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Cow-Calf

Heat Stress and Your Cattle

By Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning 3 Comments

Heat stress is an age-old problem and can have a detrimental impact on your herd. Your cattle may be particularly sensitive to high dew points and extreme temperatures, resulting in heat stress. This only worsens if there is no significant cooling period after the sun goes down and throughout the night. Essentially, this will guarantee that they won’t have any opportunity to cool down, putting a great deal of strain on their bodies and resulting in heat stress.

What to Watch For

Heat stress isn’t difficult to spot — it’s very obvious when an animal is in distress. They will display symptoms such as:

Early stage heat stress:

  • increased respiratory rate
  • open-mouth breathing
  • slobbering

Should the heat stress advance, cattle are likely to:

  • lose coordination
  • tremble
  • stagger

If a cow goes down as a result of heat stress, the chances of them getting back up and being able to recover are very, very low.

How to Avoid Heat Stress in Your Herd

To help your herd transition through these relentlessly warm days and nights, we’ve provided a short (but thorough) list of things you can do to safeguard your cattle. If your cattle are showing signs of heat stress, it’s integral that you provide immediate intervention. If possible, help the process in the evening after the sun has set to help them maintain a fairly natural heat dissipation pattern.

Keep water fresh and provide additional water sources. If your cattle are on pasture, give them access to more water. For example, if there is only one tank in each pasture, add one or two more spaced out a bit. Stay on top of the water — make sure it is clean, free of foreign material and top it up regularly.

Keep handling to a minimum, or avoid it altogether, if possible. This includes moving, processing or transporting your cattle. If it’s absolutely necessary, work during the early morning hours when the temperatures will be at their lowest for the day. Always try to practice low-stress handling techniques, but especially during inclement weather, such as extreme heat.

Provide adequate shade. This is sometimes easier said than done, but your herd’s well-being depends on being able to seek relief from the sun’s burning rays. Dark-colored, young and old cattle have a particularly difficult time handling the direct sun. The easiest ways to provide shade are to move your cattle to pastures that provide natural tree cover or even holding pens that offer open buildings.

Create adequate air flow in enclosed barns. If you keep your animals in a setting such as a dairy operation or feed beef cattle indoors, be sure that there is adequate ventilation. If possible, open up the sides of the barn or use fans to keep the air moving through the structures. If possible, move any cattle that don’t need to be indoors to outside pens with shade. Overcrowding can push the temperatures up even more. In humid areas, refrain from using sprinklers, as this can raise humidity levels, but do little to help cool the cattle themselves.

Keep an eye out for unusual behavior. As with any animal, stress combined with heat can be a recipe for disaster. If your herd becomes stressed for some reason, watch carefully for unusual behavioral patterns (moving around too much, or not enough; aggression; lethargy, etc.).

Always be prepared. The worst thing you can do is enter into the hot summer season unprepared. For instance, have a contingency plan should your well or water source become unavailable. Be sure you have the ability to obtain enough water to keep your herd adequately hydrated. Should power go out in your fan-cooled buildings, make sure you have adequate outdoor space you can transfer your cattle into or that you have functioning backup generators to power the cooling system.

Keeping an eye on resources such as heat index maps can help ensure that you’re a step ahead of the weather. Keeping your cattle cool and healthy may take some extra effort but in the end will be well worth the effort.

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Mineral Supplementation: A Summer Essential

By Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning No Comments
It’s hot. Your cattle sweat. They need to consume more water. Because of this, they also need to be receiving adequate mineral supplementation to maintain proper balances to thrive. Minerals provide a wide array of necessary nutrients, from electrolytes to maintain adequate hydration and cardiovascular function to calcium for strong bones. It may be hard to keep up with the demands of checking and filling feeders or replacing blocks regularly, but it’s in your best interest to ensure your cattle have 24/7 access to adequate mineral supplementation.

Choosing the Right Supplements

It can be daunting to figure out which minerals your cattle need and which they don’t. It all comes down to the feed they’re consuming, the presence of naturally occurring minerals in the water source, etc.

  • Forage. Forage contains many different minerals your cattle may need. Depending on what the forage is, what type of soil it’s grown in and so on, it can be determined what gaps you need to fill. Testing is available on hay or pasture to determine what the nutrient content (including minerals) is present in your feed. Soil testing may also provide you with valuable information on what your land is capable of providing.
  • Concentrated feed. Concentrated feeds are often fortified with vitamins and minerals. The labeling on these feeds should include the different mineral contents. Depending on how much concentrated feed you’re offering, you may need to supplement or scale back mineral supplementation.
  • Water. Some areas produce water that is naturally rich in certain minerals. If your cattle drink consistently from the same well, creek or municipal water source it would be prudent to have the water tested for mineral content. As an aside, it’s important to note that water with strange odors or objectionable flavors (such as water with a high sulfur content) may discourage adequate water intake. Water additives can help increase palatability and thus, consumption.

Mineral Supplementation

Once you’ve determined which gaps you need to fill in your cattle’s mineral profile you can begin supplementing. In many cases standard mineral blocks are adequate. This is a convenient way to supplement cattle on range or pastureland that are eating a diet of grass and forage. If you’re keeping cattle in this setting, place the blocks in areas where they spend a lot of time. These can include areas near water sources, shady areas, loafing sheds, etc. This allows them maximum opportunity to consume optimum quantities. A common rule of thumb for free-access is to have one mineral station for every 30 head. If you are feeding a concentrated diet, you can use a feed additive with the right mineral balance to meet your cattle’s needs. Some companies will create customized mineral supplements to meet the specific needs of your cattle and their environment.

Observing Mineral Consumption

It’s important to keep an eye on how well your cattle are consuming their mineral supplements. Replace them as needed to ensure that there is always a constant supply. It can become tricky if your veterinarian has recommended medications to include in a mineral combination. This will make it even more important to observe consumption to ensure that your cattle are receiving not only adequate minerals but also the proper amounts of medication. If those medications include antibiotics, you’ll need to establish a “Veterinary Feed Directive” (also known as a VFD). Your herd veterinarian can work with you on determining what is right for your herd’s management.

Proper mineral supplementation can mean the difference between your cattle thriving or merely surviving. Taking the time now to ensure your animals are receiving what they need will eventually find its way to a healthy bottom line.
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Securing Herd Health for Vaccination Efficacy

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Branding, Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning No Comments

Stress on cattle is inescapable. Just as with humans, daily occurrences can create stress reactions. In cattle, the long-term effects can have detrimental effects on herd health, including reduced milk production and quality; poor weight gain and vitality; reduced immunity to both common and less common pathogens; lower-grade meat; and, ultimately, lower bottom lines.

In a Catch 22-like scenario, the healthiest and strongest cattle are those that have high functioning immune systems. In order to support that high level of functionality, they most benefit from a well-planned vaccination program. Thus, in order for the vaccination program to work, herds must be in the best possible health prior to receiving vaccinations. This is where proper herd management comes into play.

The most effective way to ensure that a herd is primed and ready for vaccinations is to address their rumen health. As mentioned above, rumen pH is perhaps the most important factor in maintaining a viable and highly functioning rumen. Key points for maintaining a healthy rumen include:

  • Avoiding stressful situations for the cattle that will consequently increase cortisol release.
  • Feeding a balanced diet that promotes beneficial microbial growth within the rumen.
  • Maintaining a proper pH balance within the digestive system.
  • Encouraging adequate hydration.
  • Reducing the use of antibiotics when possible.

The bovine digestive system and immune system are indivisible. When they are both working at their optimum levels, they ensure disease resistance and stress resilience. Through careful behavioral and dietary management, every herd has the potential for top production and healthy profit margins.

