Low-stress handling has been around for decades, but the practice is becoming more widespread.
“There has always been a bit of a trend,” said Dr. Roy Lewis, a well-known Alberta veterinarian who had a large-animal practice for many years.
But while the techniques are commonly used in the handling of purebred bulls, on some cow-calf operations, and, increasingly in the transport sector, there’s been a surge of interest from feedlots, particularly in the practice of acclimation.
“You sort of become their friend and their leader, essentially, by showing them where feed and water is — leading to less potential stress and resulting in less sickness,” said Lewis.
It takes extra time, but feedlot operators are starting to appreciate the benefits of acclimation, he said. One of those benefits is a reduction in time and labour to treat animals.
“They are getting that time back and then some, plus they have healthy cattle, so that’s a win win,” he said. “It’s anecdotal at this stage, but their impressions are they are treating less in the pens and cattle are getting on feed better. As a result, they are a little stronger and less likely to succumb to respiratory disease.”
And less respiratory disease means less need for antimicrobials.
“I think this is the next big category,” said Lewis.
But to fully capture that benefit, the entire cattle supply chain needs to be on board, he said.
“Technically it should get better and better,” he said.
Acclimation doesn’t have to just be focused on the feedlot either.
The days of rangy cows, that have rarely seen people, are numbered because cow-calf operations can use some of the concepts to get cows used to people, he said.
Lewis admits it can be more challenging for larger operations, but smaller ones can, for example, work on acclimation during checks.
“If they are going to be used to people on foot later — when they are checking the cows on pasture, when they are walking around them, or putting out mineral — spending the extra time out there will quiet them down too because they just get used to people,” he said.
Having less skittish cows can reduce stress at weaning and at transport time, Lewis added.
“If adrenaline is driving them, they’re stressed and that’s counterproductive. They are using a lot of energy up, and the immune system isn’t as good.”
If the animals are acclimated and as a result, quieted down on feed and don’t lose time on feed, they will be healthier, he said.
“We’re going to have a better immune system and better (ability) to tolerate diseases naturally,” he said.
It will also boost the efficacy of vaccinations — which is reduced if the animal is wild or stressed.
“One leads to the other,” said Lewis. “The immune system has more of a chance of building protection against natural diseases. If they are vaccinated having that immune response should be better, on average.”
When it comes to breeding heifers and cows, “they used to say with AI, a little bit of stress right at breeding can help bring them into heat,” he said.
In other words, a small amount of stress when separating cows from their calves was viewed as beneficial in terms of synchronizing them prior to artificial insemination.
“But constant, long-term stress can decrease reproductive performance,” said Lewis, adding that quieter cattle will perform better, eat better, put on more weight, have a more robust immune system, and be more likely to conceive (stress can even prevent a cow from coming into estrus or having shorter cycles).
Many producers may not realize this, as their cattle are still conceiving, he said.
“The reproduction is always a tough one because there has to be a big enough change to really see a lot. It’s similar to nutrition or body condition score — a cow could be a bit wilder and be OK, they might get away with being marginal for a while.
“Then all of a sudden it will get bad if it goes a little bit further.”
The signs of stress can sometimes be subtle. For example, if there aren’t a lot of calves in the first cycle, and more in the second and third cycles, then stress might be a culprit.
The concept of acclimating cattle to people isn’t new. Back before operations were highly mechanized, farmers would have a small herd and many would background their own calves after weaning, and pail feed the calves.
“We’re all using mechanized feeders and silage wagons now, so we have to try to increase the contact time with the cattle,” Lewis said.
Genetics come into play, too, when it comes to temperament. But even calm cattle benefit from low-stress handling and more contact time with people who employ those techniques, he said.
“Those little bit quieter cattle are easier to quiet down even further.”