Imagine two fictional loads of calves, with similar genetics from adjacent ranches. Both groups receive the same vaccines and dewormers, and ship on the same date after weaning to the same stocker operation. Upon arrival, calves from one load settle in, stay healthy, eat, drink and gain weight from day one. Calves from the other group are nervous, don’t eat, lose weight and half get sick.

While the scenario is fictional, it illustrates a reality that repeats itself every fall as calves ship from ranches around the country.

Data from Kansas State University’s Beef Stocker Unit or example, show considerable variation in the condition – and performance – of cattle as they arrive. Researchers tracked 33 loads of cattle, with a total of 3,384 head, from March 2006 to October 2008. Daily gains averaged 2.22 pounds across all loads, but ranged from a low of 1.23 pounds to 3.01 pounds for a high. Feed conversion averaged 6.6 pounds of feed per pound of gain, but ranged from 5.49 pounds to 8.92 pounds.

On average for all the loads, 27.9 percent of the calves were pulled at least once for respiratory treatment. The low per load, however, was zero pulls, while the high was 64.7 percent. Mortality rates followed a similar trend, ranging from zero death loss to a high of 14.3 percent.

Several factors certainly could be involved in the disparity between these loads, including genetics, nutrition, weather and others, but one possible culprit is the way people handled the calves prior to and during marketing.

Prepare for weaning

In the life of a calf, leaving its dam to enter the “system” – salebarn, background lot, grazing operation or feedlot – is a giant transition in the life of a calf, says veterinarian Lynn Locatelli, Wolf Creek, Mont. “Ranchers can adequately prepare calves for this transition or they can ignore the preparation and allow the calves to suffer the consequences.” Those consequences include morbidity, perhaps mortality and at the very least, lost performance.

Ideally, the “training” process begins well before weaning, but it’s never too late to start. Michigan State University Extension Livestock Specialist Ben Bartlett, PhD, 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 calves to changes and new experiences. Typically at weaning, calves are inexperienced, he says. They’ve spent their time in the same pastures with the same herdmates and the same people tending them.

But through the marketing transition, they will experience corrals, alleys, trailers, unfamiliar people and new environments. The lower a calf’s experience level with new things, the more stressful these events will be. Bartlett advises producers to work with calves during the period leading up to shipping. Move them from one pasture to another, or through an alley or chute. Herd them into a corral then let them out. Work them on horseback, on foot and on a four-wheeler. By keeping these activities calm and positive, you help calves gain confidence that new experiences are not necessarily frightening.

There are three reasons animals do what they do, Bartlett says – anatomy, such as their vision and hearing, instinct, and experience. Handlers can’t change an animal’s anatomy or instinct, although some knowledge of both can help us understand their behavior. The one thing we can influence is their experience.

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.”

When weaning day arrives, she says, the calves have been penned enough that it’s nothing new. Stress is considerably lower than if weaning is the first time calves are sorted and penned. 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.

Locatelli also subscribes to low-stress handling philosophies as taught by Williams, and conducts training with ranches and feedyards through a company called Cattle Expressions. “If skilled preparation is lacking,” she says, it is never too late to begin good handling.” Simple driving of the herd or small groups of cattle will help make subsequent gathering and driving smoother. “Depending on the size of the herd, the cattle can be gathered, corralled and sorted, simply as a practice run to build skill in the handlers and confidence in the cattle. This tunes up the personnel handling the cattle so on payday it will be clear how the handlers need to work.”

She stresses that calm handling and calm, guided movement are not detrimental to the cattle. “Panic movement is what results in injury, stress and lost performance, so it makes sense to have the cattle working calmly for the handlers before payday arrives. The larger the herd size and the tougher the terrain, the more difficult practice runs become therefore it is essential that large operations concentrate their efforts on good handling practices constantly and don’t wait to the big day and hope that everything goes well.”

Jon Haindl has noticed improvement in several aspects of his operation since applying similar concepts. Haindl raises registered Maine-Anjou cattle and a commercial cow herd in near Cooks, Mich., on the state’s Upper Peninsula. He has used artificial insemination since the 1970s, and began marketing crossbred black calves directly to buyers through the Michigan Livestock Exchange, now United Producers, over 30 years ago. This marketing program, which displays projected photographs of the calves at a livestock auction facility, allows him to sell semi-trailer loads of calves in September for November delivery.

Haindl says that as he made the transition to shipping calves after weaning, he saw a need to focus on management to protect calf health through the transition, enhance his reputation with buyers and maximize calf value. He already was using modified-live four-way vaccines prior to and at weaning, but says the stress of weaning compromised their immunity and reduced performance.

With the assistance of Bartlett and other specialists from MSU, he implemented a fenceline weaning system, which he says produced dramatic improvements. “It’s been a learning process,” he says, explaining that he has made adjustments over time based on his facilities and forage availability.

