Recognizing and Reducing Stress in Feedlot Cattle: Good for Them Better for You!

Download 21K pdf file ("Reducing_Stress_Feedlot.pdf")PDF
     Subscribe to our free E-Newsletter, "Agri-News" (formerly RTW This Week)Agri-News
This Week
 We all want and need to have healthy cattle with peak productivity but how often have you had cattle that didn't gain as quickly as they should or you needed to treat more sick animals than usual? What you have probably witnessed are the cardinal signs of stress, which may include reduced feed intake, increased sickness and disease, and poorly groomed, lethargic appearance.
Most of the factors that cause stress in livestock are a direct result of our management practices. The key to ensuring good weight gains and low drug costs is in the recognition and reduction of the causes of stress. The following information on where stress is most likely to occur and some actions we can take to reduce it, will help you to reduce stress in the feedlot and increase productivity.

On arrival at the feedlot
Newly arrived cattle are often tired, hungry, thirsty and scared. The stress of transport is added onto other factors such as mixing with unfamiliar animals and novelty of the new environment. Many studies have shown that the distance of transport, and the amount of mixing affects animal production. For example, cattle hauled an average of 1000 km had live body weight losses of 3.5% while cattle hauled 90 km had weight losses of 2.5%. Still other studies have shown that fasting between 12 and 24 hours during transport caused live weight losses of between 12 and 14 %. In addition, the amount of mixing (calves from many farms) has been linked to increased mortality within the first two weeks of arrival to the feedlot.

A key factor in reducing stress, disease and mortality is to get calves drinking and eating as soon as possible. Water should be accessible and easy to find. A common practice in feedlots is to jam the float in the water bowl for the first day so that calves will be attracted to the running water. Another option is to move a portable water trough to the calves.

A good way to get calves eating is to provide palatable high quality hay; ideally half grass, which increases the palatability, and half alfalfa, which has a high protein content. Feeding pure alfalfa hay should be avoided to reduce bloat or scouring. Hay that is moldy or heat damaged is less palatable. Barley or oats should be provided for extra energy. Silage can be introduced after 3-4 days by mixing it with chopped hay until the calves get used to the taste of the silage.

If possible, the feeder space should be large enough so that most of the animals can feed at the same time. This is recommended because cattle synchronize their feeding to a large extent. The presence of one animal feeding is enough to que others to come to the feed bunk even if they have just recently finished feeding. Providing ample feeder space would take advantage of this socially facilitated behaviour. Recommenced bunk space for feeder cattle is approximately .5 m per head.

At the auction, try to buy groups of calves from the same farm when possible as it will reduce the stress of unfamiliarity and the potential mixing of healthy and sick stock. Keeping animals in their original groups at the feedlot will also reduce aggression and riding, as dominance has already been established

Initially there should be minimal disturbance from people other than the handling required for processing. Disturbance from dogs and loud machinery should also be minimized. Allow the animals to settle a few hours or overnight so that they can become accustomed to their new surroundings and can locate feed and water.

Routine management procedures
Cattle might arrive at the feedlot that have not yet been processed. Routine processing including vaccination, dehorning, branding, ear tagging and castration are usually done within a day or so after arrival at the feedlot. Many of these procedures are known to cause short-term discomfort and subsequent setback in performance.

As of January 2018, pain control is required when castrating bulls older than 6 months of age. Horn buds attach to the skull at approximately 2 months of age at which point disbudding is no longer an option and cattle must be dehorned. Pain control must be used for dehorning. Consult your veterinarian for advice on what to use for pain control.

The severity of the stress caused by routine procedures can be kept to a minimum in several ways, such as through medications, timing, proper equipment and management. It is best to do the procedures within a day or two after the animals arrive, after settled from arrival. Processing early allows the calves more time to recover from procedures and allows more time for compensatory gain.

Procedures done quickly and cleanly also help to reduce stress on the animal. In order to accomplish this, make sure the animals are restrained well so that additional injury may be avoided at the time of the procedure. Use of the correct equipment that is clean and functioning properly is essential. Experienced workers who are familiar with the proper techniques can do a procedure more quickly with fewer problems due to hemorrhaging and infection later.

It is advisable to talk to your suppliers to have cattle processed on-farm, as scientific evidence shows this improves growth rate and decreases stress.

Believe it or not, some producers, auction mart and trucking personnel still handle livestock roughly; not on purpose but by habit. The key to reducing handling stress is to always work animals slowly and gently . Avoid the use of whips and electric prods, running, yelling, or jumping to get animals to move. Calm handling promotes calm, stress-free animals.

Several researchers have shown that there is a significant relationship between temperament, handling and productivity. For example, cattle that became agitated during restraint or handling had lower weight gains and tougher meat. Cattle that arrive to the feedlot unable to rise and walk unassisted off the trailer (non-ambulatory cattle/downers) must be examined. They should never dragged from the vehicle while conscious and if it is determined that they are unlikely to recover. they should be euthanized on spot.

Facility design should promote animal movement and reduce fear. Chutes with solid sides separate the animals from the disturbance of people, dogs and equipment and reduce fear and balking. Curved chutes promote the natural circling movement of cattle and also ensure that animals cannot see what is happening ahead.

Although the effect of "exercise" on stress reduction and the reduced incidence of sick calves has not been studied there is some evidence to suggest that getting lying animals up and moving around during daily pen checking may improve performance in calves. Moving animals has several benefits, for example, it is easier to detect poor doers if the animals are moving than if they are lying down. Creating movement may also get calves up to the feeder at a time when they would otherwise be lying. Remember, moving the animals does not mean chasing them from one end of the pen to the other and causing more stress. Moving simply means getting the animals up and calmly milling around. After all, cattle are grazers and on pasture can travel between 1 and 24 km per day depending on the type of pasture.

Environmental factors
Stress caused by variations in climate such as extreme heat or cold can be reduced by providing the appropriate environmental modifications. For example, cold stress can be reduced by ensuring adequate bedding, some form of wind-break or shelter and increasing the fibre and energy content of the feed. Animals in cold environments have higher energy demands to maintain their temperature, requiring higher quality and quantities of feed requirements.

Ensure that corrals are clean and access to feed and water is not hindered by excessive manure build up. Make sure that there are solid non-slip surfaces, such as roughly finished concrete, around feeders and water sources so that animals are not standing in deep manure when feeding and drinking.

Natural predators such as dogs and coyotes, and insects can greatly stress cattle and reduce productivity. Try to reduce contact between cattle and untrained farm dogs and disturbances from unfamiliar people and equipment. Provide access to cattle oilers or place ear tags with insecticide on animals in areas where insects are known to cause appreciable reductions in productivity.

Printable Factsheet

Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein
Published in the Southern Alberta Beef Review - October, 1999. Volume 1, Issue 4

Share via
For more information about the content of this document, contact Jessica Walsh.
This document is maintained by Mary Ann Nelson.
This information published to the web on October 22, 1999.
Last Reviewed/Revised on May 17, 2018.