conditioned to the method of delivery of feed and water, meaning their intake should be unimpeded when they enter the feedlot or intensive finishing system. 

Induction 

Induction is the management process when livestock arrive at a feedlot or intensive finishing system that ensures the health and welfare of the new arrivals and the livestock already on feed. 

Induction includes procedures that can be broadly grouped as: 

  • traceability
  • health and welfare
  • performance

Traceability 

When livestock first arrive at a feedlot they are kept away from the general population and processed in quarantine to ensure that no diseases are introduced to the feedlot. 

All travel documents such as the Livestock Production Assurance National Vendor Declaration and Waybill (LPA NVD/Waybill), should be verified along with any additional vendor declarations that may be required by the particular feedlot. 

Details from the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) devices should be recorded and verified. 

Management tags may be added to assist livestock management within the feedlot. 

Health and welfare 

Immediately upon arrival at the feedlot, animals should be provided with clean water and fresh hay. Adding electrolytes to the drinking water may be useful in reducing stress in newly arrived animals. They should then be gradually introduced to the feedlot ration while in quarantine. 

As part of the induction process for cattle, horned animals may have their horns tipped. The requirement that cattle be polled can often be part of the market specification and horned cattle will not be purchased by the feedlot. 

Performance 

Upon entry to the feedlot, livestock are weighed and payment to the producer will often be made on the basis of this weight. 

In the case of cattle, and depending on the specifications of the eventual market, livestock may be treated with a hormonal growth promotant (HGP) during induction. 

Livestock will be drafted into like groups based on sex, weight, size and target market. Where the livestock have been backgrounded, this drafting may already have occurred. The livestock will then generally be run in the same mobs for the duration of their time on feed to minimise social disruption.