Low stress cattle handling pays off for producers
Easy-to-handle cows are made with proper handling and training when they are young. Additionally, a group of stocker calves or preconditioned calves headed for sale are healthier and less likely to get sick if they’ve had low-stress handling.
Quiet cattle handling pays off in many ways.
Becoming a distraction
At weaning, whether fence-line or corral weaning, producers should spend time with calves in the corrals or pastures. Dr. Ron Gill, Texas A&M Livestock Extension Specialist, says this not only gets calves accustomed to seeing people, but it’s also distracting and takes their mind off being weaned.
“Calves are curious about the person and are not focusing on their mom across the fence or worrying about where their mom is, and producers become the surrogate mom during this process,” he says. “The calves start looking to people for comfort and they become a little less stressed.”
Gill adds, “This calms calves down faster than if a producer just puts out hay in the corral and comes back three or four days later when they quit bawling.”
One of the best ways to reduce stress at weaning is to use low-stress handling and stockmanship methods to quiet the calves when they are separated from their mothers. “Even if a producer gets them sorted and separated quietly and puts them in a pen or pasture without a lot of hassle, calves will still be walking the fence and bawling,” Gill continues. “Producers should get in there with them and quietly change their focus. This is part of the process we call acclimation – getting calves settled into their new situation smoothly.”
“There’s usually one or two instigators of the fence-walking and bawling, so if producers can get the instigators to stop and focus on them, this helps,” Gill says. “If a producer can do this periodically during the first day or two, the calves start to realize they can stop, relax and rest.”
“Calves start looking to people for some reassurance and guidance, just as they always looked to their mothers. Ranchers need to take charge of the group and let calves know they can settle down enough to understand people are the ones providing their feed. By being a distraction, producers reduce a lot of the stress on cattle,” he explains.
Stockmanship in action
“We used to have a preconditioning operation and this is when I got into stockmanship,” Gill shares. “We found through careful management practices, sickness, morbidity rates and mortality rates were reduced.”
He continues, “The problems dropped to almost nothing after we implemented these good handling practices. This is more valuable than most people acknowledge. Most producers separate calves from cows, leave them in the pen or pasture and don’t return until they quit bawling. If producers can relieve the stress the first day or two, the calves stop bawling a lot faster.”
“When preconditioning freshly weaned calves, if we could get them calmed down when they got off the truck and let them go through an acclimation process immediately, they did well,” Gill notes. “We took the time to get them relaxed enough they would walk, rather than run, past people and someone could stop them if they needed to.” Gill explains calves went right to feed as soon as they relaxed enough to think before they react to their environment. In fact, Gill adds consumption and average daily gain was much higher in calves given time to relax.
He notes in most cases, calves get sick because they are not eating or drinking enough. The interaction with people is huge because it calms the calves to the point they feel safe enough to eat and drink.
Gill continues, “Producers want calves to be calm enough to stop worrying about being in a new place and be comfortable to look for something to eat.”
“Not everyone has the resources to spend time with their calves, but sometimes producers don’t utilize possibilities,” he says. “Nearly anyone who is calm around cattle can do this. It doesn’t have to be an experienced stockman.”
Gill shares anyone who can spend time with calves – a spouse or a young family member who enjoys being with cattle – can be helpful. However, if someone is there who doesn’t enjoy being around cattle or isn’t comfortable around cattle, the calves won’t respond as well. Gill notes cattle are good at reading people.
Craig Howard, cow boss at Bieber Red Angus Ranch in Leola, SD, says if one handles cows right, their calves learn a lot by taking cues from their mother’s attitude and actions.
“If cows respect a person and respond to pressure, rather than react in fear, the calves pick this up,” Howard says.
Some producers make their calves wild and fearful early on.
“I have seen producers manhandle calves when they are babies, which doesn’t teach them anything except to be afraid of people and want to get away,” says Howard. “We try not to do things this way when we are handling calves.”
He continues, “Even if it takes a few extra minutes to handle cattle calmly and quietly, it pays off and saves lots of time later. My theory is spending five minutes today will save us at least 10 minutes tomorrow.”
Pressure and relief
Give cattle time to figure things out and release pressure if they are going in the right direction. If cattle don’t get any reward or relief, they never learn how to do the right thing when being moved or sorted. It’s much like training a young horse, Howard notes.
“Any time someone is around a horse, cow or kids, they are teaching them something. This something can either make things worse or make them better,” says Howard.
Howard recommends being confident walking into a pen of cows or heifers as cattle can immediately sense a person’s attitude – whether they are confident and calm or nervous.
“If someone thinks they are going to get kicked or run over, they are probably going to get kicked or run over. Cows can read body language,” says Howard.
“Use body language as an advantage,” he shares. “Don’t stand in one spot with a flag or paddle and think it is going to teach cattle anything other than they can get by.”
Howard continues, “Whenever I’m helping new employees learn to work cattle, they don’t get to use anything other than their body to move cattle. If they can’t move cattle with their hands in their pockets, they are just going to teach the cattle bad habits when they get a flag.”
If people give cattle a chance to do what they need to do, make cattle think it’s their idea and help to understand where to go, most cattle work can go very smoothly.
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.