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Handling calves calmly at weaning time reduces stress, improves performance

Written by Heather Smith Thomas

The way calves are handled during their weaning period makes a big difference in whether they stay healthy, and many people are starting to realize the value of gently working with these pens of calves. 

“It really pays to work with the calves, walking through them quietly when we get them in for weaning or get in a new load of purchased calves,” says Ron Gill of Texas A&M. 

“We become the caregivers, and this helps take the stress off them.  They are in panic mode and looking for guidance during weaning,” Gill continues. “Thus it is really important, especially with co-mingled calves that were brought together from multiple sources, to get in with them and give them something to focus on.”

“Ranchers can stop all the walking and bawling if they understand this acclimation process,” he says. 

Reducing stress

“We can get calves to stop pacing the fence and work for us.  This takes a lot of stress away from them,” he explains, referencing methods taught by the late Bud Williams, showing ranchers and feedlot employees how to “settle” these calves upon arrival at the new place or the feedyard.

“It takes a little bit of time to work with these calves, but it pays big dividends in less sickness, reduction of pull rates, etc.,” Gill continues. “We don’t have research data on this, but we have a lot of observational and personal experience.”

Gill says that when he owned a preconditioning facility, they began acclimating calves upon arrival, a practice which dramatically reduced health problems. He also used to own a preconditioning facility, and when we started acclimating calves upon arrival, health problems and death losses dropped dramatically. 

“That’s when I started doing cattle handling clinics because I felt that other people needed to know how beneficial this is,” says Gill.

Off the truck

“When preconditioning fresh calves, in our experience if we can get them calmed down when they get off the truck and let them go through an acclimation process immediately after coming of the truck, they do really well,” Gill begins.

He says that it is important to take the time to get them relaxed, to the point the calves would walk by ranchers, rather than running, and where the rancher could stop them if they wanted to.

“Starting them eating was not a problem as soon as their mind calmed down, once they were calm enough to think about things instead of just reacting to their environment,” he adds. “Consumption, average daily gain, etc., were quite a bit higher in those calves.

“Most of the calves that get sick are getting sick because they are not eating or drinking enough,” he explains,. “so even nutrition helps. The interaction is huge because it calms them enough that they will then eat and drink.” 

Gill says, “We want them calm enough that they are not worrying about being in a new place, just looking for something to eat, whether it be grass or some kind of supplement.”

Health benefits

By calming calves down early, Gill says the immune system begins to function better.

Additionally, he suggests that waiting to vaccinate calves until after they are settled can also help improve immunity.

“A lot of times people process the calves the first day they come in and give them vaccinations.  This puts additional stress on the calves, and if the calf has a compromised immune system, some of those vaccines will actually depress immunity,” he explains. “I like to wait a day or two, until we get them calmed down and they are not so flighty, not reacting so much to the processing part of it.”

By waiting, vaccines are more effective in the first round of shots.

Gill also notes that waiting a few days for calves to calm down also provides an additional opportunity to work the animals, calming them further before processing.   

“Every time we moved calves, we always settled them down, to where they’d walk past us and then put them where we want them,” Gill says.

Increasing handling ability

“We may not get them all to a point where they are not so flighty, but we get a high percent to calm down enough to walk past us,” Gill explains. “This helps calm the whole group.  Otherwise, they all run wildly, running into one another. This is stressful and creates a panic mode for the whole group.”

“After we’ve worked with them and they are accustomed to us, if a flighty one runs into the rest of those calves they look at him like, ‘What did you do that for?’  Taking time to work with a group of purchased calves is very important,” he says.

Concerns

A lot of people worry more about the injections involved in preconditioning – whether vaccinations or antibiotic treatments or whatever it might be, and that’s where a lot of the focus is. 

“I feel we need to shift that focus more to handling and management. Vaccinations and antibiotics are important tools, but if we don’t manage those calves properly, those tools don’t have a chance to be as effective,” says Gill.

“Those 45 to 60 days post-weaning are crucial.  If we take care of those calves like we should during that time, the rest of it becomes very easy.  This is the critical time, yet this is the segment in our industry that gets the least attention,” he notes. “We talk about the need for it, but not everyone has the resources to do that.  I think sometimes we don’t utilize possibilities.”

Gill emphasizes that taking time to calm cattle down doesn’t take a good cowboy or highly experienced stockman, but rather, anyone who takes the time to work with livestock can be accomplish the goal.

“We just need someone who will do it and spend a little time,” he says. “It could be a spouse, young family members just someone who enjoys being with cattle and doesn’t mind doing it.”

He adds,  “If we send someone who doesn’t enjoy it, the cattle won’t respond as well.  A cow knows what we know and what we don’t know.  They are good at ‘reading’ people.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..