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Plenty of room in the hospital pen. That's good, right?

Russ Daly
The main benefit of hospital pens is that ailing animals are given a comfortable environment with plenty of space, feed and water to speed their recovery.

As a little kid, a good day was when I got to “help” Dad feed calves.

Mom would bundle me up against the winter chill and Dad would boost me up into the enormous (or so it seemed back then) feeder truck. We’d bump down to the silage piles where Grandpa would use the loader tractor to fill up the truck, then we’d bump down to the calf pens. I loved watching the calves run up as the feed spilled out of the little conveyor into the bunk.

One pen puzzled me at that young age. We always fed it last, and there were never very many calves in it. I came to learn that it was the “sick pen,” filled with calves that needed extra care. Most were probably pneumonia cases, but calves that were lame or just falling behind also benefited from a chance to recuperate away from the larger group.

The sick pen — or “hospital pen,” in today’s parlance — is a feature of modern feedlots as well. While the strategies for using them have evolved, they’re still a useful way for feedlot operators to nurse ailing calves back to health. The main benefit of hospital pens is that ailing animals are given a comfortable environment with plenty of space, feed and water to speed their recovery. There’s a science to calculating how big the hospital pen should be relative to the size of the feedlot, and its location should be close to treatment facilities and convenient for caretakers to observe the calves.

Our sick pen back home was a nice one. It had good shelter from the wind, was always comfortably bedded and provided the “patients” easy access to feed and water. But Dad would never say he was proud of it. To him, it represented a failure. The animals trusted to his care got sick despite his efforts to keep them healthy. The calves that ended up there most definitely needed his care, but he was just as interested in the larger population. How healthy were they? How many calves were undergoing milder sickness that didn’t — yet — rise to the level of “hospitalization” in the sick pen? What could be done to minimize these illnesses for the good of all the calves — and for the farm’s economic outcome, as well?

To be sure, one thing Dad never patted himself on the back about was how much room there was in the sick pen. Had the sick pen ever reached capacity, it would represent an epic failure — a “wreck” in common feedlot vernacular. No responsible cattle feeder would consider the amount of available room in the sick pen as the main metric of their success.

That brings me to our current COVID-19 situation. As I write this, the number of South Dakotans affected by coronavirus has never been higher. Thankfully, most people who’ve wrestled with this virus have recovered after feeling poorly for a few days, or — in some cases — not feeling too sick at all. But more of us are wrestling with it than ever before. The effects are too numerous to completely list: days home from work isolated from others, learning online instead of in person, fear of making a loved one sick and, for some, longer-term health complications. Undeniable effects of the pandemic.

Yet, despite the population being more profoundly affected by the pandemic than ever, the view of some people is that we’re handling things very well. Their reasoning? There’s still room in our hospitals. Not overwhelming our hospital bed capacity is their main metric of success. The herd as a whole looks tougher than ever, but there’s still room in the sick pen.

Cattle feeders and their veterinarians take pains to address the health of all the animals in their care. They undertake preventive measures to slow the spread of illness from calf to calf. They observe differences in illness levels among sub-groups of the population and adjust their approaches when necessary. While they take care of the calves in the sick pen, farmers also know that those calves represent the very worst of a bigger problem.

If our main focus in dealing with COVID-19 is hospital capacity, it poses the question: Is a cattle feeder’s approach to animal health more rational than our approach to a public health pandemic?

Russ Daly

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University.