Livestock and producers both lose when cattle slow down from stress
Numerous studies have illustrated the close association of health and animal performance. Negative impacts of disease on carcass quality are well documented. So whether you look at it from a purely financial point of view or as a good steward for your industry, it behooves us as food producers to employ practices that will minimize the incidence, and more importantly, severity, of disease. Doing so helps deliver to consumers the consistent and high quality product that is expected from the U.S. beef industry. How we get there is a refresher on common sense and tried and true husbandry.
Stress plays an integral role in the course and severity of disease. As long as cattle are not stressed, they are very capable of fighting off pathogenic organisms. However, episodes of stress can catapult an entire herd or pen of cattle into an outbreak—even in the face of good nutrition and solid animal health program. Minimizing the amount and duration of a stress event is critical in curbing the severity of the subsequent disease outbreak. Yet the average cow/calf producer might not have invested over time in systems that reduce stress. As a producer, you might want easy, cheap and logical solutions to curbing stressful events. We can’t have all of them combined, but there is a return on investment in finding ways to reduce stress. We’ll stick with logic, then.
In the beef production cycle, there are points in time when stress is a significant risk to animal health. These stressors can be categorized by their root cause: nutritional, environmental, social and health (subclinical disease and parasites). Most of the stressful events that occur on an annual basis are weather or environment related, and in many of these cases, there is little we can do to control such events—except to avoid working cattle for any reason in these conditions. There are a few stressful events during the production cycle that we have complete control over, and knowing how to manage these situations will have a significant impact on the health of the animals.
For brood cows, calving is an annual stressful event. At calving the cow becomes more susceptible to pathogens that exist within her and in her environment. Beef cows are generally very hardy animals, and producers count on that. However, at calving, that cow becomes susceptible to diseases such as metritis or mastitis and infections can easily affect her health. These health stressors reduce the likelihood of successful breeding in a timely manner. If the cow is highly stressed, these diseases can become systemic, which might be fatal for the cow. One of the ways I’ve formulated to keep brood cows healthy is the MFA Ricochet product line. Ricochet cubes are particularly helpful for brood cows in the months leading up to calving and during the stress she faces prior to weaning. We see herd-wide benefits from this investment.
For calves, weaning is the most stressful event. About 60 percent of calves in the United States are born in the late-winter and early spring, which means that about 60 percent of the calves are fall weaned. At weaning there are dramatic changes in nutrition and social structure. During the fall of the year, Midwest nighttime temperatures start to fall and we get cold rain. This environmental change is one of the biggest stressors of newly weaned calves. These conditions are a principal cause of why respiratory issues are the most common weaning health challenge.
While we can’t change the weather, we can minimize the effects of stress by imposing just one stress at a time. This may require castration and dehorning to occur during the warmer, drier weather of summer. We can vaccinate calves while they are still nursing the cow (in other words, use the MFA Health Track program). When separating the pairs for weaning, calves are typically put on dry lots while cows are allowed to remain on grass. This presents a nutritional challenge for the calves. Not only are they no longer consuming milk, but they are supposed to successfully gulp down 10 pounds per day of a pellet ration.
One path toward reducing this kind of doubled weaning stress is by creep feeding the calves starting at least 30 days prior to weaning. You can also reduce stress by leaving calves on familiar pasture so they can continue to consume feed and drink in familiar surroundings. The end goal is to keep calves eating and drinking. Performance and carcass quality will show that you did.
Feedlot cattle experience many stresses during their growing and finishing periods. The movement and entry into stocking operations or feedlots presents challenges in nutritional changes, social changes and often environmental changes. University research shows a stress and inflammatory response after transportation to a feedlot persists for one to two weeks. These challenges can persist longer, especially in cases of extreme inclement weather. In fact, regardless of their previous condition, a blizzard or a heat wave can put cattle into a high stress risk category, putting them at chance for a wide range of health problems. Physiologically, these animals might suffer decreased daily feed intake that spurs decreased gains and higher incidence of acidosis. Ulceration of the rumen can lead to seeding of bacteria into the animal’s circulation, and can cause abscesses in the liver.
In recent years, low-stress cattle handling has gained attention. Beef producers know that happy, comfortable, healthy cattle are growthy cattle that will perform well. So nearly every cattle producer I know works to manage the stressors on their animals. Much of reducing stress is common sense. All of us who make a living with livestock should remember that we don’t think of ourselves as a source of stress, even when we can obviously be one to cattle.
To a pen of cattle, we are a great stress potential. We push them through a chute, pour cold viscous liquid on them, and stick them with a needle. It’s all for their own good, of course, but the animals are thinking that it was a bad day.
Moreover, if that’s the only time they really see us, cattle might decide that a it’s a recurring pattern. That pattern of stress can have enough impact to negatively affect performance, immune system function and morbidity.
When we recognize and observe stress in cattle, we have an opportunity to eliminate and reduce the stress. The long term pay off of good cattle handling will be decreased morbidity and mortality with increased performance and fertility.
The long term investment to get that pay off is a little bit of calendar work and the willingness to invest in new thinking and modern facilities.
Dr. Jim White is ruminant nutritionist for MFA Incorporated.