Fresh calves entering the feedyard face multiple challenges as they adapt to their new environment. Where to eat and drink, plus who gets to go first are all nuances fresh cattle must learn. Pens are closely monitored for health issues. However, consumption across the pen is also important. It’s a critical time in the digestive system of calves as they transition from a forage diet to a concentrate diet. That transition offers the opportunity for digestive upset, and can ultimately lead to liver abscesses.

Liver abscesses are sometimes thought of as a “fat cattle” problem, however it’s never too early to implement preventative strategies. Cattle just started on feed are at risk and should be managed accordingly. That’s the message from nutritionist Justin Homm, Ph.D., an Elanco technical consultant.

Homm says anytime cattle are transitioned to a ration higher in starch and lower in roughage the stage could be set for liver abscesses to develop. That includes in the backgrounding stage and when cattle first arrive at the feedyard.

“The problem is the incidence of liver abscesses is primarily monitored in the packing plant, so we don’t know exactly when the abscesses start,” he said. However, the consensus is periods of digestive upset, like acidosis, can lead to liver abscesses. And that can be very early in the feeding period.

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Liver abscesses in cattle is a $60 million problem each year. Economic losses occur due to trim loss, condemned livers and the time it takes to trim the carcass, but production losses are also a big factor. Liver abscesses have been studied for decades, and there are still many unknowns around the issue.

“When I think of bringing calves into the feedyard, if they are backgrounded, they are more ready to go. They are accustomed to eating from a bunk and drinking from a trough. But ranch direct or sale barn calves are different…we’re just getting those cattle on feed and making sure they know there is feed in the bunk.”

Life changes for those calves – the transition to a starter ration, determining a pecking order for the pen, who gets to eat first and other issues – can be the precursor to digestive upset and eventually liver abscesses.

You need to get on top of that from the get-go in a feedyard setting, Homm says.

“Any time we transition the rumen microbes from cellulose and forage digesters to starch digesters, that’s where we can have some upset and acidosis. And when you’re dealing with acidosis, you’re also dealing with the possibility of liver abscesses,” he explains.

Acidosis is a result of a build-up of lactic acid in the rumen. When the rumen pH drops too low or for too long, rumen contractions slow, fiber digestion is reduced, nutrient absorption decreases, and lactic acid produced by bacteria builds up.

During the process, the excess acid can burn the lining of the rumen, Homm said. That allows bacteria to cross the rumen wall, into the blood stream and eventually to the liver. That’s where management factors can come into play and hopefully reduce the opportunity for acidosis.

“Transitioning those cattle from a starter ration to a finisher ration is done pretty methodically in the feedyard,” he said. However, it’s the other details that can make a big impact.

“A big part of this is consistency of the feed and making sure you have a good quality control program. Feed mixing is key so that the animal at one spot in the bunk and his neighbor are getting the same feed,” Homm says. “Next in my mind is the importance of feed timing so that cattle are consistently fed at a certain time.”

The same advice applies in a backgrounding yard. It’s a complex situation, but Homm doesn’t believe liver abscesses only happen at the feedyard. Backgrounded cattle aren’t terminal, so unless a necropsy is performed at that stage, liver abscesses aren’t discovered. The only place to monitor it is at the packing plant.

However, certain situations in a backgrounding program could set cattle up for liver abscesses.

Backgrounding programs that limit gain with a limit feeding program could be at risk. Limiting feed with a higher energy ration may create hungry cattle. The idea is cattle get to the bunk and consume a lot of feed quickly. However, in Homm’s opinion, that’s a recipe for lactic acidosis.

“We’ve tracked some of those cattle and can see a difference when they get to the feedyard,” Homm says.

Elanco invests in monitoring liver abscesses for its customers. Since 2009, Elanco has gathered data on average for over 2.5 million head of cattle annually.

Bottom line: utilize management tactics to reduce the opportunity for acidosis. Homm says feed timing and feed delivery, as well as consistent quality feed that is well mixed can set cattle up for success.