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Low-stress cattle handling: An overlooked dimension of management (Proceedings)

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Aug 01, 2010

For those of us who are tolerating bawling calves for four or five days in a row, tolerating buller rates of over a half a percent, please listen and see if some of these things might be helpful. Dr. Lynn and I got interested in these things because we wanted to find easier ways to do things. Our profession is having some problems. We're losing more cattle in feed yards today than we were 10 years ago. We have fabulous scientists and very good antibiotics to use. We're improving vaccine technology every day. But cattle are dying, and they're dying too quickly.

I've been blessed with a chance to watch cattle for many years. As I went through cow/calf operations and feed yards, watching for things I could have a positive impact on, I was limited to what I had to provide to the producer. We all have seen cattle that clearly deserve a revaccination or antibiotics or trace minerals or a change in nutrition. Most of us are very good at seeing those things and providing them for our producers. But what bothered Dr. Lynn and me is that we saw cattle doing things not positive to performance and health and nothing in the back of our pickup applied to that situation. We saw cattle doing things limiting their performance, and they did not need to be revaccinated. The last thing they needed was an antibiotic, and nutritionally, we'd done everything we could. We had nothing to provide. Having Bud help us for sever-al years gave us another thing to put in our toolbox that's been a very effective way to take advantage of something we'd overlooked completely. One of the main messages this morning is the thing we forgot to utilize: the people who are supposed to be taking care of these animals. We are revitalizing the human resources and it's absolutely amazing what we've seen in the positive impact on health performance and safety for both the people and the animals.

There's a lot of research and data out there that comes from slaughter audits that we should be ashamed of. The work done by the people at Great Plains Veterinary Education Center, published in 1999, is very characteristic of that. Dan Thompson reported slaughter audit results at our last meeting—results I'm not proud of. When you look at a calf crop going through a slaughterhouse, there are no difference in lung lesions at slaughter between treated and untreated calves. Forty percent of the calves treated for BRD showed lung lesions at slaughter. When they looked at the calves with "no treatment" tags, 42% had very similar lesions. It's pretty obvious that our profession and the people we train don't have enough observation ability to allow accurate assessment of health. Some of these animals are able to really hide their illness.

A very important issue is morbidity expectations when we ask animals to relocate and endure anxieties of confinement. It's always intrigued me that a two-year-old heifer in Idaho might have to go five or six miles for water, and might have to live off of yucca and a little bit of brome grass, and yet stay in condition score five, conceive and lactate and not have respiratory disease. Then we gather her up and put her in a feedyard in Kansas that has a clean water tank and every nutrient known to man in the bunk, and she'll decide to stand there and refuse to eat and she'll die there. That gives us some potential to change what happens to these animals. If we expect morbidity, we might create it. If we expect health, we might create it. As we talk about the concepts that Bud has helped us learn, Dr. Lynn and I have realized that it's important to address these things every day. There are event intervention opportunities that lead to a fabulous response. Examples include pasture rotation, fall cow work, calving, sorting off one animal, pairing, weaning, sorting. It's absolutely important that you and the people taking care of these animals apply these principles when the animals arrive at a feedyard, when the cowboys ride pens, when we pull cattle, when we process and when we sort.

We need to think about the task at hand and not be so task oriented. We need to plan before we do things. We need to concentrate while we're doing those things, and we need to keep reviewing and see how we've done. We sometimes have a choice. We can open a gate a let those cattle go out on a wheat pasture and do what they normally do—circle around the pasture for 12 to 16 hours. Or we can turn them out correctly. We can wean calves like we conventionally have done, or we can wean them at branding, organizing the branding day to facilitate weaning. I friend in Nebraska explained his weaning system. If they brand on Wednesday, they gather pairs on Tuesday evening and they have two big corrals. They bring 400 or 500 mother cows and they ask the mamas and the babies to go from one corral to another, wait three or four minutes and ask them to do it again, and the third time they send mothers and babies off in two different directions. They gently ease them into an area where they'll be worked the next day. They have a calf cradle or an alley that's left open and the calves just go to supper. Within an hour or two, all the calves figure out they can file through and find their mothers again. When they go in the next morning, it takes just a few minutes to separate the animals. The calves volunteer to walk into the cradle. My friend commented, "When we wean cattle, no one cries." These are examples of applying some of these situations.