Hospital Systems

By : Heather Smith Thomas


Good hospital pens are crucial for effective, efficient treatment of sick cattle to get them back to their home pens quickly. Hospital systems vary, depending on yard size, treatment plans, facilities, etc. Exercise or additional treatments can also be utilized, all with the goal of reuniting sick livestock with their pen mates.

Corbin Stevens, DVM, with Stevens Veterinary Services, Production Animal Consultation consults with 15 feedlots and says the larger ones have multiple hospital locations. This makes it easier to get cattle in from various areas, with smaller groups in each pen.

“We use a four-day recovery system, with four recovery pens, so we can exercise the cattle daily, moving them into a new pen. We rotate pens, and cattle do better if they are moved into a new environment with fresh feed and water. After rotating through, on day four they are evaluated to see if they can go back to their home pen, or need retreatment, or go to a convalescent pen,” says Stevens. He recommends sorting cattle in a convalescent pen once a week to take out any that can go home or see if any need re-treatment.

“Many of these cattle don’t need more drugs/antibiotics but need more time, and maybe supportive care like drenches or vitamins. They’re not quite well enough to compete in their home pen at the feed bunks. We also have a treatment pen where cattle are brought in for specific ailments needing daily treatment,” he says. Every hospital also has a chronic pen. Those animals may be euthanized eventually or sold on the rail once drug withdrawal has been met.

Randall Raymond, DVM, Director of Research/Veterinary Services at Simplot Livestock, says cattle in their hospitals are treated with as little disruption as possible. “Historically we kept cattle in hospital pens several weeks so they could receive a series of treatments. We don’t do that anymore,” he says.

“One reason is that hospital bunks are difficult to manage because of varying head count as cattle come in and out. Keeping feed fresh is challenging. Second, hospital pens are a place where sick cattle can transmit diseases to each other. Third, the antibiotics available today last longer and don’t require handling cattle multiple times. Some drugs have 7 to 10 day tissue levels. We can often treat animals and take them back to their home pen within 24 to 36 hours,” Raymond explains.

“Cattle that need extra care or additional treatments stay as long as necessary, so we have two kinds of pens. If we think an animal will be well enough to go home within 36 hours after treatment we put it in a go-home pen,” says Raymond.

“The second type of pen usually has a roof and bedding, for more intensive care if animals need to stay multiple days. If they are injured or extremely lame and won’t do well in a competitive situation, we’ll keep them in this pen as long as needed,” he says.

There are always multiple animals coming in to the various pens, because of the size of the yards and number of cattle. “Cattle that come in today from a certain part of the feed yard are placed in the same pen. Then the crews can take that entire pen back to that location when they’re ready to go home. That one pen might house cattle from five or six different alleys in that part of the yard. They will be taken back as a group to that region and sorted back into their normal pens,” Raymond says.

“Our hospital pens are organized—black cattle together, large cattle together, etc.” says Stevens. Flow-through pens speed recovery. “We can tell when we’re not managing our hospitals appropriately because death losses and chronics increase. Antibiotics are a great tool, but if other important things are not managed (comfort, minimizing stress, etc.) in hospital pens, the antibiotic is almost irrelevant,” he says.

It is important to clean water tanks daily and have fresh water. Dry bedding is important, especially in winter. “In summer, many yards provide portable shade,” Stevens says.
“Exercising the cattle (rotating them through our four-day pen system) is a huge help, to increase blood flow and improve healing. If they just lie around they won’t heal as fast.” Getting them moving helps physically and psychologically. Cattle with severe pneumonia need something to look forward to. They want to be out of that hospital pen.”

A new pen, new feed, new environment, is a fresh start for the animal. “Each day the cattle feel better. Their pen mates start to feel better, start eating more, and have a more inquisitive attitude. This helps their recovery,” says Stevens.

“Antibiotics are wonderful, but in the last 20 years we’ve forgotten that cattle also need a nice place to lie down, clean feed, clean fresh water and good handling. Those things are more important than what kind of drug you give them.”

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