Beef calves would be handled from birth to weaning and would be conditioned to be separated from their mothers  —  in a perfect world. Investing time training young calves on the calving ground, on branding day, and as calves receive pre-weaning vaccines can reduce stress associated with weaning. The next best option would be placement in a backgrounding yard that will focus on acclimation concepts. In reality, many calves go straight from the ranch to the sale barn or the feedlot without much preparation.

“We look at two primary opportunities to have a huge positive impression on growing cattle,” says Tom Noffsinger, DVM, Benkelman, Neb. “The first two days of life the calves can be taught to be handled efficiently; the next window of opportunity is the day they are separated from their mothers and asked to change an address. If we can, we’d like to prepare calves to be confident to accept change and short periods of stress. If we are unable to do that, our next priority is to greet freshly weaned calves at a backgrounding yard or a feedlot.”

Handling newly arrived calves at the feedlot has changed somewhat over the years. Noffsinger says typically calves used to be allowed to circle and bawl for their mothers and exhibit panic motion with little regard to nutrition, hydration or rest, but many feedlots are taking a different approach. “As newly weaned calves enter a feedyard, they are looking for guidance and leadership from a caregiver,” he explains. “A very active process of new-calf acclimation results in reduced time of exhibiting panic, improves feed intake drastically and creates a scenario where calves are willing to rest and rehydrate This allows for a better response to processing programs and elevates resistance to bacterial and viral disease stresses.”

Handling off the truck

Calves coming off the truck can be convinced to pass by a handler. It’s best to greet these cattle on the ground in a wide alley rather than being on a scale or a fence. Noffsinger says one of the basic goals is to impress upon these freshly weaned calves that they can walk by their handlers without harm, be willing to turn their back on handlers and go straight away. “You can teach them quickly as they are being unloaded to stop and turn around and go away from you. As cattle are being taken from an alley to a home pen, each time they have an opportunity to pass by us it creates more confidence in them. Our goal is to take the anxiety out of the nervous sentinel animals while at the same time build confidence in the other animals.”

Noffsinger was initially surprised to discover that most of the panic motion and activity in a pen of freshly weaned calves originates from three or four initiators in the group. “It’s important to identify the initiator or sentinel animal and remove the anxiety from those initiators and guide the herd around the pen.”

To do this, Noffsinger suggests working in the center of the pen to settle new calves.  Focus on short lessons to teach calves to respond to handler position and movement. As each of the initiators is worked with, eventually calves will go to a corner and with the handler positioned at about a 45° angle, it’s easy to teach the group to move and go to the bunk, the tank or the gate.

One challenge is that each group of calves exhibits a different herd personality depending on genetics and prior experiences with handlers. What may require several short seven to eight minute handling lessons in one pen might require 10 short lessons to get the same level of cooperation in another. “The purpose is to observe and read each group of calves and implement the time required,” Noffsinger explains. “This is important as we want to encourage bunk activity to teach these cattle to volunteer to go the bunk. We don’t want to ‘push’ them. We want to put the whole herd in a corner and teach them to go by a handler, go straight and go to the bunk.”

The best way to convince managers and owners that acclimation efforts are important is to demonstrate that a pen of calves can be converted from a bawling, traveling mass into a quiet, content, hungry group of animals within 12–18 hours. Noffsinger does this by measuring feed intake, pen behavior and disease resistance within a given group. “What surprises managers is it’s possible to take one pen of calves within a yard and even if they have a neighboring pen that has been going through the panic of weaning, you can actually settle a calf in the middle of this confusion and convince that group of calves to act differently,” he says. “That’s what the potential is. It becomes an important critical part of an arrival program.”