Haindl says he uses a controlled, rotational grazing system, so he can move pairs to fresh grass at weaning time. After sorting the cows and calves to adjacent paddocks separated with fencing, he can rotate them to side-by-side paddocks as needed. He locates the calves’ water source on the side of the paddock away from the cows, which helps acclimate them to being separated for short times.

“We supplement calves with a grain mix and ionophore,” he says, to hit target gains of around 2.25 pounds per day for steers and 2 pounds for heifers. “We put the feed bunks along the fence close to the cows, since that’s where the calves spend most of their time.”

Haindl adds that if he retained ownership into the feedlot, he wouldn’t be so concerned with post-weaning gains, but since pay weight is determined at delivery in November, he wants the calves to keep gaining.

When he first started using the fenceline system, he left the cows and calves in adjacent pastures for a week or more, but has now reduced that time to three or four days. Calves bellow and pace a little, but generally settle down and make an easy transition.

Haindl says his preconditioning program, supported by fenceline weaning and low-stress animal handling, has paid off with excellent calf health and marketability. He has virtually no death loss and the occasional case of respiratory disease tends to be minor. At sale time, he typically has return customers bidding and paying top prices for his calves based on reputation and past performance. He follows up with buyers regarding their experience and satisfaction with his calves, and their response has been positive.

Positive processing

Your facilities don’t need to be perfect, Bartlett says. You just need to get your cattle used to them, and look for any flaws or obstructions that interfere with easy movement. When facilities don’t work, stop what you are doing and try to identify the problem. Walk through an alley or loading ramp and search for the cause. Finding and solving the problem will reduce the stress (to workers and cattle) of forcing cattle to go where they don’t want to go, and ultimately saves time.

In Michigan, Bartlett notes, producers are testing for TB, which requires two trips through the chute within three days. Some complain their cattle won’t cooperate the second time. “It’s not the needle that causes the problem,” he says. “Horseflies cause more pain and blood loss than a narrow-gauge needle.” Instead, their fear probably indicates poor handling the first time around.

Haindl agrees, saying he has studied the animal-handling philosophies and methods of renowned experts Temple Grandin and Bud Williams, and has worked with Ben Bartlett, who conducts workshops on low-stress handling in Michigan.

The intensive rotational grazing system requires moving cows and calves frequently, Haindl says, usually every three days but sometimes every day or even more often when the weather is dry and forage is short. Done properly, using low-stress methods, this regular exposure helps prepare calves for subsequent processing. 

Michigan requires individual animal identification as part of its program for controlling Bovine Tuberculosis, and Haindl uses electronic ID tags along with visual tags. He also uses a scale under the processing chute as a management tool. A tag reader electronically captures each animal’s identification as it goes through the chute, and the system automatically enters weights to individual animal records. Experience with low-stress handling makes these processes easier on calves and workers, he says.

Getting ready to ship

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 for speeding them up, slowing them down and changing their direction. She pens them and releases them, and practices getting them to move past her at a gate, which is important for later sorting. She walks them through an open squeeze chute and across the scales. Everything that’s going to be done at shipping time, she practices as “dry runs” during the first few days after weaning.

“I don’t want any problems on shipping day,” she says. The ranch trucks calves in July to auction in Oklahoma City. The temperature, Hnatow says, 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.

“Our human instincts dictating how we think we should handle cattle are not really very good,” Hnotow says. “It takes training. One of the most important lessons I learned from Bud Williams is that when handling cattle, if they run through a fence or move the wrong direction, it’s my fault. I need to figure out what I did wrong and correct it so they will do what I intend.”

Bartlett recommends walking cattle through the facilities in the days leading up to shipping to get them used to it. He hears people say “If we get the calves in the corral once, we’re going to load them, because we won’t get them in there again.” That, he says, indicates the handlers are doing something wrong, creating a negative experience for the calves.

Bartlett provides an example from his own operation where he describes his facilities as functional, but nothing fancy. While loading calves one day from a covered processing area, the calves kept stopping in the alley, not wanting to walk into the trailer. Bartlett says he had worked the calves frequently and they usually were cooperative, so when they protested he stopped to search for the cause. He found that because of the time of day, sunlight coming through a window was casting a shadow that looked like a series of bars across the alley. After deploying what he describes as a “high-tech” solution – propping a sheet of cardboard over the window – the calves walked right onto the truck.

Bartlett notes that over the long-term, a producer’s reputation for calm, easy-doing calves can bring higher prices. But you don’t have to wait that long to see the benefits of low-stress handling.

On shipping day, for example, stresses associated with a difficult roundup, sorting and loading cattle onto trailers translates to more shrink, Bartlett says. “How much does a cow pie weigh?” he asks. “Three or four pounds?” Each one that lands on the ground before the sale reduces pay weight.

