Beef 911: How can you improve your calf processing?

There are always ways to improve and it’s worthwhile reviewing how things went this year

Since the traditional time for getting calves ready for grass is close to over, it is good to review your protocols, methods, and any issues you had this year and introduce ways to improve next year.

There are two main ways ranchers process calves. The first is the traditional way we call ‘branding,’ where calves are roped and pulled backwards to an area where wrestlers restrain the calves and all procedures are done almost simultaneously. This method can go very smoothly — depending on the experience of the crew — but requires lots of people power. These are mixed with steep tradition and neighbours help each other out.

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The other method is separating and using a runway where calves go into a calf cradle (essentially a small chute) and are restrained and processed by a much smaller crew.

While traditional branding require lots of planning, it also allows people not all that familiar with cattle a chance to participate and experience a western tradition. I have observed and participated in several brandings over the years and for the most part they are well organized and accomplish excellent processing speed and accuracy. The key person is the one who assigns the jobs.

Of course, I always focus on the health aspect, which is what I will do today.

With the vaccines, it is best to give a person one needle, have the syringe labelled with that vaccine, and have them always administer it in the same location. With traditional branding, the calves are on their sides, so because of necessity, the shots need to be given on the same side. The wrestler is often lying over the neck so we must often pick the next-best location.

Because the front leg is lifted, many give one vaccine under the elbow. I would give the least reactive vaccine, so give the one containing the viral vaccines in this location. If these are modified live, they are generally less reactive. Your clostridial vaccines could be given higher in the neck so this allows great separation of vaccines.

I was at a branding where the owner had us use paint sticks on each calf with a different colour for each vaccine — that helped the wrestlers ensure everything was done before releasing them.

Store the vaccines in a cooler with ice packs and only reconstitute enough modified live vaccine to use in one hour. If taking breaks in between groups, that is the time to reconstitute more vaccine. Change needles frequently and use the disposable sharp needles not the old thick-walled steel needles.

Vaccinating during the rain also leads to more injection-site abscessation. Check with your veterinarian that you have the proper diseases to protect against in your vaccines.

Gone are the days when just clostridial vaccines are given. There are many combination vaccines that help prevent respiratory disease and will serve as the priming shot for the booster in the fall at weaning.

If castrating with a knife, ensure the same experienced people do it. Young calves are often done with a closed technique (testicle is kept in its outer protective membrane and the cord is pulled).

This will lead to less infections as everything that is touched is removed. I would follow this up with a disinfectant spray and have the castrator have as clean hands as possible.

With all the stress of vaccinating, castrating, and branding it may be a very wise idea if NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) are given. This will soon be mandatory for bigger calves in our beef code of practice.

If calves are given NSAIDs (on the advice and consultation with your veterinarian) you will find they may recover quicker, not miss even one meal, and gain more weight. Your veterinarian may advise just starting with the castrated bull calves.

A few calves get the odd sprain and strain from being roped and pulled to the processing area, so the NSAID will help in that regard as well. NSAIDs require a prescription and so must be prescribed by your veterinarian.

Branding may one day become a thing of the past, but for now it still acts as identification, although it takes a lot of the labour at spring processing. Use the smallest calf irons. Some producers spray the brand with an aloe vera liquid to promote healing — much like we do when applying it to burns. An added benefit of NSAIDs is they will decrease inflammation and pain at the branding site for up to two days. This all bodes well for animal welfare.

That said, unless you’re running cattle at community pastures or with finance cattle, there really is little reason to brand these days.

Branding is the ideal time for a calf implant to all steer calves and the non-replacement heifer calves — although replacement heifers could be implanted safely once between one month and weaning with some of the implants.

If because of weather (too wet or hot) and sickness has been experienced, your veterinarian may even recommend giving long-acting antibiotics as a preventive treatment in some years. Some new macrolide antibiotics can last upwards of four weeks and for young calves the dose is very low. Fly control can be considered at branding as well as reading or replacing lost RFID tags. Some will use tag readers to monitor which calves have had processing done.

Branding allows for some good camaraderie and socializing, but always remember doing a good job is your livelihood. So always critique yourself and get good ideas when attending other brandings.

We can always learn from each other and improve what we are doing. Make a list of the new things you will implement next branding to improve the health, welfare, and productivity of your herd.

About the author

Columnist

Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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