When calves arrive at Nodaway Valley Feeders, Nodaway, Iowa, owners Kristi and Todd Drake offer a warm welcome and work to help them feel right at home. The Drakes, Kristi says, have learned that early efforts to acclimate calves to the feedyard and to routine handling pay off through the finishing period, with improved health and performance and a better working environment.

Modern feeding, traditional husbandry

Initially a backgrounding operation, the Drakes moved into finishing cattle about a year ago, with capacity for about 4,000 cattle on feed. One change the couple made to help the profitability of finishing was to switch their focus to higher-quality cattle. They had been purchasing higher-risk cattle out of sale barns to straighten out and background, but now they pay more for calves that will stay healthy and perform well right from the start.

About one-third of the cattle they feed are personally owned or owned in partnership with other producers, with the rest being custom-fed cattle.

The operation also includes pasture land for backgrounding calves on forage prior to finishing. This spring they have about 1,200 calves on pasture. This, Drake says, allows flexibility in cattle purchases. Her husband Todd purchases cattle for the operation and early this spring saw an opportunity to buy some lightweight calves before an expected price increase. Access to grazing land allows the company to stockpile calves for later feeding.

In addition to cattle feeding and backgrounding, the Drakes own and operate New Balance Commodities, a feed business specializing in blending and distributing co-product feeds including distillers’ grains, soy hulls, corn gluten feed and other products.

They started the business five years ago when, through their own growing use of co-products in the feedyard, they recognized a need for a distribution service between the manufacturers and other feedyards and ranches. The company now has grown to employ 19 staff members, brokering raw commodities and blends such as their co-mix creep feed. The majority of their feed business is in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas, although they ship some to other states, primarily by truck, with some rail shipments.

Drake says the operation’s consulting veterinarian, Kip Lukasiewicz, of Sandhills Cattle Consultants, Ainsworth, Neb., initially worked with the feedyard crew on general animal-health practices — keeping high-risk cattle alive. Over time, he helped them adopt low-stress animal-handling methods as a tool to further protect animal health and improve performance.

“When we unload cattle at the yard,” she says, “we think it’s important to let them see us but without scaring them.” The alley in the receiving area includes a place where a worker can stand inside the alley but out of the way. This teaches calves right from the start that they can walk past their handlers without fear.

They also strive to keep new arrivals as comfortable as possible, scraping pens frequently and laying out corn-stalk bedding in wet conditions, as well as keeping clean water in the troughs and fresh hay in the bunks.

Modern feeding, traditional husbandryPen riders begin acclimating calves soon after arrival, often just standing at the back of the pen to encourage them to move up to the feed bunk. The riders calmly work with each pen every day, sometimes with two or three short sessions, learning their flight zones and acclimating them to light pressure.

With the timing depending on the disposition of calves, crew members will begin working them back and forth in the pen, teaching them to stop, start and walk by their handlers without panic. They’ll also work the calves toward a gate and let them stand and relax in that spot, making it easier to move them through the gate later. Every pen is different, Drake says, but with some time, the handlers can easily and calmly move cattle around pens, through gates and up and down alleys.

“At processing, we allow plenty of room, filling the tub with only the number of cattle that will fit down the snake alley at one time, and take time to work cattle calmly, with small movements,” she says. “We used to see cattle go to the back of the pen after processing and lie down, and go off feed for as long as three days.” With better handling, they often go straight to the feedbunk when returned to the pen after processing. “We don’t see any drop off in intake based on bunk readings before and after processing.” Calves that don’t eat for three days after processing, she points out, cost the operation a lot of money and are more likely to get sick.

Frequent low-stress handling in the pens also helps pen riders identify sick cattle earlier, Drake says. Cattle that trust their handlers and do not respond with fear when riders move them around in the pen will display signs of sickness rather than concealing them. It’s also much easier to pull calves for treatment, if needed, because they’re accustomed to taking direction from their handlers.

Drake notes big differences in the temperament of shipped calves arriving at the feedyard, depending on their treatment at the ranch and during transport. Some walk calmly off the truck, while calves in some loads run off the truck, crash into fences and take days to settle down. Some have extremely large flight zones and become agitated when riders are a couple of pens away. “We can calm them down,” she says, by working with them every day. But some calves never really acclimate to the feedyard.

She encourages truckers to give calves time to walk off the truck on their own, without rushing, yelling and especially not using electric prods. Just a little noise from a rattle paddle usually is plenty to get calves moving. Ideally, she says, lowstress handling begins early with the calf and continues through weaning, transport and into later production stages. “If calves are handled well throughout the process, everyone profits.”