Reducing Weaning Stress Part 2 – Improving Profits
This is a guest post written by Karin Schmid, Beef Production Specialist with the Alberta Beef Producers, in collaboration with Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director.
In the previous post, we talked about methods to reduce weaning stress in calves. In this article, we’ll highlight the economic benefits of doing so.
Making weaning a low stress event should always be the goal, whether the calves will stay at home for breeding or feeding, go through internet, satellite or auction mart sales, or head directly to a backgrounding or finishing feedlot. Minimizing stress makes for happy calves, spouses and neighbors, and likely has economic benefits as well, especially for those who sell ’reputation’ cattle or retain ownership. High levels of stress or sickness can negatively impact the profits of producers who retain an ownership stake in their calves past weaning.
Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) is the most common and costly feedlot illness in North America, costing the industry over $500 million per year. In addition to labour and medication costs, Oklahoma State University researchers have shown that cattle that stay healthy grow faster (2.99 lb/day vs. 2.67 lb/day) and are more likely to grade choice (40% vs. 28%) than cattle that are treated at least once by pen checkers.
BRD is most common in lightweight, freshly weaned calves soon after arrival at the feedlot. Researchers from West Texas A&M University found that 91% of calves diagnosed with BRD were diagnosed within a month of their initial arrival to the feedlot.
Low-stress weaning methods, such as two-stage or fenceline weaning, can help keep the calves’ immune systems strong and less susceptible to disease. An on-farm producer trial in Ontario* studied which of the two methods was less stressful. The producers compared two-stage weaning and fenceline weaning in 213 calves over five days. They found that the 76 two-stage weaned calves bawled less (0-10% vs. 75-100%), paced less (0% vs. 45%), and spent more time eating than the 213 fenceline weaned calves. The anti-suckling nose tags had excellent retention. Only one tag out of 76 fell out before the scheduled tag removal.
The most notable difference between two-stage and fenceline weaned calves showed up in treatment rates in the feedlot. A total of 21 of their calves (9.8%) became sick and required treatment. Twenty of those calves came from the fenceline weaned group. The only two-stage weaned calf that needed treatment had lost its nose-tag at the very beginning of the trial. Other producers have told us that they have reduced their treatment rates by over 80% since adopting the practice of two-stage weaning. The feeding sector is under increasing pressure to reduce antimicrobial use; this may be an important first step.
Preconditioning is another management method to reduce stress and disease susceptibility that can really pay off in a retained ownership or direct marketing system. Preconditioning prepares calves to enter the feedlot. Preconditioned calves are weaned at least 30-45 days prior to sale, put on a vaccination program, and introduced to processed feedstuffs, feedbunks and waterbowls. The idea is to spread out the stressors that calves experience: weaning, vaccination, transportation, unfamiliar animals and environment, dietary changes, etc., so that the immune system isn’t overwhelmed.
Many studies have shown the benefits of preconditioning on feedlot performance. Improved rates of gain and feed efficiency, as well as lower treatment rates and death loss lead to a lower cost of gain at the feedlot. Studies from the Noble Foundation, Oklahoma State University and Kansas State University have demonstrated an increase in net value ranging from $13.71/head to $57.31/head for preconditioned calves, including the cost of the pre-conditioning program.
Retained ownership can provide cow-calf producers with opportunities to fully benefit from investments made in low stress weaning and preconditioning programs. The calves’ immune systems will be stronger, they will require fewer treatments in the feedlot, and will likely perform better. While the risks of retained ownership may not be for everyone, these low stress management ideas are also very relevant to producers selling direct to backgrounders or feedlots and can help build reputation cattle worth a premium.
To develop a preconditioning program that fits your budget and is tailored to your specific operation, consult with your local veterinarian.
*Thanks to Mike and Theresa Buis of Chatham, Ontario for sharing the results of their two-stage and fenceline weaning comparison.
More information on two-stage weaning.
Further reading material on pre-conditioning.
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