High-priced cattle earn more when you handle them efficiently
We will be weaning fall-born calves soon. When I checked beef prices this morning, I was reminded that most people consider weanling calves as self-propelled sacks of cash these days. Given that they are worth so much, it might be in your interest to make the reward from these animals bigger and even more valuable.
Numerous studies have illustrated the close association of health, animal performance and carcass quality. If you’ve recently sold many calves, you know it truly is money in the bank to ensure that calves are healthy and productive. Stress is extremely influential in the course and severity of disease. As long as cattle are not stressed, they are more capable of fighting off pathogenic organisms. However, a stressful event can push a group of cattle into an outbreak, even Health Track calves (although Health Track calves are much more likely to deal better with the stress).
What events are stressful? For my part, I become stressed when my spouse informs me that, “We need to talk.” My first inclination is to set fire to our living room—because I figure a house fire will do less damage. But that’s an aside, and not much help to your herd. In cow calf/operations, stressors show up ever year. They are typically nutritional, environmental, social and or health-stress events. Many are weather related, and, while we can’t change the weather, we can provide good shelter. We can feed to accommodate the increased nutritional needs during bad weather. And, we can avoid working and transporting cattle during inclement weather.
Because we can’t change the weather, it’s a given that cattle will suffer stress this time of year. Most calves in the country are born during the last half of winter to the first half of spring. Calving is a huge stress on the cow, and, later on, weaning is going to stress the calf.
About a third of the Midwest herd is fall-calving. These calves are going to get weaned soon, if you haven’t already started. Remember, at weaning there is a dramatic change in nutrition and social structure. You can reduce stress by offering creep feed to nursing calves. Nursing calves fed MFA Cattle Charge or MFA Beef Creep have been shown to be substantially heavier at weaning. We can also show that these calves gain more weight the first 6 weeks after weaning than their herdmates that were not fed creep feed while nursing.
To minimize stress in newly weaned calves, it is helpful to subject the calves to just one stress at a time. This may require castration and dehorning to occur during the warmer, drier weather of summer. It may also require vaccination at a time when the calves are under minimal stress—while nursing the cow, as the Health Track protocol describes. I have seen bulls castrated at weaning that performed more poorly than their heifer siblings. Usually you would expect steers/bulls to outperform heifers, but the older the animals are when they are dehorned/castrated, the greater the magnitude of the stress.
Because weaning is such a stressful event, the backgrounding period immediately after weaning can be fraught with respiratory disease. Disease incidence during this time will have a significant impact on total days on feed as well as carcass quality. The chart at right shows the ADG we saw at the MFA’s Marshal research farm on backgrounding cattle when we separated them by the number of times we had to teat them. As the number of treatments went up, performance went down. When we treated them more than three times, on average, ADG went negative.
Low-stress cattle handling has become a popular topic. At MFA we have sponsored low-stress animal-handling clinics because it is a practice that is in everyone’s best interest. Low-stress, comfortable cattle perform well: it is in the economic/social/political best interest that we work to manage and reduce the stressors animals experience.
However, many times we don’t think of ourselves (people) as a source of stress. “My cows love me,” you may say. “They are tame. They run to the truck when I go check them. Why, I have to push them out of the way.”
On the other hand, when we run them through a chute, well, that is a different story. That’s when the comments go more along the lines of: “We really need to get this done. How can it go faster,” and “I wish that blasted dog wouldn’t keep them stirred up. Why can’t he just push them up then leave them alone?”
Some of the best handlers approach the working cattle as if there was nothing much going on. They move slowly, but the processing goes fast. The movement is smooth and there are no stops because due to lacking facilities and worked-up cows. Having a cow flip over the top can really slow down the process. In simple terms, rewards of good cattle handling are reduced costs, reduced morbidity, increased growth and better reproductive efficiency.
One of the simplest and easiest methods for the calf stress manager is weaning calves on the trailer. This abrupt separation results in substantial stress. Such calves tend to be less likely to eat and drink. They tend to walk the fence and bawl—and they tend to have lower ADG than calves weaned by other methods.
If you have strong and well-kept fence, fenceline weaning will result in less stress on the cow and the calf. Cows are on one side of the fence, calves are on the other. But, less-than-adequate fence in this situation may be very stressful for the manager. And separating the calves a second time does add stress to all involved.
If fencing resources are inadequate for fenceline weaning, you can try some sort of weaning device. They come in a couple different formats, but basically they slip onto the front of the calf’s muzzle. It allows the calf to eat and drink, but keeps it from nursing. After a week of not nursing, mom’s teats shrink, and the calf is left to look for feed elsewhere. At that point, the devices are removed, and the calves and dams put on opposite sides of a fence. This fence does not need to be nearly as stout the typical fenceline-weaning fence. A serious drawback to the method is needing to handle the calves twice.
Health maintenance pays
Health Track calves get two rounds of shots. It works to reduce stress because vaccination primes the immune system—it enhances the ability of the immune system to remember and quickly respond when infection or disease looms on the horizon. Parasite control has been shown to have significant positive effects on the daily gain and morbidity of calves. Internal and external parasites rob nutrients that could have gone to growth. Additionally controlling external parasites reduces irritation and stress on the calf.
Dr. Jim White is ruminant nutritionist for MFA Incorporated.