Graduation season reminds us of the importance of preparation for transitions — in our education and our lives. And just as our kids need elementary and middle school to prepare them for high school, and high school to prepare for college, calves benefit from some early education preparing them for weaning, marketing and later production stages.
Veterinarian Kip Lukasiewicz, of Sandhills Cattle Consultants, Ainsworth, Neb., works with cow-calf, stocker and feedyard clients, and sees the effects of early preparation as calves move through these production stages.
Training should begin, he says, the day a calf is born, with calm, gentle handling. When turning pairs out, he says, “we used to watch and move the cows and let the calves follow. Now we focus more on moving the calf and letting the cow follow.” Handlers need to respect the bond between the cow and the calf. If pairs are resting when you are ready to move them, he suggests walking quietly among them, giving them time to pair up. If calves want to nurse, allow them to do so for 15 to 20 minutes before moving the pairs.
Lukasiewicz says allowing time to pair up and nurse results in an easier process of moving them to a new pasture, with a minimum of bellowing from anxious calves.
Moving pairs in this manner, he says, trains calves to move with their dams and also allows them to accept pressure and become comfortable with their handlers.
Positive first experiences
Another Nebraska veterinarian, Tom Noff-singer, has spent several years teaching low-stress animal-handling methods to producers at all production stages and believes strongly in preparing calves for later experiences. “I’ve witnessed some great things,” he says. “It’s amazing what can be done with preparation and training for calves leading up to weaning.”
Separation stress at weaning is natural and expected, Noffisinger says, assuming managers have used good stockmanship through and after calving to help establish the maternal bond between cows and their calves. Moving mothers and babies as pairs gives each calf experience in pairing and helps establish the relationship. That relationship is positive for the calf’s health and well-being, but the flip side is the strong maternal bond can contribute to stress at weaning.
With that in mind, Noffsinger says, producers can benefit by looking for opportunities to begin preparing calves for weaning by establishing trust with good handling practices and by separating cows and calves for short periods of time.
In Australia, for example, he says some operations move cow-calf pairs into holding pens daily two days prior to AI breeding. Stockmen calmly separate the pairs overnight and reunite them the next morning as the pairs are turned out in small pastures. This demonstrates to impressionable calves that separation from mothers can be tolerated.
Some producers here apply the same concept at branding time, he says. Instead of sorting calves away from cows on branding day and reuniting them immediately, they separate pairs for a day or two before branding. The process can be repeated in the days leading up to weaning, he says, by isolating calves from their dams for a night or two, then reuniting them.
Lukasiewicz also says these “dry runs” prior to events such as branding or vaccinating can provide significant benefits. He suggests sorting calves off a day or two before branding, walking them through the alleys, then returning them to their dams. He acknowledges not many producers are willing to take the time but believes the preparation would pay off at branding and later processing with calmer, easier-handling calves. He also supports the idea of separating calves from their dams for short periods leading up to weaning time. These short periods apart help prepare cows and calves for separation at weaning and also help acclimate calves to being moved and handled, assuming crews use sound, low-stress stockmanship practices.
Prior to weaning, he suggests making some higher-energy ration available to calves, helping prepare their rumens for the transition to backgrounding or finishing rations.
The ultimate goal at weaning, Lukasiewicz says, is to send calves to a feed source in a good mental state so they begin feeding right away. Noffsinger agrees, saying it’s rewarding to see cow-calf and seedstock producers working to acclimate calves by working them using low-stress methods and taking steps like walking them through processing facilities. These steps help prepare calves that will ship out as feeders at or after weaning and also can be of great benefit for replacement heifers. Good handling and early training, he says, can change replacement heifers for the rest of their lives.
Noffsinger says many of his feedyard clients are working hard on stockmanship and extending the effort back to ranchers who sell them calves or retain ownership, because they see results in improved health and performance. They want historical information on vaccination and nutrition, he says, and now they are starting to look at handling.
By knowing more about practices at the ranch, feedyard crews can tailor their methods to
compliment what’s been done, such as by determining whether to work new arrivals on foot or on horseback.
