Better Stockmanship Builds Better Business

By: Jason Nickell, D.V.M., Merck Animal Health
Cattle producers have long known the importance of properly caring for their animals. At every stage of cattle development and processing – from the cow-calf operation to the feedyard – improving animal-handling practices will lead to more successful cattle operations. These improved procedures, begin with understanding physiological changes of cattle and assessing current practices for animal-handling.
How Stress Impacts Cattle
Stress of any kind can be either advantageous (if managed properly) or potentially damaging to cattle health. What makes the difference? The duration of the stress event is a major factor. Stress in short duration can be beneficial. For example, animals spending brief periods in a processing chute to get vaccinated has a positive impact on animal health and well-being.
However, any activity that disturbs the animal’s environment and includes a chronic level of stress within the individual animal can have significant, negative consequences. Some of these include:
  • Weaning
  • Transportation
  • New environments
  • New diets
  • Unfamiliar herd or penmates
Yes, these scenarios are unavoidable in the production of cattle. The goal, therefore, is to minimize the stress of these situations, making cattle well-being and comfort the top priority.
What are the benefits? Calm cattle are easier to handle, easier to diagnose and easier to manage. For that reason, implementing effective stockmanship – the practice of using body language and movement to connect with cattle – is key. If cattle do not trust handlers, they will hide lameness and illness; therefore 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.
Evaluate Your Handling Facilities
Operating sound cattle-handling facilities is a key factor in creating a low-stress environment on a cattle operation. Here are some pointers:
  • Cattle-handling facilities should be built with the instincts of cattle in mind.
  • Maintain proper shelter and bedding as needed.
  • Train staff in low-stress cattle-handling procedures.
  • Establish a culture of proper cattle handling across the operation.
The bottom line: if the magnitude of stress placed on cattle can be reduced, that increases the potential you have to optimize health and performance.
Assessing and Handling Calves
Another unavoidable source of stress on calves is health assessments. Any assessment of sick calves should be done as efficiently and humanely as possible, the goal being to create the minimal amount of stress.
Sick calves should then be moved to hospital pens in a calm, 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.
Diagnosing BRD is Difficult
For a variety of reasons, the ability to diagnose cattle with BRD accurately is extremely limited. One reason is that, because of their predator/prey mentality, animals who feel stressed will hide symptoms. This suggests many cattle with BRD are never diagnosed and treated. That leads to diminished performance and increasing mortality. Conversely, many calves without BRD are given an antimicrobial product they don’t actually need, thereby increasing treatment costs unnecessarily.
Fortunately, there are tools to help provide more accurate diagnosis of BRD. The Whisper Veterinary Stethoscope is a non-invasive tool used to assist in the BRD diagnosis. It’s designed to establish a lung score (a potential reflection of BRD severity and lung health), to help confirm a BRD diagnosis. That enables producers, working with their veterinarians, to select an appropriate treatment regimen and provide better care for their animals.
Support from the Industry
The beef industry provides a variety of resources on stockmanship. The Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program is a national initiative that offers guidelines for beef cattle production. The BQA program assists producers in determining if their current practices are aiding in the production of thriving, efficient animals. The program includes steps resulting in less stress on the animal, less bruising and fewer injection site injuries.
Additional Resources from Merck Animal Health
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.
CreatingConnections aims to help producers learn more on techniques for better animal handling and stockmanship. The website – creatingconnections.info – offers instructional videos and training information for producers to utilize on their operation. In addition, Merck Animal Health offers support through the technical services team and industry experts.