Prepare calves for the weaning process through the use of low-stress handling principles, and you increase the odds of weaning healthy calves that go right on gaining weight.
That’s Tom Noffsinger’s advice, earned and learned over many years and many weaning seasons. “The impact that caregivers can have from conception to weaning can have a huge, positive impact on cattle performance, health and well-being,” says Noffsinger, a veterinarian from Benkelman, Neb., and one of the foremost stockmanship experts in the U.S. “Training and preparing cattle to be separated from their mothers is a great opportunity and has positive returns when it comes to performance and health.”
If you already embrace low-stress stockmanship or have seen the fruits of others ably and deliberately employing low-stress handling principles, then you know that what could be a chaotic, dusty, bawling tug-of-war between man and beast becomes an orderly, quiet process of give and take.
First, the basics
At its core, Ron Gill, another leading stockmanship expert, explains low-stress handling is about using the basic instincts of cattle to the handler’s advantage. Gill is a Texas A&M University Extension livestock specialist and associate department head for Extension.
For instance, Gill explains that cattle naturally want to see you. Understanding that, plus the points of balance in cattle, their flight zone, the fact that they’re prey animals and other principles, enables handlers to subtly apply pressure when cattle have a place to go and direct them there.
“We’re in the habit of pushing cattle places, particularly in the processing area,” Gill says in a BEEF video. “Cattle want to be able to see you. Cattle have a tendency to want to go around you because they want to keep an eye on you.”
In his training module for weaning preparation offered at the Animal Care Training website, Noffsinger shows footage of pairs gathered on pasture. The mamas collect their babies and drift where directed, quietly and orderly. In other footage, he shows recently weaned calves soon after being unloaded in a backgrounding pen. There’s no bunching and then blasting from one spot to another; the calves chew their cud and laze around. In a word, they look plumb comfortable to be where they are.
None of this is miraculous, nor is it something to be learned in the space of an article. It’s a demonstration of what’s possible by learning and deliberately applying the principles.
Some folks do this fairly naturally, the result of cow sense learned from parents and grandparents. But even folks in this camp say they become more effective once they understand why what they were already doing works. For others, learning and using the principles represents a new education.
Start training calves from birth
“A lot of us don’t want to spend the time getting an animal trained to go through any kind of system. Train cattle to go through the processing area,” Gill says. “Most of us are in a big rush to do that. You need to slow down, teach them how to do it and do it by using their natural instincts to get them through the system. If we don’t train them there, we’ll impact how they go through facilities from then on.”
Done correctly, Gill explains, teaching calves to respond to low-stress handling starts when they’re babies. “If you’re tagging them, tag them correctly; don’t let cattle jump up and run off,” Gill says. “Teach them to handle restraint. Hold them until they calm down and then let them go.”
“Many in the industry are used to spending time at weaning and post-weaning to manage stress, disease and low intake,” Noffsinger says. Instead, he says you’re further ahead by replacing time required in disease management post-weaning with time in weaning preparation.
After all, weaning is one of the most stressful events any calf will ever experience.
“Stress can be a big part of weaning management,” Noffsinger emphasizes. “Being separated from their mothers, changing their location. Asking young animals to go to a new environment with strange feed and water can be a huge psychological and physiological stress.”
Among physical and physiological stresses, Noffsinger cites those associated with adjusting to a new diet, the weather, transportation, pathogens and pain. Psychological stresses include confinement, an unfamiliar environment and social disruption.“Herd structure is tremendously important to these prey animals,” Noffsinger emphasizes.
Add it all up, and it’s unsurprising that a calf’s immune system might be compromised. “The stress associated with handling is one of the key factors in preventing the immune response to vaccines,” Gill says.
On the other hand, acclimation — becoming comfortable with what would be otherwise new experiences that add stress — helps alleviate stress.
In the case of weaning preparation, Noffsinger explains it’s really an extension of what he describes as "pair care," by which calves are already used to joining and traveling with their mamas. The cows are already used to being asked to move and shown where they should go. At the most stressful time of their lives, calves are already comfortable with being separated because they’ve been sorted previously in a low-stress way.
Noffsinger suggests training the calves in low-stress sorting when pairs are gathered and sorted ahead of weaning, be it for branding calves or synchronizing cows.
For low-stress sorting, Noffsinger says using two adjoining pens is ideal. Bring them into the right-hand pen. Move the pairs into the left-hand pen and then back to the right-hand one. From there, sort the cows off the calves into the left-hand pen. Let them out to graze while keeping the calves penned for the night. The next morning, let the calves out to rejoin their mamas, to rest and eat.
In the case of branding, Noffsinger says you’d gather and sort the pairs once again as you did before, keeping the calves penned for branding the next morning. For weaning, he says the process is the same; instead of branding, you send the calves on to the selected weaning process.
“Our goal is to create a scenario where cattle understand we will transfer leadership from cows to the caregiver as we sort, rejoin and wean,” Noffsinger explains. “Weaning success is an extension of pair care. It requires forward planning. It’s really important that we change our paradigm of calf behavior at weaning time and shipping time.”
Gill emphasizes that spending time early on to train calves pays dividends every time you need to handle them.
“All of this is a systems approach that starts at cow-calf levels, but you have to manage it through the weaning phase, the stocker phase, the feedlot phase to make sure these cattle handle correctly,” Gill says.
For more information:
The “Animal Handling Training: Weaning Preparation” video is one of 14 Noffsinger training modules available for purchase at the Animal Care Training website. Others include “Tagging Newborns,” “Bud Box Loadout,” “Pen Removal,” “Arrival Acclimation” and “Cattle Processing.”
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