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Stress and Cortisol Can Undermine Your Herd Vaccination Programs

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Branding, Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning No Comments

Over the past several weeks it has been mentioned that high levels of cortisol can wreak havoc on a cow’s immune system. Just as in people, cortisol can set into motion all sorts of systemic issues that can be hard to reverse. Careful management practices can go a long way toward helping your cattle avoid stressful situations and in turn have stronger immune systems.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is the main hormone released during stressful events. When there are high levels of cortisol in the system, immunity, in general, can be compromised. It has been widely noted that stress is associated with higher fail rates compared to any other factor (aside from inappropriate storage or incorrect use/administration) when considering the numbers for vaccination program failures. Dr. Rob Callan states in his paper titled “The Limitations of Vaccines“: “Many management factors can limit the effectiveness of vaccination including nutrition, environmental conditions, exposure to disease, and vaccination administration. Protein, energy, minerals, and vitamins are all required to develop and maintain a strong immune system. Specific vitamins and minerals associated with optimal immune function include vitamin A, vitamin E, selenium, copper, and zinc. Harsh or stressful environmental conditions can have significant detrimental effects on immune function. In addition, crowding and poor sanitation increase the exposure to infectious agents which can overcome even high levels of immunity. These factors contribute to the increased disease rates associated with climate changes, weaning, herd expansion, shipping or other changes in animal management.”

How Does This Affect Vaccine Efficacy?

Vaccines work by taking a pathogen and weakening, altering or killing it to trigger an immune response in the body. By imitating the disease and infection process (typically asymptomatically in healthy individuals), the body is fooled into believing that an infection is present. The immune system then produces antibodies and T-lymphocytes that attack and create defenses against the isolated pathogen. Because the immune system has a sort of innate “memory,” it stores the primed T-lymphocytes for the next time the body encounters the disease.

A compromised or suppressed immune system will not be able to adequately produce immunity-building cells, resulting in a weak or nonexistent defense. Cortisol, the main stress hormone, works by suppressing the immune system against perceived threats. Obviously, as this occurs, it will be difficult if not impossible for a cow’s body to develop its immunity to the proper levels to prevent infection in the face of an outbreak. The only real way to ensure a vaccine program’s efficacy is to administer vaccinations at the right time and to the most healthy animals possible.

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The Immune Stress of Transportation and Poor Husbandry

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Branding, Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning 6 Comments

It is likely that the most stressful event a cow will face in its lifetime is transportation. There are many factors that play into the toll shipping has on cattle. First, the trauma caused by loading can be fairly significant. If rough handling or poor conditions inside and outside of the trailer exist, this heightens that stress even more.

The inner environment of the trailer itself can also have a major impact on the herd’s well-being. Crowded compartments and unfamiliar animals contribute drastically to raising stress levels in cattle. Temperatures within transports can soar to almost unbearable levels during the summer and plummet to below freezing in the colder months.

Once on the road, an animal can remain in transport for more than 24 hours in some instances. During this time, access to water and adequate feed is limited. Fat cattle tend to fair the best, but they can still experience a fairly large amount of shrink. After 30 hours, the body cannot shed more water, so the weight being lost is tissue itself. Calves, cull cattle, and feeders tend to fare the worst in this scenario, consistently showing the largest amount of shrink. It’s important to ensure that cattle are well-prepared for a long trek prior to transport to ensure the least amount of stress and physical damage as they are conveyed to their destination.

 Husbandry

There is a direct correlation between poor husbandry and increased stress levels in both dairy and beef cattle. Every vaccination available can be administered, but with the wrong living conditions and lack of attention to care, there will be no marked benefit. This is due to the overwhelming stress put on the immune system while it attempts to cope with the influx of harmful microorganisms present in the environment.

In the case of dairy cattle, unsanitary living conditions can lead to mastitis, internal systemic infections, skin infections and hoof conditions, severely limiting their production potential. Most of these conditions require antibiotic intervention, during the course of which the cow’s milk cannot be included in the production stream. Mastitis treatment can be particularly painful for the cow, increasing stress levels regardless of how frequently she is handled.

Sub-par living conditions can wreak havoc on not only an animal’s physical well-being but also that of their psychological health. Waterborne and airborne diseases are common in poorly kept barns and stockyards. Dim lighting and cramped quarters lead to fighting, injuries, and distress. They’re also the perfect breeding ground for highly contagious diseases such as Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex (BRDC), Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), scours, foot rot, conjunctivitis, ringworm and a large number of other aggressive pathogens. Additionally, bedding or footing saturated with water, feces or urine have the potential to create serious problems in the dermis and respiratory systems from exposure to fungus, bacteria, aerosolized fecal matter, and ammonia. Young calves are especially susceptible to poor air quality and easily develop calf pneumonia.

