Stress relief for cattle and cattle producers

Oct 21, 2021

Sam Strahan discusses stress reducing methods for calves during stressful periods including weaning time as well as what can be done nutritionally to help mitigate those negative effects.


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Tom:      I’m Tom Martin and joining us is Sam Strahan, nutritionist with CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements. We’re going to talk about stress in the herd.

               Welcome, Sam.

Sam:      Good morning, Tom. Glad to be here.

Tom:      So, if you could give us some background on what would be described as stressful to a calf and how that’s expressed?

Sam:      I’d be glad to. I read an interesting article recently about stress in cattle, so just thought I would start off by offering a definition of stress that they get.

Tom:      Okay.

Sam:      The title of the article was, Interactions between temperament, stress, and immune function in cattle and the authors define stress like this; “a state in which homeostasis is threatened or perceived to be so.” And then, they further explained stress as the internal or external stimuli or threat that disrupts homeostasis. So, by this definition, anything that disrupts the norm whether perceived or real can cause stress and it’s only by a return to normalcy that stress is reduced.

               Now, there are a number of events we can look at that can be a cause of stress such as giving calves shots to vaccinate them against certain diseases, just moving them to a new location, castration, dehorning, or any type of handling, which they are not normally accustomed to can be a cause. Now, within our company, one area we focus on — knowing nutritional intervention can be beneficial — is the weaning period. Certainly, one of the most stressful times for a calf is at weaning when the calf is separated from its mother. On most beef farms, this is typically around six or seven months of age, so by that time there has been a pretty long binding period with the mother and as well with the other calves that had been born on the farm around that same time.

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               I think just in my mind, we can closely correlate the separation anxiety exhibited by calves to what we see in human situations, where a child is put in an environment where the mother is no longer immediately accessible like going to school for the first time, which we’ve seen a course over the last few weeks. Calves will express this anxiety with excessive bawling, reduced feed intake, challenging the fence boundaries and so on. Now, for many years efforts have been made to find methods to reduce the stress of weaning and therefore, the anxiety associated with it.

Tom:      Let’s talk about some stress-reducing methods. Can you elaborate on those, Sam?

Sam:      Sure. One of the best and most often used practices is called fence-line weaning, where calves are moved to a field adjacent to the mama cows, but they can still see their mothers even though they don’t access to the milk any longer. Now, since calves are going to be moved as a group typically, they’re also staying along with their cohorts or buddies which helps to lessen this separation anxiety. Now, when you have calves only moved to short distance to an adjacent field, then you’re keeping the grass or forage pretty similar there, so that’s one less change that occurs also. With this type of management approach, there will still be some initial bawling by the calves and maybe their mothers, but it’s not prolonged. So, we know the stress is pretty short lived too with this situation.

               Now, producers can also follow a protocol prior to weaning doing what we call preconditioning, which typically will take place about 45 days in advance, where they’ll do such things as administering vaccinations, introducing the calves to grain or what we often refer to as bunk throat to improve the nutritional level. And they’ll also do such things as making sure the males are castrated and things like that. Now, this way the calves have had some experience being handled. They’ve also been given a new type of feed and allowed some time to get adjusted to that. And also — very importantly — they’ve been given time for those vaccinations to build antibodies in advance of a high stress event. Now, preconditioning calves has been shown to have an economic advantage over not using this type of protocol because they see fewer calves getting sick at weaning time, so the buyers of these calves will have less money invested in treating them upon arrival.

Tom:      So, what happens with cows that are not preconditioned?

Sam:      Well, there’s many calves in the US that aren’t preconditioned or handled in this lower stress way that I’ve described. Now, it’s common in many areas to sell the calves without any of these preparatory processes, meaning the calves are separated from their mothers and then wean as they are loaded on a truck and sold either through an auction barn or maybe directly to another producer. This can lead to a higher level of stress for the calves is not only are they separated from their mothers, but they’re taken to an unfamiliar location where they’re going to be given different feeds both the forage is going to be different, maybe they’ll get some different grain. The surroundings are going to look and smell different. Water also will likely taste and smell different to them. Also, if they’re taken to a sale barn, they’re going to be separated from those cohorts or those buddies that they grew up with and mix with calves from many other locations, which will likely introduce some spread viruses or bacteria between animals.

