WT Research Feedlot has been providing important data for cattle feeders since the early 1970s.
By Larry Stalcup Contributing Editor
Pen riders are a unique breed. They use their uncanny ability to read cattle and spot a sick steer in the worst of feeding conditions. Often called unsung heroes, they can’t be replaced. But there could be a valuable addition to their toolbox. New hi-tech ear tags may soon help pen riders shave a full day off diagnosing respiratory diseased cattle and get them pulled before it’s too late.
Research into bovine respiratory disease (BRD) diagnosis using electronic ear tags is under way at the West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) Research Feedlot near Canyon. Headed by John Richeson, Ph.D., the research is measuring how electronic ear tags can read animal vital signs and behavior to provide early detection of BRD and other animal health issues.
“Our research shows that data read from an ear tag can alert a pen rider to pull an animal one or two days before they would usually be pulled,” Richeson says. “Mannheimia haemolytica, the principal bacteria isolated from respiratory disease in fed cattle, can replicate exponentially in 24 hours. Getting an animal pulled one day earlier can mean the difference between treatment success or treatment failure.”
Commercial ear tag manufacturers and suppliers continue to provide tags that are more valuable to producers and feeders. Cow-calf producers can use them to measure cattle behavior in wide-open spaces or for estrus detection. But feedyard and stocker operators need to diagnose sick cattle in more confined areas. Richeson says WT’s research illustrates how feedyards can benefit from the advanced ear tag technology. “There are several commercial efforts to produce tags that can identify animal behavior,” he says. “Some tags monitor temperatures either in the ear canal or the skin of the ear. Being able to monitor individual animal behavior is the secret sauce. It’s something we have never been able to do before.”
Pen Riders’ Friend
Since the age of commercial cattle feeding began in the 1950s, pen riders have been integral to locating and getting sick cattle pulled and sent to the hospital pen. While animal health technology has evolved many times over, feedyards still rely on pen riders and their horses to maneuver through alleys and pens. Riders have a sense for diagnosing an animal facing a respiratory challenge.
“They have to check cattle 365 days a year, not just on perfect spring or fall days with temperatures in the 70s,” Richeson says.“They ride pens in wind, dust, rain, snow and sleet. Those poor- weather-days are the most difficult in which to diagnose BRD. Bad weather can affect cattle behavior. Pen riders must be skilled enough to know whether it’s simply weather causing an animal’s depression or if it’s actually BRD.
“Ear tags will not replace pen riders. But this technology can amaze even the most skilled stockman. Tags can work as a tool and make the pen riders better at diagnosing BRD.”
Richeson points out many benefits of data available from ear tags.“When a pen of high risk cattle or any other type of cattle enters our pens, we use tags to read their overall activity,” he says, adding that if their temperature or eating patterns are altered, they can be checked or pulled for health problems.
“Through sensors in the tags, we can read how different diets impact cattle behavior by quantifying rumination time,” he says.“We know how many minutes an animal is ruminating in a day. Ruminating is directly correlated with feed intake. The more it eats, the more time it spends at ruminating.
“I’ve been following tag research and evaluation for more than 10 years,” he continues.“We’re finally to the point where tags are being developed to better monitor animal health and feedyard performance. Cattle traceability is also an important tool provided by ear tags.”
The issue now is whether they can be cost effective to feedyards.“Return on investment has been the biggest roadblock,” Richeson says.“Up until now, the price point did not make sense. The tags and latest tag technology were too expensive.
“But we’re starting to see companies that are about to come to market with tags that have some appealing price points.”
More breakthrough research like ear tag BRD diagnosis will be possible. Richeson knows pen riders will remain staples in monitoring fed cattle. But when that first blue norther blows in, they likely won’t snort at a little hi-tech help to make more proficient pulls.