Can we Reduce Castration Pain in Week-Old Calves?

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Calving season is upon some of you and just around the corner for many more. Half of those calves will be castrated. Research has shown that it’s best to castrate calves at the youngest practical age to minimize pain and speed recovery. The 2019 “Adoption Rates of Recommended Practices by Cow-Calf Operators in Canada” study indicated that over half of cow-calf producers in Ontario, nearly 70% in Atlantic Canada, and over 90% in Western Canada reported castrating calves before 3 months of age. Within the last decade, practical, affordable, effective pain control products like meloxicam have become available (i.e. Metacam, Rheumocam, Oral Meloxicam, Meloxidyl). These can help reduce the pain of knife and band castration in calves as young as 2 months of age. Up to a quarter of cow-calf producers in Western Canada and Ontario report using pain control, depending on when and how they castrate calves.

But research shows that week-old calves show fewer physiological or behavioural signs of castration pain than older calves. I used to think that very young calves were simply more pain tolerant. It’s probably more complicated than that. For one thing, a newborn calf has just spent 9 months connected to their mother’s life support system. Like a cold tractor, it can take some time for the newborn’s systems to “boot up,” stabilize, and become fully operational. The pain response may be part of that – the calf may feel pain, but not fully able to respond to it, sort of like a human patient with “locked-in” syndrome who’s paralyzed and unable to speak but still fully conscious. On top of that, birth is a physically taxing experience for both the cow and calf. The newborn calf may simply be unable to respond to the additional stress or pain of castration. Continue reading

Barley Comes up the Backstretch

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Like cattle performance, crop yields reflect the interplay between genetics, management practices and environmental conditions. Statistics Canada reports show that barley yields weren’t keeping up with other feed crops for decades. Barley yields increased 0.39 bushels/acre/year between 1980 and 2009, slower than either wheat (0.44) or corn (1.66). But since 2010, Canada’s barley yields have improved faster (1.32) than both wheat (0.84) and corn (0.66). This apparent tripling of barley yield gains is remarkable, especially considering that canola, corn and wheat development receive tremendous research investment, and their expanding acreages have squeezed barley’s shrinking acres onto less productive farmland.

Canada’s beef industry can share some credit for barley’s improved performance. Alberta Beef Producers, Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association and the Beef Cattle Research Council have supported Alberta Agriculture’s Field Crop Development Center, where Dr. Flavio Capettini leads Canada’s only dedicated feed and forage barley breeding program. This team’s work under the 2013-18 Beef Science Cluster illustrates how much effort it takes to breed a new, improved feed grain variety. Continue reading

Transportation Regulations are Changing

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.


Photo Credit to Agriculture Agri-Food Canada

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will start phasing in its enforcement of Canada’s revised livestock transportation regulations on February 20. One of the most significant changes for cattle transporters is a reduction in the maximum time in transit before cattle must be off-loaded for feed, water and rest. Currently, cattle can be transported for 48 hours before a mandatory five-hour feed, water and rest stop. There is one exception; if a truck is less than four hours from its final destination when it reaches the 48-hour mark, it can continue to its destination without a rest stop. On February 20, this changes to a maximum of 36 hours before an eight-hour feed, water and rest stop, with no four-hour grace period. This change will likely have the greatest impact on feeder cattle and truckers travelling from Western to Central Canada, and cattle travelling from Central to Western Canada for slaughter.

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Nature vs. Nurture

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Nothing is ever as simple as we think it is or wish it was.

We’ve known for centuries that an animal’s performance, health, behavior and other traits depend on a combination of their genetics and their environment. The genetics are inherited from their parents. Environmental influences are not inherited. Environments might be similar across generations but they’re rarely identical. Even on the same operation, older cows may have spent their early winters eating stored forage in corrals or barns, while younger cows may have been wintered on swaths with less shelter. Weather, growing conditions, nutritional quality of pasture, harvested feeds and supplements and many other factors also vary from year to year, so offspring don’t inherit their parent’s environment.

But it might not be that simple. Researchers are finding evidence that the environment can physically impact genes in ways that can be passed to second, third or even later generations. This is one example of a larger phenomenon called epigenetics. A 2002 study that looked at diet, diabetes and cardiovascular (heart) disease in northern Sweden over 105 years (doi:10.1038/sj.ejhg.5200859) found that when men were raised during periods of famine (due to war or crop failures), their offspring and grandchildren were more likely to die of heart disease. When crops were good, armies weren’t marauding and food was abundant, their grandchildren were more likely to develop diabetes. Continue reading

Feed Efficiency and Beef Quality

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Cattle breeders are often cautioned to avoid selecting too heavily for a single trait. Avoiding extremes is the obvious reason; selecting for small frame size in the 1950’s accidentally resulted in a dwarfism problem in a few breeds. Another reason is that a lot of traits are genetically correlated, meaning that selecting for one trait can have effects on other seemingly unrelated traits, like how selecting for increased growth rate or leanness eventually results in later puberty in heifers and larger mature cows. No matter what trait you’re selecting for, there will always be unintended consequences on other genetic traits. Breeding your way into a corner can happen quite quickly, but breeding your way out can take a lot longer.

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Spinning Straw Into Gold

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

The rumen allows cattle to digest fiber that chickens, pigs and humans can’t, and produce high quality beef protein from feed and land that otherwise wouldn’t produce food. Understanding the rumen better is the key to improving feed efficiency and improving cattle’s ability to convert fiber to protein.

