Recognizing and Reducing Stress in Feedlot Cattle: Good for Them Better for You!

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Source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, http://www.agric.gov.ab.ca/

Most of the factors that cause stress in livestock are a direct result of management practices. The key to ensuring good weight gains and low drug costs is to recognize and reduce the causes of stress. The following is a quick checklist of common stresses and some actions to reduce it:

On arrival at the feedlot
Newly arrived cattle are often tired, hungry, thirsty and scared. The stress of transport is added onto other factors such as mixing with unfamiliar animals and novelty of the new environment. Many studies have shown that the distance of transport, and the amount of mixing affects animal production. For example, cattle hauled an average of 1000 km had live body weight losses of 3.5% while cattle hauled 90 km had weight losses of 2.5%. Still other studies have shown that fasting between 12 and 24 hours during transport caused live weight losses of between 12 and 14 %. In addition, the amount of mixing (calves from many farms) has been linked to increased mortality within the first two weeks of arrival to the feedlot.

A key factor in reducing stress, disease and mortality is to get calves drinking and eating as soon as possible. Water should be accessible and easy to find. A common practice in feedlots is to jam the float in the water bowl for the first day so that calves will be attracted to the running water. Another option is to move a portable water trough to the calves.

A good way to get calves eating is to provide palatable high quality hay; ideally half grass which increases the palatability and half alfalfa which has a high protein content. Feeding pure alfalfa hay should be avoided to reduce bloat or scouring. Hay that is moldy or heat damaged is less palatable. Barley or oats should be provided for extra energy. Silage can be introduced after 3-4 days by mixing it with chopped hay until the calves get used to the taste of it.

If possible, the feeder space should be large enough so that most of the animals can feed at the same time. This is recommended because cattle synchronize their feeding to a large extent. The presence of one animal feeding is enough to encourage others to come to the feed bunk even if they have just recently finished feeding. Providing ample feeder space takes advantage of this social behaviour. The recommenced bunk space for feeder cattle is approximately .5 m per head.

Also, try to buy groups of calves from the same farm when possible as it will reduce the stress of unfamiliarity and the mixing of healthy and sick stock. Keeping animals in their original groups at the feedlot will also reduce aggression and riding as dominance has already been established.

Initially there should be minimal disturbance from people other than the handling required for processing. Disturbance from dogs and loud machinery should also be minimized. Allow the animals to settle a few hours or overnight so that they can become accustomed to their new surroundings and can locate feed and water.

Routine management procedures
Routine processing including vaccination, dehorning, branding, ear tagging and castration are usually done within a day or so after arrival at the feedlot. Many of these procedures are known to cause short-term discomfort and subsequent setback in performance.

The severity of the stress caused by routine procedures can be kept to a minimum in several ways. It is best to do the procedures within a day or two after the animals arrive. Processing early in the feeding program allows the calves more time to recover from procedures like castration and dehorning and allows more time for compensatory gain.

A key factor in reducing stress due to processing is to ensure that they are done quickly and cleanly. In order to accomplish this, make sure the animals are restrained well so that additional injury may be avoided at the time of the procedure. Use of the correct equipment that is clean and functioning properly is essential. Experienced workers who are familiar with the proper techniques can do a procedure more quickly with fewer problems due to hemorrhaging and infection later.

Handling
Believe it or not, some producers, auction mart and trucking personnel still handle livestock roughly simply by habit. The key to reducing handling stress is to always work animals slowly and gently. Avoid the use of whips and electric prods, running, yelling, or jumping to get animals to move. Calm handling promotes calm, stress-free animals.

Several researchers have shown that there is a significant relationship between temperament, handling and productivity. For example, cattle that became agitated during restraint or handling had lower weight gains and tougher meat.

Facility design should promote animal movement and reduce fear. Chutes with solid sides separate the animals from the disturbance of people, dogs and equipment and reduce fear and balking. Curved chutes promote the natural circling movement of cattle and also ensure that animals cannot see what is happening ahead.

Although the effect of “exercise” on stress reduction and the reduced incidence of sick calves has not been studied there is some evidence to suggest that getting lying animals up and moving around during daily pen checking may improve performance in calves. Moving animals makes it is easier to detect poor doers if the animals are moving than if they are lying down. Creating movement may also get calves up to the feeder at a time when they would otherwise be lying. Moving simply means getting the animals up and calmly moving around. After all, cattle are grazers and on pasture can travel between 1 and 24 km per day depending on the type of pasture.

Environmental factors
Stress caused by variations in climate such as extreme heat or cold can be reduced by providing the appropriate environmental modifications. For example, cold stress can be reduced by ensuring adequate bedding, wind shelter and increasing the fibre and energy content of the feed. The ingestion of hay with a high fibre content results in heat production during digestion which is useful to cold stressed animals. Ensure that corrals are clean and access to feed and water is not hindered by to much manure. Provide solid non-slip surfaces, such as roughly finished concrete, around feeders and water sources so that animals are not standing in deep manure when feeding and drinking.

Natural predators such as dogs and coyotes, and insects can greatly stress cattle and reduce productivity. Reduce contact between cattle and untrained farm dogs and disturbances from unfamiliar people and equipment. Provide access to cattle oilers or place ear tags with insecticide on animals in areas where insects are known to reduce productivity.

 

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