Sanitary conditions and adequate room, along with proper ventilation, is vital for maintaining health and reducing stress levels in cattle. Clean water and feed that is free of mold allow the animal’s body to better derive and utilize nutrients; supplements that support the immune system and fill in nutritional gaps allow the rumen to properly function.

Check back in on  Friday for more on the topic of vaccines and the role the existing immune systems plays in their efficacy. Missed the last installment? Check it out here

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Handling Techniques and Their Effects on the Immune System

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Branding, Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning No Comments

There are several situations that can contribute to the overall stress level (and subsequent hormone release) in both individual cattle and the whole herd. While it’s not possible to completely avoid these situations, measures can be taken to prevent excessive exposure. Not only does stress have an effect on immunity and the outcome of finished cattle, but it can also have a negative impact on the quality of meat or, in the case of dairy cattle, the milk itself. The factors outlined below have been found to be the most detrimental to the well-being of cattle, both physically and psychologically. In this segment the first major factor — handling — is covered; next week the remaining stressors and situations will be addressed.

Handling Techniques

Over the last few decades, the cattle industry has seen major shifts in the handling and processing of livestock. Starting in the 1970s with the findings of Dr. Temple Grandin, the face of cattle management and “best practices” has changed significantly. It was realized that with certain equipment modifications and handling techniques, the stress (and subsequent loss rate) of livestock slated for slaughter could be reduced, therefore increasing production. The same methodology can be applied in the handling and care of dairy cattle as well. Frequent, gentle handling can create trust between cow and handler. Relaxed and non-fearful milk cows produce more milk of higher quality than their stressed counterparts.

The handling of beef cattle can be a virtually stress-free event for both the animals and the handlers. According to Principles for Low Stress Cattle Handling, “An animal’s previous experiences will affect its stress reaction to handling. Cattle have long memories. Animals which have been handled roughly will be more stresses (sic) and difficult to handle in the future. Animals which are handled gently and have become accustomed to handling procedures will have very little stress when handled. The basic principle is to prevent cattle from becoming excited. Cattle can become excited in just a few seconds, but it takes 20 to 30 minutes for the heart rate to return to normal in severely agitated cattle.” This indicates that a cow may remain in a nearly constant state of stress-induced arousal with repeatedly rough or unfamiliar handling over a prolonged period of time, increasing the release of cortisol into the system. More and more ranchers are rejecting the “ram and jam” method of cattle handling, trading it in for less aggressive methods.

Branding, vaccinations, and castrations can be arduous for both cattle and handlers. Hot branding is considered to be the most stressful means of animal identification, due to the pain levels that have been measured during the procedure. The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) has outlined practices for less painful (and subsequently stressful) identification, including freeze-branding, tagging, and ear-notching.

Vaccinating cattle is absolutely essential to ensuring herd health and immunity. When administering multiple vaccines to a cow, it causes less pain to the animal when needles are changed after each injection, as they dull exponentially upon each puncture. Subcutaneous injection is always preferable, as it tends to be less painful than intramuscular injections and as such, should be used whenever feasible. Further, the spread of disease from animal to animal is less likely with frequent needle changes.

Further studies have shown that abrupt separation and forced weaning between cows and their calves can cause heightened stress responses, both physiologically and psychologically. It can prove especially detrimental in range calves that have not learned to be in confined areas or around humans. Handling calves gently from birth (or first contact) can markedly increase their trust and subsequently diminish stress responses to routine handling and moving.

Another marked stressor for cattle is overly aggressive cattle dogs. It’s of the utmost importance to ensure that any dog that is working cattle does so in a calm, methodical manner. Cattle are prey animals, making it incredibly frightening and stressful to be faced with a predator that, by all appearances, is in attack mode. Exposing both calves and mature cattle to adequately trained dogs regularly helps dispel their perceptions of danger from herding dogs.

Check back in on Tuesday for the next part of this multi-part series where I’ll outline additional stress factors that can have a negative impact on vaccinations and their efficacy. Missed the first installment? Check it out here

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