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Minimizing calf stress increases weight, health

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Some ranchers hold calves over as yearlings, and some buy light calves in the spring to put on grass and grow to a larger weight. Some calves go into a confinement program and are fed a growing ration until they are ready to enter a finishing facility.

“Backgrounding” covers a spectrum of situations that includes preconditioning before and after weaning.

The transition at weaning or when calves go from a grazing program into a feedyard should be accomplished as stress-free as possible.  

Grant Lastiwka, a livestock and forage business specialist at Alberta Agriculture, says Bud Williams showed how sickness in weaned calves could be practically eliminated with low-stress handling and acclimating calves gently into their new situation.  

“The ability to transition calves and allow for some comfort, quieting them down, makes a huge difference. I have always been surprised that there’s been no research done to show the differences that a mother cow or two in with those calves can make,” he says.

Inherent stress

Ranchers are accustomed to the stress on calves when taken from their mothers, using traditional weaning, a process that involves abrupt separation and the calf thrust into a new environment with new feed.  

“We realize there is room for improvement. Al Schafer at Lacombe showed how stress levels in cattle can rise dramatically.  Some of the blood stress indicators, like cortisol, still are not back down to normal as much as two weeks after a stress event,” says Lastiwka.

“We know that stress tends to increase risk for sickness. We also know that any animal that gets sick has a challenge to be profitable. Even beyond that, there is likelihood the stressed animal won’t be a high-quality meat product,” he says.  

Studies have shown meat from stressed animals may be tough and not provide an ideal eating experience.

Handling livestock

Every time ranchers handle animals, but especially at this weaning transition time, they are setting the stage for future performance and profitability – or lack of it, Lastiwka says.  

“With my own calves, I wean them myself because I want the end product to be as high quality as possible. If I can transition my calves from the mother to the feed, in a manner that allows for gain to continue, this shows stress is well managed,” he explains. “The ability to wean calves and sell them two weeks later in a gaining condition is much better than the old days, when we waited at least a month after weaning to get them recovered and gain back the pounds we lost.”

Low-stress weaning

Low-stress weaning resolves this problem, Lastiwka comments.  

“I start before weaning with nose flaps. Calves  are still with their mothers, but they are unable to suckle,” he explains, noting that they then move calves across the fence from their mothers.  

“Producers who are backgrounding their own calves will find that these animals don’t get sick,” he says.  

Many feedlots now put incoming calves onto a grass hay forage ration they are more familiar with, rather than making an abrupt change to silage and concentrates.  The idea is to keep some familiarity and allow for an easy transition within their comfort zone, Lastiwka explains.

“When Bud Williams worked with new cattle coming into a feedlot, getting them calm and quiet, did they look at him as a mother cow giving them guidance? Was their acceptance of him the fact that they knew he wasn’t a predator? He quietly put them in positions where they seemed to find some security and comfort and were more ready to go to feed and water instead of being worried and frantic,” says Lastiwka.

“When we had our Steer Year project many years ago, we found that once an animal got sick, he didn’t make you money. The profit was gone. Having to treat him derails that animal’s progress,” he says.

Lastiwka adds, “We also know from Temple Grandin’s work that wild cattle do not perform as well. They are more readily under stress and they don’t get over it.”

Future of cattle production

The welfare of cattle and the future of the cattle industry are tied together, Lastiwka emphasizes. 

“The industry has not paid producers very well for preconditioning, and many producers have not been doing it,” he says. “Maybe we don’t fully understand what preconditioning is and don’t do it properly.”  

Lastiwka explains every time cattle are handled, they are either made better or worse, depending on how they are handled.

“If we can work with cattle with better understanding, then when they go through the food chain, they have more likelihood of remaining healthy and require less antibiotic treatments and there’s less illness that spreads to other animals,” he says. 

He continues, “We want to prevent illness as much as we can, knowing every producer is a part of a consumer’s eating experience. We all need to take credit for it, and we all can do something positive to help that animal on the way.” 

“In the end, we hope for a tender product that never surprises us with toughness, generating outer and inner layers of fat properly, and makes the consumers’ eating experience one that they want to repeat more often,” Lastiwka says. “It pays to handle cattle quietly and without stress.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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