Bartlett estimates that good handling practices – training calves to accept new experiences and minimizing stress through shipping – can reduce shrink from an average of around 6 percent to more like 3 percent. For a 500 pound calf selling for $110 per hundredweight, that adds up to $16.50 per head.

Shrink isn’t the only issue. Stress raises cortisol levels in cattle, reducing their response to vaccines and limiting the effectiveness of your preconditioning program. Stressed calves have compromised immunity and are more likely to become sick during the transition from ranch to feedlot. Also, Bartlett points out, a calf that is worried and frightened upon arrival at the feedlot is not eating or drinking.

Bartlett says low-stress handling has improved efficiency in his own cattle operation, and he has worked with receptive producers around the state. He notes though, that producers who participate in seminars and workshops are the ones who are open to new ideas and are looking for ways to improve.

Bartlett uses the term “knowledge technology” to describe advances in management practices. “We have product technology such as GPS systems in tractors or advanced vaccines for livestock, and we have knowledge technology such as intensive grazing and now, low-stress animal handling. We go from using force to using knowledge.”

Handlers need to learn to listen to their cattle, understand the signals they send and respond accordingly. Bartlett relates a story from a Michigan veterinarian who had a close call with an aggressive bull. The veterinarian told him “you know, that bull told me several times he wanted me to leave the pen, and I wasn’t listening.”

Truth in trucking

As the weaning and marketing seasons approach, cow-calf producers can take several steps to prepare their calves for transport and minimize problems during transport. But no matter how well calves are accustomed to handling, shipping day can turn into a wreck if ranchers, crew members and truck drivers are not working toward the same goals.

Michigan State University Extension livestock specialist Ben Bartlett, DVM, stresses the need for producers to communicate with truckers. “Sometimes we overlook the obvious,” he says. “If you haven’t worked with a trucking firm before, talk with them. Tell them that your operation stresses calm animal handling, and you want drivers who can do the same. Create an expectation that the process will be quiet and relaxed.”

Ranchers need to do their part too, Bartlett says. Prepare your crew members with training on low-stress animal-handling methods, and clearly communicate your expectations for how gathering, sorting and loading will proceed on shipping day. Limit the use of new crew members, keep the number of people involved to a minimum and foster positive attitudes.

Let the trucking company know that you will have the cattle ready to load when the trucks arrive, then follow through. From that point, assuming you have prepared the calves with prior good handling, you can assure the drivers that loading will be easy, and actually will take less time if shouting, running and prodding is kept to a minimum.

Bartlett says that if you are ready to load, and have calves that will get on the trailer easily, drivers often are happy to stand aside and let you and your crew load the cattle. Show consideration for the drivers. Maybe offer them coffee and donuts when they arrive. If a driver leaves your place feeling like he was treated well, and knowing that you care about the way your calves are handled, he’s most likely to transport them carefully. If you are happy with the service a driver provides, Bartlett suggests dropping him – and his boss – a short note saying so. A positive relationship can pay off year after year.

Check your facilities for possible problems before loading, and correct problems that arise on shipping day. Bartlett provides an example from his own operation saying he’d prepared calves for loading, but they kept stopping in the alley, not wanting to walk into the trailer. He stopped to search for the cause, and found that sunlight coming through a window was casting a shadow that looked like a series of bars across the alley. After deploying what he describes as a “high-tech” solution – propping a sheet of cardboard over the window – the calves walked right onto the truck.

Bartlett says that if truckers show up at your ranch and you don’t like what you see – trailers still filthy from their last load, drivers who handle cattle roughly – tell them you’ve decided not to ship cattle that day, send them away and find another hauling service. It’s that important.

“Our work with low-stress handling is, of course, good for the calf,” Bartlett says. “It’s also better for the people doing the work and better for the public's perception of our care of our animals. With all the interest in where a person's food comes from, how the animals were treated, and the new laws being written on animal care, we have a great story to tell.  We need to convey to producers that the public is going to be looking over our shoulder and we better be able to justify what we are doing. Low stress is a story we can be proud of.”

Train early, train often

Late is better than never for training cattle with good handling practices, but Lynn Locatelli, DVM, Cattle Expressions, says ranchers have several early opportunities to condition their calves for the transition prior to weaning. These include: 

  • Calf tagging – The rancher interacts with the pair soon after birth to tag the calf. This is a good time to begin driving the pairs using low-stress handling. Calves learn quickly from their dams and the moves will become effortless.
  • Branding – This incorporates gathering, sorting and processing and should include proper handling through every step of the process.  With proper handling the pressures that are placed on the calves are released when the correct behaviors occur. This teaches calves to take pressure and instills in their minds that pressure will be released
  • Preconditioning – This is the ultimate practice run that leaves a lasting impression on calves. Make sure everyone knows what to do when working in the processing facilities, and make the gather, processing and re-pairing a calm, guided experience.

“If good handling practices are always employed,” she adds, the calves are ready for their fall adventure.”