Best Practices for Animal Well-Being

U.S. cattlemen have long recognized the importance of the proper care and handling of their livestock. From cow/calf operations, to backgrounding/stocker programs, and finally to feedyards and packing plants, ensuring that animals are well cared for not only makes good business sense — it’s also the right thing to do. 

How stress impacts cattle
Stress – both psychological and physical – has the potential to be beneficial and detrimental to cattle health and performance. The difference in the outcome is the duration of the insult inflicting the stress. For example, escaping predation or spending brief durations in a processing chute to receive vaccinations have a positive impact on cattle health and well-being. While stress in short duration may be beneficial, any activity that significantly disturbs the animal’s environment (e.g., weaning, transportation and herd/penmates) and induces a chronic level of stress within the individual animal can have both short- and long-term consequences. Therefore, all cattle handling should be conducted with cattle well-being and comfort as primary concerns.

Stockmanship the game changer
Implementing effective stockmanship — using body language and movement to connect with cattle — remains a differentiator in cattle handling. Calm cattle are easier to handle, easier to diagnose, and easier to manage. Ultimately, effective communication with cattle means less stress for both cattle and humans.

Proper cattle handling is imperative to get an accurate picture of cattle health and well-being. Because of their predator-prey mentality, cattle are instinctively wired to conceal signs of disease and injury. If cattle do not trust handlers, they will hide lameness and illness. Handlers are less likely to recognize the signs of pneumonia — i.e., bovine respiratory disease (BRD) — and other infectious/non-infectious syndromes among stressed cattle. Using body language to create a low-stress environment for cattle allows producers to better care for their animals.

The right setup
Sound cattle-handling facilities are a necessity to maximize a low-stress environment on a cattle operation. All cattle-handling facilities should be built with the typical instincts of cattle in mind.  Other steps for ensuring the right setup include maintaining proper shelter and bedding as necessary. Staff also should be properly trained in low-stress cattle-handling procedures to establish a culture of proper cattle handling across the operation. Ultimately, if the magnitude of stress placed on calves can be reduced, there is an increased likelihood of sufficient health and performance outcomes throughout the population.

Cattle health assessments
When necessary, animal health assessments on sick calves should be done quickly and effectively, with the goal of placing as little stress on the population as possible. Sick calves should be moved to hospital pens in a calm and slow manner. Once placed back in the pen, calves should be allowed to rest in a clean area with water and feed. Working with a veterinarian, producers should establish animal health assessment protocols to have a plan in place for different scenarios.

Despite the best efforts of those in the field, the ability to accurately diagnose cattle with BRD is extremely limited. This suggests that many cattle with BRD are never diagnosed and treated, thereby reducing performance – and increasing mortality – in those cattle. Conversely, many calves without BRD are unnecessarily administered an antimicrobial product, unnecessarily increasing treatment costs. The Whisper® Veterinary Stethoscope is a noninvasive tool used to assist in the BRD diagnosis. This diagnostic stethoscope is designed to establish a lung score (a potential reflection of BRD severity and lung health), providing additional information for producers to use in selecting an appropriate treatment regimen and providing better care for their animals.

Industry support
Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) — a national program that offers guidelines for beef cattle production — is another way for cattle feeders to help ensure that their cattle-handling procedures result in low-stressed cattle and high-quality beef. The BQA program assists producers in determining if their current practices are aiding in the production of thriving, efficient animals. The program includes steps that result in less stress on the animal, less bruising and fewer injection site injuries — all of which help to improve the quality of beef. For more information, visit www.bqa.org.   

How Merck Animal Health is helping
Merck Animal Health is dedicated to helping producers facilitate best practices for animal handling on operations across the United States. The company has established tools and resources, such as Responsible Beef and CreatingConnections, for beef producers and veterinarians to utilize in the enhancement of animal-handling practices. Responsible Beef emphasizes the four pillars of responsible beef production: your cattle, your land, your community and your business. Producers and veterinarians can find content and resources for animal well-being on the program’s website, ResponsibleBeef.com. CreatingConnections is designed to help producers learn more about techniques for better animal handling and stockmanship. The website — creatingconnections.info — offers instructional videos and training information for producers to utilize on their operation. Additionally, Merck Animal Health offers support through its technical services team and industry experts.
Dr. Jason Nickell is a veterinarian with Merck Animal Health. He holds a Ph.D. in Epidemiology from Kansas State University and is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine.