Where will your calves travel this fall — directly to a stocker, backgrounder or feeder, or to unknown destinations after a stopover at the local auction market? Will they be ready?

The fall marketing season might seem a long way off, but now is a good time to begin preparing calves for the experience of transportation and movement through the marketing system. Research increasingly demonstrates the potentially negative consequences of stress during transport and acclimation to new environments, while also showing that early treatment and handling practices can influence how calves respond to later events.

 Researchers at Iowa State University, for example, recently reported data on over 13,000 calves from 12 states fed in Iowa feedlots for the Iowa Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity. Over the course of the study, the researchers assigned each animal a disposition score using a scoring system that rates calves as docile, restless or aggressive. They weighed the cattle at arrival, after 35 days, at re-implant and prior to harvest.

Docile calves, on average, weighed more on arrival — 630 pounds compared with 610 pounds — and gained weight faster through the feeding period. Daily gains for calves rated docile averaged 3.17 pounds, compared with 2.91 pounds for aggressive.

At harvest, docile calves graded higher at 74 percent Choice or better, compared with 58 percent for aggressive calves. Overall, docile calves returned an average of $62.19 per head more than aggressive calves.

Genetics certainly influence cattle temperament, but prior experiences also play a role in how they respond to handling and transport. Colorado State University animal-handling specialist Temple Grandin notes that people working with livestock will have an easier time training them if they understand how genetic factors interact with experience. Genetically calm animals can be introduced much more rapidly to new experiences than genetically reactive, excitable animals.

First experiences — either positive or negative — influence how animals respond later, according to Grandin. She cites research in which rats that received electrical shocks the first time they entered a new corridor in a maze would never enter that corridor again. Rats that initially entered the corridor several times without getting a shock would continue to enter it even after receiving shocks during subsequent visits.

The same principle applies to cattle as they move through processing facilities or into trailers. Grandin notes that an animal’s previous experiences with handling will affect its reaction to future handling. She recommends making an animal’s first experience with new facilities, people or equipment as positive as possible.

So, whether you plan to retain ownership of your calves through the growing or finishing stage, or plan to sell them based on reputation, this is a good time to begin training them for their future travels.