Ask veterinarian Ken Blue about the health program in his custom preconditioning operation, and you'll probably expect to hear about vaccination schedules and medications. Not so. What you will hear are his reasons, delivered passionately, on the necessity of keeping stress to a bare minimum.
"You have to get them comfortable to tell if something isn't right," says the Lawrenceburg, Tenn., cattleman. "Their defense mechanism is to hide when they are sick, to stay with the herd."
Despite the veterinarian's best efforts, the cattle he preconditions do get sick. One reason is that most start out in the high-risk category. These are mostly unweaned, commingled sale barn cattle. And the culprit is normally respiratory disease.
Respiratory disease, Blue says, is the No. 1 cattle health challenge in the industry. He adds that it is a disease complex best treated early. To do that, you have to see it; and to see it, you have to get those calves at ease.
Blue's efforts, and those of his employees, are aimed at identifying the sick calves that aren't obviously sick -- yet. Catching those calves and treating them keeps re-treats and death loss to a minimum. "You can't do that if they are intimidated by you," he stresses.
After years of working with ailing cattle, how does Blue spot the sick, cut the stress and gain an animal's confidence? It's all about observation and attitude.
1. Easy does it.
"We train these cattle from the time they get off the trailer," he says. "There's no hollering, no running."
He puts calves straight in a pen with fresh feed, water and hay, and leaves them alone for 24 hours. "Their last 24 hours have been pretty tough," he says. "They don't need us hassling them. Think about it. What if you were 4 years old, and you're sitting there eating your Cheerios and watching 'Bugs Bunny' like you do every morning? Then a strange man comes in the door, grabs you and throws you in a van, then puts you in a gym with 50 other kids you don't know. You'd be terrified."
Veterinarian and feedlot consultant Tom Noffsinger agrees with Blue's quiet, hands-off approach for the skittish new arrivals.
"Animals have two defense systems," he explains. "First, they worry about what is outside their bodies. They have to have confidence in their environment and their caregivers, their food and water source, before they have the luxury of their immune system working."
2. Ask, don't tell.
When it is time to move cattle, calves are asked to move, not forced. "They are not inmates. They are guests. We let them go at their own pace," Blue says.
He also says it's important to always give them someplace to go. There should be an empty pen, an alleyway or an open gate. If they balk, he recommends using bovine psychology, not force.
"In their mind, you're a predator," Blue says. "If you get behind them and try to drive them, they are going to circle around you so they can keep you in their sight. Stand beside them."
And while Blue is a dog lover, canines are strictly forbidden near or in the cattle pens. "That causes more fear."
However, for a lesson in low-stress handling, Blue says to watch a Border Collie work. "Once the cattle are moving, they back off."
3. Get prepared.
When it's time to process cattle, Blue and his employees are ready. Vaccines and supplies are in place; gates are set. "We don't ask them to stand there for an hour while we're banging around. The longer they stand there, the more scared they get."
4. Avoid a Crowd.
"We don't like people standing around while we move, process or load cattle. If we are moving them, and they see something fearful, they'll stop. That's when somebody gets hurt or something gets torn up."
5. Slow it down.
"A good many times, the cattle you pull today were sick yesterday," Blue says. "You'll never be able to identify them 100% of the time, but when you pull sick cattle, look for the one that you won't see until tomorrow. Slow down, spend a lot of time with them. When I pull sick cattle, I'll come back an hour later and try to find out what I've missed."
6. Let them visit.
After calves have been in the receiving pen for a few days or a grass trap for a couple of weeks, Blue says they see that area as their safe place. When you try to move them, panic can set in.
"If we are going to move them on a Monday, then Friday we'll open up the gate to the pen and let them go in and out. We call it 'letting them visit the neighbors.' They'll find out leaving the pen isn't a bad thing."
7. Look in the mirror.
"In this industry, we have a tendency to blame the person behind us when things don't go right ... the order buyer, the sale barn, the previous owner," Blue says. "Or we say the vaccines or the medicines aren't working." But at his operation, if he finds they are having to re-treat cattle or their death loss goes up, he says, "we look in the mirror. It means we are slack pulling sick cattle. Their nature is to hide their sickness from us. Our job is to sniff it out.
"Behavior is cheap to change. Medicines and dead cattle are not."
Nebraska veterinarian and feedlot consultant Tom Noffsinger says cattle can be taught to be calm.
"We're learning that every interaction a caregiver has with new arrivals prepares them to work in a voluntary fashion when they are moved or processed. Use simple, short lessons to create orderly movement and guide them to water, food and rest."
He says training can be worthwhile whether it's commingled sale barn calves or freshly weaned replacement heifers on their home operation.
"With replacement heifers, we can teach them to go through the working facility before we ever vaccinate or tag them. We try not to train them with food but with our position. Open the chute, and let them go through. They will actually learn to look forward to the exercise; it is a very stimulating thing."
Noffsinger says cattlemen don't think they have time to teach their cattle, but he stresses that "investing time in training new cattle will be returned in time saved when handling and processing them. Your efforts in training replacement heifers will change those animals for the rest of their lives."
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