As marketing season approaches for this year’s calf crop, this is the time to prepare calves for minimal stress through weaning, transport and transition into the next production phase.

Anyone who has pulled up stakes and moved to a new location knows just how stressful it can be. The same is true for calves, particularly as they move from pastures to the unfamiliar feedlot environment.

Cattle feeders well know the importance of the receiving period. Calves that settle in easily tend to stay healthy and gain weight, while those experiencing a difficult transition go off feed, lose weight and become more susceptible to disease.

Ideally, the “training” process begins well before weaning, but it’s never too late to start. Michigan State University Extension Livestock Specialist Ben Bartlett, DVM, says reducing stress through the weaning period entails a mix of seemingly conflicting approaches. On one hand, he says, you want to minimize change for the calf, such as through fencline weaning. In this system, the calf retains access to its dam, along with the same forage and the same water. The only thing that changes is its access to milk.

On the other hand, Bartlett says, you should introduce inexperienced calves to new things. During the marketing transition, they will experience corrals, alleys, trailers, unfamiliar people and new environments. The lower a calf’s experience level, the more stressful these events will be. Bartlett advises producers to work with calves early and often, providing positive experiences.

Nebraska veterinarians Lynn Locatelli and Tom Noffsinger have worked for several years with managers and crews to implement low-stress handling methods, with particular emphasis on helping calves acclimate to the feedlot.

Noffsinger says cattle deserve five freedoms -- freedom from hunger and thirst, environmental stress, disease, anxiety and injury. In newly arrived feedlot cattle, he says, stress, unfamiliarity, social disruption, no opportunity to get to the bunk, dehydration and exhaustion can create non-eaters and non-drinkers. "These are all management-related issues," He says. And while managers can't control the weather, they can reduce environmental stress by scraping pens and managing the mud..

Noffsinger and Locatelli emphasize that good handling should begin back at the ranch, and calves developed with low-stress methods will adapt more easily to transport and the transition into the feedlot. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, and loads of flighty calves often arrive at the feedlot unaccustomed to handling of any type, leaving susceptible to stress and all its consequences.

In these cases, Locatelli says feedyard crews using low-stress handling methods during the acclimation period can calm even the wildest pens. After unloading calves into a receiving pen, she recommends that feedyard crews spend a little time introducing themselves using a “pressure and release” method. The idea, she says, is to move close enough to the calves to generate a response – applying pressure, then back off – releasing pressure. By applying pressure, you determine the working zone, or distance from which you can work the calves. By repeatedly releasing pressure, you gain the calves’ trust. Once they no longer see you as a threat, they begin to work for you.

Dawn Hnatow, livestock manager at Addison Ranch, Bowie, Texas, also stresses continuous training to prepare cattle for later events. Hnatow spent 11 years working with animal-handling legend Bud Williams in feedyard and ranch settings, and continues to apply his methods.

She uses methodical, repetitive, positive activities year-round with cows and calves. “It’s important to be out there with the calves on a regular basis,” she says. If producers don’t have any contact with their calves from turnout until weaning, they shouldn’t be surprised if weaning and shipping are stressful.

Hnatow regularly drives cow-calf pairs from one location to another, maintaining a pace that allows calves to stay with their dams. Driving them too fast, she says, equates to training cows to leave their calves behind.

Calves need to learn to walk past you, she says, such as when you are standing at an open gate. She achieves that goal through practice. Anytime she has a chance to herd the cattle through a gate, or into a pen, she does so. “I’ll walk them into a pen, then open it up and let them out,” she says. “It gets to where they just don’t even care.”At weaning last fall, Hnatow says, it took just about one hour to sort and pen 300 calves, and when the gate closed, most were already lying down.

Hnatow uses the post-weaning period to reinforce the calves’ earlier training with frequent working in various locations and circumstances. Calves naturally move around a lot during the first few days after weaning, so she takes advantage of that tendency to practice her methods directing their movement. She pens them and releases them, and practices getting them to move past her at a gate. She walks them through an open squeeze chute and across the scales. Everything that’s going to be done at shipping time, she practices during the first few days after weaning.

“I don’t want any problems on shipping day,” she says. The ranch trucks calves to auction in Oklahoma City in July, and the temperature can be 100 degrees early in the morning. “If we’re running 700-pound calves around for hours trying to get them loaded, the shrink can be terrible.” But with the training she provides, shipping day is just like any other, with easy loading, minimal stress to cattle and workers, and minimal shrink.