There’s as much energy in straw as grain – burning a ton of either straw or grain generates the same amount of heat. But cattle can’t access all the energy in straw.

Grain is mostly starch. Starch is a long chain of identical sugar (glucose) molecules connected by simple links that rumen microbes can easily break using a few enzymes. That’s why feedlot cattle digest and convert grain-based diets so rapidly and efficiently. In contrast, straw contains cellulose, hemicellulose, pectin and lignin fibers. These contain many different molecules (not just glucose) connected by complex links that are much tougher (and require many more enzymes) for microbes to break. That’s why cows can’t be wintered on straw alone.

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Unintended Consequences

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

I once spent a summer working for canola breeders. Some used traditional selection, while others were experimenting with transgenics. One traditionalist was known to say “sticking a new gene into a plant and expecting it to grow better is like throwing a new gear into a watch and expecting it to keep better time. It’ll probably get worse”. This article isn’t about canola or genetics, but it is about time and unintended consequences. Specifically, it’s about the timing of the breeding and calving seasons.

Canada’s cow-calf sector has moved towards fewer, larger beef cow herds. Calving later, on pasture has been a widely adopted strategy allowing producers to expand their cow herds without a proportional increase in equipment, labor, and facilities. When John Basarab led Alberta’s Cow-Calf Audits in the late 1980’s and late 90’s, breeding often started in May and calving started in late February. In contrast, 70% of the producers responding to the 2017 Western Canadian Cow-Calf Survey started breeding in June or July to calve in March or April.

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On-Farm Antimicrobial Surveillance Moves a Step Closer

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

As long as cattle continue to get sick, cattle producers will need antimicrobials to help them recover. At the same time, it’s common to hear activists, regulators, consumers and/or retailers call for livestock producers to stop using antimicrobials altogether, reduce antimicrobial use, or demonstrate that antimicrobials are being used responsibly. Solid, reliable data demonstrating our industry’s antimicrobial use (AMU) practices and antimicrobial resistance (AMR) prevalence on an ongoing basis are key to maintaining consumer and public confidence in Canadian beef production practices.

The Public Health Agency of Canada monitors antimicrobial resistance in healthy beef cattle, pigs and poultry arriving at abattoirs as well as retail meat through the Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance (CIPARS). CIPARS has also had on-farm programs to collect antimicrobial use (AMU) and resistance (AMR) data for poultry and grower-finisher swine for several years. Continue reading

ForageBeef.ca Gets a Facelift

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Canada’s National Beef Strategy has four goals that our industry aims to achieve by 2020. For the past year this column has explained how research is contributing to a 15% increase in carcass cut-out value (the Beef Demand pillar), a 15% improvement in production efficiency (Productivity), and a 7% reduction in cost disadvantages compared to Canada’s main competitors (Competitiveness). The fourth goal (Connectivity) is about improving communication within industry and with consumers, the public, government and partner industries. Research contributes science-based information to underpin fact-based communication, policy and regulation, as well as extension (also known as technology transfer) activities to translate research results into improved on-farm production and management practices.

Extension used to be a core mandate for governments and universities; they all had extension staff, held field days and published producer-focused bulletins. Some researchers are still active in extension, but most institutions have shifted their focus to scientific research and technology development. The private sector has filled the extension gap in spots, especially where there is a clear profit motive for the company or individual doing the extension. This often works best when there is a product to sell, like a nutritional supplement, vaccine, or electric fencer. It is more challenging for the private sector to justify extension when the product is a management practice that is hard for a company to charge for, needs to be highly customized to suit individual operations, or primarily benefits the customer. Examples include low-cost winter feeding, crossbreeding, rotational grazing, and low-stress handling. Private sector extension can also be difficult with practices that benefit the overall industry but might not directly or immediately profit any specific individual (e.g. some animal welfare practices, antimicrobial and environmental stewardship). The BCRC tries to fill those gaps. Continue reading

Persistence Pays

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.


Photo credit to Agriculture Agri-Food Canada

Forage legumes provide high yields, protein, and good animal performance while improving soil fertility by fixing nitrogen from the air.  Alfalfa is the highest yielding and most widely-used legume but can cause bloat. Legumes like cicer milkvetch, sainfoin and birdsfoot trefoil do not cause bloat. As little as 25% sainfoin in a pasture can virtually eliminate the risk of bloat even if the other 75% is alfalfa.

The problem is that older sainfoin varieties don’t regrow as fast as alfalfa after grazing. Alfalfa’s aggressive nature allows it to outcompete sainfoin for sunlight, moisture and nutrients. Without careful grazing management, sainfoin can disappear from a pasture in a few years. This might be because plant breeders have traditionally selected new varieties for clipped forage yield under monoculture conditions. This doesn’t reflect the challenges sainfoin faces when grown with alfalfa and grazed.

Surya Acharya at AAFC Lethbridge has been breeding sainfoin that regrows more rapidly after grazing and persists longer in mixtures with alfalfa. New varieties (e.g. Mountainview and Glenview) have already been released, but there are more in the pipeline. An update on these ongoing efforts was published in 2017 (Performance of Mixed Alfalfa-Sainfoin Pastures and Grazing Steers in Western Canada, Professional Animal Scientist 33:472). Continue reading