Handling yearlings

Newly weaned calves aren’t the only ones needing special handling. Noffsinger says another challenge is acclimating heavyweight yearling cattle that have been in expansive grazing systems with very little human contact or, worse yet, yearling cattle that have been stressed by each of their handling episodes. “The biggest challenge is encouraging these cattle to relocate and have confidence in a smaller space and a crowded situation where they have many more people and many more cattle than they are used to.” These animals may have never been to a bunk and assume that anything they see is foreign. “Teaching them to have confidence in the bunk, the tank and the handlers is absolutely imperative for performance.”

Reading behavior

The most important survival instinct in prey animals is to conceal weakness, fever, lameness and old age. Once they trust their handlers and settle down, they will exhibit signs of respiratory disease, depression or signs of viral disease on the first day they have a change in their health, rather than the third or fourth day. “You are much more likely to have newly arrived calves express their true state of health when they trust you,” Noffsinger says. “Our main purpose in investing time as we receive these calves is to create a situation where they are willing to eat, rest and hydrate, and most importantly, quickly express their true health status.”

Handlers who are in tune with the animals can immediately read whether a pen is progressing in its attitude, staying neutral, declining or getting more agitated. It’s important to be able to recognize that and know some simple procedures to modulate the level of emotional fitness. One common shortcoming is tolerating abnormal pen distribution of new calves such as calves that have been in a pen three to four days and insist on staying in a corner of the pen away from the bunk and water, not grooming themselves or resting. “The tolerance of that behavior is probably the number one mistake I see.”

There are people who have a personality that fits the job description of acclimating new calves and other people who are less observant, less responsive and have less ability to evaluate the emotional fitness of the animals. “Those are people who need to be doing other things around the feedyard,” Noffsinger says.

“I think the veterinary profession needs to work as a team member and have confidence that many of the final results of the arrival and treatment protocols we’ve designed depend on the people who are there on a constant basis to actually carry out what we’ve asked,” Noffsinger adds. “Training those people to respond to the needs of the cattle nutritionally, physically, emotionally and immunologically can make a big difference.” 

Benefits of proper handling

Quiet handling of newly arrived feedlot calves has multiple benefits. “Changing the behavior of calves can improve intake levels, making it possible to improve the efficacy of arrival vaccines, metaphylaxis and deworming programs,” says Tom Noffsinger, DVM. It is possible to change day-one arrival feed intakes from 3 lbs. of grass hay and 2 lbs. of ration to a full 2-2.5% of bodyweight of receiving ration, he adds.

“We want these animals eating from day one and truly rest. Not just to lie down, but to lie down and sleep soundly. This has greatly improved the efficacy of arrival vaccination programs and has given an improvement in respiratory treatment case-fatality rates of up to 50%.” Noffsinger notes that most of the improvement in the treatment response and case-fatality rates is simply an expression of earlier disease detection when animals are settled and trust their handlers.

The sleep factor

One sign that newly arrived cattle trust their environment is that they are willing to lie down, relax and sleep deeply next to each other, Noff-singer says. One of the tools that will increase or decrease the time it takes for cattle to do that is to routinely use bedding for new cattle, no matter what time of the year it is. “The presence of bedding on the mound, near the bunk or toward the front part of the pen is a huge aid in helping convince cattle that they can eat, drink, relax and sleep.”

Some of these calves have stood for extended periods of time and have been in a mental state where they refuse to lie down. “To watch those exhausted animals take advantage of the bedded areas to completely rest, become refreshed and continue to hydrate and eat is an obviously positive tool,” Noffsinger adds. Hay or straw can be used, and Noffsinger says even if the calves consume some of the straw, it will help keep the rumen functioning until they begin to eat at the bunk.

In the winter, the bedding acts as a buffer against the cold wet ground, and in the summer it can act as a barrier between the hot pen floor and the cattle, thereby keeping the cattle cooler.

Noffsinger would like to see research to determine what an episode of REM sleep does to the immune system, the T-helper cells and the level of acute phase proteins that might have been released in response to the stress at the sale barn or sorting yard. “There are a lot of things we need to research and try to determine what the value of bedding is. Maybe it exceeds the value of a dose of vaccine.”