Tom:      So, from a nutritional approach, what can be done to help mitigate those negative effects?

Sam:      Well, there’s a few things going on with the several months old calves that I’ll try to explain here first. First of all, while milk is a great source of nutrition, it does to tend to lack some of the higher levels of the critical trace minerals like copper, zinc, and selenium that are really essential to the immune system and helping antioxidants to rid the body of some harmful compounds that build up. Now, one thing we need to keep in mind is that today’s beef genetics are capable of putting on a lot of pounds on a carcass rapidly, so what used to work in terms of basic nutrition has evolved to support these faster-growing animals.

               Research have shown us that many calves at weaning time have levels of these critical trace minerals in their tissue that are little less than adequate. So, this can lead to a compromised immune system that won’t be able to fully engage and respond when a high stress event occurs to the calf. Consequently, we in our company recommend having a high-quality mineral product in front of both the cows and the growing calves that will give both groups an adequate mineral status. And we define a high-quality mineral or a block as one containing some organic or chelated trace minerals, which our company and others have shown to be better absorbed and to help reduce health problems related to a stressful event.

               Just an example of this comes from an Alltech study a few years ago with Angus calves in which Alltech’s Bioplex® chelated zinc was fed to calves compared to an inorganic zinc group. In this study, they measured IGG immunoglobulin, which are components of the immune system to fight off disease. And they found that the group being fed the chelated zinc had significantly higher levels in the serum and blood and found the average daily gain to be higher in that group as well after a two-month study. So, we’ve also seen improvements in other healthy in dairy cows that were fed chelated mineral diets. So, again, it shows that these products enhance the health status under stress conditions.

Tom:      What types of nutritional solutions does CRYSTALYX® offer for successful weaning?

Sam:      We’ve got a couple of products in the CRYSTALYX line that we recommend today for stress situations. Brigade® has been the go-to products for several years for stressed calves as it contains Bioplex® organic trace minerals, electrolytes, yeast, and high vitamin E levels.  Now, we’re excited about the newest stress block called Blueprint® Battalion®, which we considered to be the next generation of a stress block which contains the total replacement of inorganic trace minerals with organic Bioplexes. Plus, it also contains chromium and Alltech’s Bio-Mos® 2 which helps support gut health.

               Now, Battalion is recommended for those very highly stressed calves that I’ve mentioned earlier that are exposed a long transport time, they may be comingling with calves from other farms, they may be subject to a lot of weather challenges that we tend to see during this time of year and so on. Now, in addition to weaning calves, I recommend these products to be used if you have show animals that tend to be transported to different places. They’re going to be handled a great deal and exposed to different water sources as well as being comingled with other animals.

Tom:      Well, Sam, can you expand on how these different additives help the stressed calves that we’re talking about?

Sam:      Yeah. I think one thing we’ve had a lot of discussion about in the last several years is about the use of antibiotics. And they’ve been used for a long time both in human medicine and livestock production to help overcome the challenges of bacterial diseases, but for many reasons as has been discussed, they’re not always the best solution. Now, if we can boost the natural defense of the animal through the immune system, there’s a better chance that animal will either not get sick or can get over that challenge quicker. And I think COVID has been a good teacher in this respect in that it’s taught us that a vaccination — which helps to build antibodies by the immune system against an invading virus — can greatly reduce the impact of most people who may contract the disease.

               Now, likewise, with additives like Bioplex organic trace minerals, Sel-plex, selenium, yeast, and Vitamin E, which boost the immune system as well as Bio-Mos 2, which strengthens the gut wall against invading pathogens, we can start to see a healthier animal that’s better able to fight off the onslaught of challenges the stressed calves will face. Whenever high stress puts the body into what we call fight or flight mode, the homeostasis that I mentioned early on is disrupted, so in effect such systems in the body as immune response, so we intentionally include these stress fighting nutrients in the CRYSTALYX stress blocks to reduce the impacts of pathogens, while we also can reduce the level of antibiotics needed. And if we can do that, we’re also going to reduce the labor involved in treating these animals. So, just in summary, we recommend Brigade and Blueprint Battalion to help improve the productivity of calves, which can lead to better profitability for their owners.

Tom:      All right. That’s Sam Strahan with CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements.

               Thank you, Sam.

Sam:      Thank you, Tom.