Stressed calves can be a costly mistake |

Stressed calves can be a costly mistake

Becky Mills, Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor
DTN-Progressive Farmer photo by Becky MillsStressed cattle release cortisol, which suppresses the immune system and can make vaccines less effective.

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Stress is a dirty word at Ramsey Stock Farm, especially when it’s used in conjunction with the weaning process.

“We work hard to reduce calf stress because we know stressed calves cost us money down the road,” says Kathleen Eubanks, who manages the family operation in Micanopy, FL.

“Stress affects the immune system and diminishes the efficacy of vaccinations. Stressed calves get sick and go off their feed. Plus, stress and sickness have a negative impact on meat quality.”

Eubanks is well aware of the long-term effects of stress, because this operation retains ownership on their calves all the way through the finishing and harvest phase. That means their 600-pound weaned calves have a 24-hour truck ride ahead of them, all the way to feedlots in the Texas Panhandle. So Ramsey Farm starts early, when calves are tiny, to make weaning as low-stress as possible.

“During the winter, we roll out hay for the brood cows and pour soy hull and corn gluten pellets on top of the hay,” says Eubanks. “When the calves are just six weeks old they start to nibble at the hay and pellets.” High-quality mineral supplements also are out year-round for both cows and calves.

In the fall, about a week before weaning, the operation starts feeding cows again to remind calves about the feed. “When we actually start to wean, the feed truck does 70 percent of the work getting the herd penned,” says Eubanks. “When we get them in the pen, 80 percent of the calves are eating and the other 20 percent learn from them.”

Their version of fenceline weaning is another important part of the process. Calves are brought into the barn, while cows stay in an adjoining pen until the cows feel it’s time to go back to the pasture.

“When we were shutting the cows out, they were tearing down fences to get to their calves,” says Eubanks. “Now, we let them decide when they want to leave their calves and go back to their pasture. It’s easier on them and the calves seem to get over weaning easier. After three days, they’ve quit bawling.”

They still keep the calves in the pen for a week, though, feed them unrolled hay, and pour pellets made of 80 percent soy hulls and 20 percent corn gluten in a bunk. After seven days, they let the calves out into a 15-acre pasture, continuing to feed them hay and pellets for 35-45 days before shipping.

Weaning here is timed for October, when it isn’t quite so hot and humid – another stressor on the calves. The only exception are calves from first-calf heifers. They are weaned in July to get them off their dams as early as possible.

For weaning time vaccinations, Eubanks says they usually wait five days after the actual weaning process to give calves time to quit bawling and walking the fence.

This emphasis on keeping stress levels as low as possible through the weaning process is working at Ramsey Stock Farm. Eubanks says there are still years when bad weather or lack of pens and overcrowding in the feedlot may cause health problems. She clarifies, “Most years we average a 4 percent pull rate. If everything goes well, our death loss is low – around 1 percent.”

Why Stress Hurts

Stress can set up a nasty chain reaction in calves. But why does it hurt so much?

University of Georgia veterinarian Mel Pence explains it has to do with a chemical called cortisol. “Any stress causes the release of cortisol. Stress is additive. More stress means more cortisol is released, which causes even more suppression of the immune system. More suppression means a reduction in the immune response from vaccinations.”

The effects can be long-term, especially if a calf is exposed to other calves with different pathogens when his own immune system is compromised. “With cattle, this typically manifests itself as bovine respiratory disease or pneumonia,” says Pence.

Okeechobee rancher Wes Williamson reduces stress on his calves by getting them to a better climate as soon as possible. “We wean in July, August and September. Those are rainy months. The mosquitoes are bad and the grass is poor quality. We feel like we’re better off getting the calves on the trucks and to cheaper feed and a better environment.”

For most cattle operations, Pence says vaccines ideally should be given three weeks to a month pre-weaning, when calves are around six months old. Another option is to vaccinate on the day of weaning. He adds that producers may want to rethink deworming at the same time they give vaccinations. If possible, deworm long before vaccinating. Pence explains, “We’re starting to believe the immune response is affected by heavily parasitized calves.”

Re-printed with permission from DTN