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Published October 07, 2013, 11:58 AM

Minimize calf stress during weaning

The key to producing a successful calf crop that thrives from weaning through finishing is in the producer’s ability to minimize calf stress.

By: SDSU Extension Service, SDSU Extension Service

BROOKINGS, S.D. — Soon cows and calves will be gathered off pasture. Calves will be prepared for the next stage in the market chain to be sent to a backgrounder, stocker or feedlot. The key to producing a successful calf crop that thrives from weaning through finishing is in the producer’s ability to minimize calf stress, says Heidi Franzky, South Dakota State University Extension livestock stewardship associate.

“Promoting a high level of calf well-being will ensure your calves perform to the best of their genetic potential during the finishing phase,” Franzky says.

Franzky adds that if a calf’s stress level is low, it is better able to fight off the new disease-causing pathogens which it will be exposed to in the next stage of the marketing chain.

“If calves get sick with these pathogens, it can have lasting effects on average daily gain and increase the days on feed, which can lead to a smaller profit,” she says.

Franzky shares management practices that help promote calf well-being and performance in the feedlot:

• Communicate with your veterinarian and establish a veterinary-client-patient-relationship to develop a disease prevention and treatment plan for your calves. Proper vaccinations and booster doses will be essential this year to promote disease resistance down the road given the tough spring calving season experienced in some areas of the state. Managing the calf’s immune system will help minimize treatment costs and prepare the calf for the feedlot.

• Consider the feasibility of a preconditioning program. An Oklahoma State University study investigated the health and performance of ranch calves from different preconditioning strategies during a 42-day receiving period when commingled with auction market calves. This study showed that calves preconditioned and managed at the ranch of origin for 45 days before entering the feedlot had morbidity (sickness or disease) rates under 10 percent, while calves weaned and immediately shipped and managed as a group upon entering the feedlot had morbidity rates of approximately 35 percent.

Even higher rates of morbidity were seen in calves weaned, shipped and commingled at receiving. Treatment costs during the 42-day receiving period were also approximately $4 lower for calves managed for 45 days at the farm of origin before shipping than the calves shipped at weaning. Overall, managing calves at the farm of origin for 45 days before shipping resulted in healthier calves and lower treatment costs during the receiving period.

• Use everyday interactions to train calves to respond positively to stockman pressure before weaning. Walking calves through a handling facility before processing trains calves to move freely and lowers the stress response to a new environment.

Reducing the stress response will provide more energy to be utilized for growth. This promotes continuous feed and water intake, and higher average daily gains with lower morbidity rates.

• Establish a balanced nutrition program, which includes mineral supplementation, with your nutritionist to ensure proper development of calves. Nutritional deficiencies will impact disease resistance and future growth performance.

• Set up facilities properly and arrange for enough trained labor to assist with all the tasks to be completed at weaning time. It is essential to communicate low-stress cattle handling expectations to all employees to ensure calves learn positive, voluntary behavior responses to stockman pressure. Stressed calves pressured inappropriately will injure themselves and employees and damage equipment. Tom Noffsinger, Curt Pate, Ron Gill and other low-stress cattle handling experts have video and written resources available online to improve stockman cattle handling skills and facility designs.

• Communicate with transporters. Consider hiring Transportation Quality Assurance certified truckers or becoming certified yourself. Additional information on TQA can be found at the national Beef Quality Assurance website.

• Consider implementing a beef quality assurance cow-calf, stocker or feedyard assessment tool for your operation. These assessments provide a valuable method to track measures of cattle-care quality that are associated with wholesome, safe beef production. Using these tools helps convey to consumers that cattle producers take responsibility for cattle care and well-being and food safety.

High-quality beef starts with the calf at the cow’s side, continues thru the feedlot and packing plant and finishes on the consumer’s plate. Weaned calves this year are worth far more than previous years, so investing extra time and attention to proper management before and at weaning is time well spent.

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