Document what you’re doing, he suggests, and send information about your handling practices, as well as vaccination records, along with the calves, either to the sale barn or into a retained-ownership program. If a feedyard has some history on how the calves were handled — details such as whether they are more accustomed to handlers on foot or on horseback — they can continue the same practices.
Jim Olsen, owner of Windmill Feeders, Elba, Neb., is a client of Lukasiewicz and has worked to build low-stress methods into everyday cattle handling.
Olsen notes big differences in the behavior of calves upon arrival, saying it is easy to tell how calves were handled back at the ranch. The calves that have had regular exposure to people and calm handling tend to settle right in, while those from locations with minimal human contact or rough handling are difficult right off the truck.
How they’re hauled also makes a huge difference, he says, as some drivers take corners or rough roads at excessive speed. Olsen notes that recently he had five loads of calves arrive from the same location. Three of the loads were in his company trucks and two were with contract haulers. The difference was dramatic, with the calves in the company trucks — operated by conscientious drivers — calm upon arrival. In contrast, calves from the contracted trucks were much more agitated, suggesting a stressful trip.
Calves that are excited upon arrival not only take longer to begin eating or drinking, they generate considerably more dust in the holding pens, further raising the risk of respiratory disease.
After unloading newly arrived cattle into holding pens, crew members work them on a daily basis, applying light pressure to train them to move in a desired direction. This activity helps calm new arrivals down quickly. Olsen says that for most of the cattle arriving in his feedyard, working them on horseback seems to keep them more comfortable compared with working them on foot.
The same principles carry over into processing. “We have a team of crew members who process calves, and we try to stick with that same group. They’re experienced, work well together and understand the concept of low-stress handling.”
Olsen would like to know more about how calves were handled back at the ranch, saying it’s often difficult to determine their prior history. “We typically give booster vaccines, deworm and implant on arrival, but if we have documentation of past management, we have a baseline for making decisions.” Olsen says more producers, whether retained owners or those selling weaned calves, provide documentation of their vaccination and weaning practices, but paperwork is still lacking or inadequate in many cases.
The same handling methods apply to a stocker or backgrounding operation, particularly as newly weaned calves arrive. Lukasiewicz offers examples from one of his clients, a Nebraska stocker operation. The ranch, he says, receives bawling, freshly weaned calves from around the region. The settling process begins as soon as trucks arrive. While unloading each truck, a crew member stands in the alley, in a non-threatening manner, counting calves as they walk by. Right from the start, he says, this acclimates arriving calves to their handlers.
Once in the pens, crew members visit the calves several times each day, spending five to 10 minutes quietly moving them from one side to the other. This helps settle the calves in to their new surroundings, and within 24 to 48 hours they have stopped bawling.
Within a couple of days after arrival, once calves have settled, the crews walk them through the processing alley several times, giving no injections or other treatments, just walking them through. When it comes time to actually process the calves, these low-stress practice runs reduce anxiety on the part of calves and frustration for processing crews. Within 72 hours of arrival, Lukasiewicz says, the ranch turns newly weaned calves onto pastures and they are ready to graze.
For processing facilities, Lukasiewicz prefers designs that are open, allowing cattle to see their handlers, and fairly straight. Where possible, he advises producers to adjust floor height and width of their snake alleys depending on the size and temperament of cattle they’re processing. Nervous cattle prefer a wider space and will work easier if they’re not pressed too tightly. Tie “no-back” devices out of the way in the snake alley, he says, or rig them with ropes and pulleys, to prevent them from hitting cattle in the head as they move through. Lukasiewicz suggests working with smaller groups, especially when processing calves that tend to be more wild or nervous, taking a little extra time and emphasizing calm, quiet handling. It turns out easier in the long run.
While facilities are important, the key is to budget enough time at strategic production stages, which can save time later, he says. “We used to think of preconditioning just in terms of vaccinations and deworming.” Now he encourages producers to include other management factors such as nutrition and animal-handling practices — anything that can help protect calf health through the weaning and marketing stages.