Tips for Reducing Stress When Weaning Calves

No matter the segment of the beef system, stress is a natural and unavoidable hurdle that the beef industry must learn to manage. Ironically, it is often the segmentation of the beef system that results in periods of stress. These stressful times often fall around transition intervals when cattle move from one phase of production to the next. Weaning and feedlot receiving are two transition periods during which calves will experience multiple stressors. Prolonged exposure to stress has negative impacts on calf performance, and these negative effects can result in long-term issues.

When you consider the long history of the beef sector, stress is a relatively new issue being examined and discussed by those in the industry. In recent years, scientists and producers have begun to realize the impact that stress can have on calf performance. Fortunately, however, there are solutions for mitigating stress for your cattle during transitions. First, it is important to understand what can cause stress, as well as the consequences of that stress. Stressors that can occur during weaning and receiving include:
• Separation from the dam
The social stress of being removed from the mother can be significant. One management practice that gradually weans calves is fence-line
weaning. This technique involves placing weaned calves and dams in adjacent pastures that allow calves to be able see their mothers while
being physically separated. Make sure you have sturdy fences with no gaps to prevent calves from crawling through to the other side.
• Transportation
It’s inevitable: At some point, cattle will need to be moved. There are many ways that producers can work to reduce stress during transportation — but similarly to humans traveling to new locations or making a big move, this major transition will likely lead to schedule changes and disruptions, changes in eating patterns, etc.
• Commingling
When groups of cattle are mingled together, they can expose each other to new pathogens. Even if the animals are on the same ranch but are from different pastures, producers need to consider a commingling strategy.
• Unfamiliar diets
Going from their mothers’ milk to feed might feel like a stark transition to some calves. The tips later in this article explain how to get calves to the bunk and help them transition to a new, healthy, nutrient-dense diet.

Stress can have consequences on production, including:
• Impaired growth. Stress causes muscle breakdown and can slow the growth of your cattle.
• Suppression of immune functions, which can lead to a decreased ability to resist infection and an increased susceptibility to getting sick.
• Altered behavior, like reduced feed intake.

A holistic view of beef production is necessary to identify where leverage points exist within the production system. Recognizing leverage points allows for a more effective application of management practices to minimize stress and improve performance. In beef production, the most effective approach to minimizing stress is a preventative one. Implement practices that will help you foster and maintain a resilient herd. Resilient calves are going to be able to handle the periods of stress that are inherent within the beef system. The key to building resilient calves is implementing proactive management practices.

Outlined below are five easy and practical management tips that will help you produce resilient cattle.

1. Vaccinate prior to shipping.
Work with your veterinarian to establish a vaccination program prior to your animals being commingled and shipped. A vaccination program is essential to building a healthy immune system prior to animals being exposed to novel pathogens in a new place and when surrounded by other animals.

2. Castrate animals as early as possible.
Castration is a stressful but generally necessary management practice. Research has shown that animals experience less stress when they are castrated at a younger age. Some producers will castrate at birth, when they tag or maybe when they take cattle out to grass. Whatever fits into your management schedule, getting your animals castrated early will allow them to recoup before other stressors manifest throughout the following transition stages.

3. Minimize commingling.
Just like with humans, anytime you bring animals from different sources together, you run the risk of exposing them to pathogens. You can reduce this risk of exposure for calves by being strategic about minimizing mixing between sources of cattle. There is also an element of social stress as the newly commingled animals work to establish a pecking order.

4. Expose calves to feed bunks and water troughs.
Familiarize your animals with feed bunks and water troughs prior to shipping. This can help reduce stress during feedlot arrival, as getting calves to feed bunks prior to shipping will help them get onto feed quicker. The sooner they get on feed and start consuming water, the better they will bounce back from transportation stress.

5. Proper nutrition is essential.
When transitioning cattle, it is important to make sure that their nutritional requirements are being met. Meeting the cattle’s protein, energy and trace mineral requirements is essential for their immune function and growth. During periods of stress, it is common for animals to reduce their feed intake. In these cases, providing diets that are more nutrient-dense to compensate for reduced intake is recommended.

It is unrealistic to think that we can eliminate all stress from the production system, but we can minimize the duration and severity of the stress that animals experience. When utilizing these management techniques, consider a schedule that exposes calves to stressors gradually, rather than all at once. When calves feel high levels of stress and no mitigation strategies are used, they can experience critical setbacks. The most important reason to help calves through periods of stress is to set them up for success for the rest of their life — ultimately leaving you with healthy animals, a healthy reputation and a healthy bottom line.