Cattle Handling Strategies to Improve Postweaning Calf Health

In addition to making sure freshly weaned calves are getting enough water, feed, rest and exercise and have a comfortable environment, we are simultaneously working with them in the sense of teaching them to be manageable. ( Whit Hibbard )

In our last article we discussed fence-line weaning as one low-stress way to wean calves. But the question needs to be asked: What should we do with our calves postweaning? Conventionally, stockmen will look after their calves’ nutritional needs and monitor their health, but otherwise leave them alone. From the low-stress perspective that is not enough.

imageLets consider it from the calves perspective: They’ve been separated from their mothers, and they don’t know what the heck is going on. What they need is a surrogate mother, a new leader, someone they can trust and have confidence in that is going to look after them, and that’s us. From the low-stress perspective, we’re going to want to assume that role instead of leave them alone, and if we do that, and do it properly, it will positively impact their performance and health.

So how do we do that? We do that by working with them and seeing what they need and providing it, whether it’s water, feed, rest or exercise.

For example, Bud Williams maintained that the primary reason that calves get sick is not exposure to a pathogen; rather, they get sick because they’re dehydrated, malnourished, and/or suffering from handling stress. If this is true, then it’s critical to make sure our calves are drinking and eating enough and handled properly. The conventional mindset is the calves know where the water and feed are and will help themselves when they are thirsty or hungry, and that it doesn’t matter how we handle our calves. Experience has shown that this belief is mistaken. Calves have relied largely on their mother to tell them when and where to eat and drink, and they’ve had the comfort of mom being nearby when being handled. This lack of direction and comfort is compounded if transported to a new environment, like a feedlot.

Here’s an example of what we’re talking about.

I (WH) went out to ride health on a group of freshly weaned calves and they looked content laying on the feed ground basking in the December sun (see photo above). I almost left, but on a whim I picked them up to see what they’d do; they all trailed up to the water tank and hung out there for two hours (see Figures B & C). My assessment of that situation was that those calves were indeed thirsty and needed to drink, but they’d have hung around all day on the feed ground because nobody told them that it was time to go to water.

imageIf people are buying freshly weaned calves, they should be very aware of the environment and the added risk of weather (e.g., extreme heat, cold and wet).  Bud often said high risk animals not only need excellent nutrition and excellent handling, but a comfortable environment as well. He claimed you must have two out of the three. So, for example, if the environmental stress is very high you cannot have inadequate nutrition or make any handling mistakes.

Bud also maintained that in order for our calves to perform well and stay healthy, they not only need enough water, feed, rest, exercise and a comfortable environment, but they also need to be healthy emotionally. Essentially, they need to be happy. In an experiment at VeeTee Feeders in Canada—where Bud worked for 10 years—they had two pens of calves. They pulled approximately 15 calves per day out of one pen, but none out of the other. The difference was they took the latter pen out everyday and gave the calves play time so they were happy.

In addition to making sure our calves are getting enough water, feed, rest and exercise, have a comfortable environment and are happy, we are simultaneously working with them in the sense of teaching them to be manageable. That is, we’re teaching them the basic skill set they’ll need to negotiate this human-dominated world they’re forced to live in, including such things as how to drive, to go through gates, and through the corral system. They need to learn we can speed them up and slow them down, stop and turn them, and take them places.

After we started doing all this with our weaned calves at my family’s (WH) ranch in Montana, supplemental feed consumption doubled from 2.5% to 5.2% of their body weight. 

At another ranch in Wyoming their 450-lb. calves supplemental feed intake doubled and they gained 3 lb. per day. Before working with their calves it was half that.

A critical part of working with our calves post-weaning is riding for health.

Conventionally, what riders (or walkers) do is just look for sick calves to pasture doctor or pull out of a pen and take to the hospital. What we should do is manage for what we want, not what we want to avoid. So, for example, when riding health, we should ride for what we want—which is health—and not what we don’t want, which is morbidity, which is actually what we’re doing. 

“Riding for health” is misnamed, because what we actually do is “ride for sickness” (i.e., we specifically go out to look for sick calves). What we should do is ride with the mindset of helping the calves to keep well and flourish, and we do that by working with them as we just talked about.

Low-stress handlers don’t go out to check calves; rather, they go out to work with them, and if something is sick, they’ll see it. Every time we go out to ride health we should be doing something constructive with our calves. If we go out to ride health, and all we do is look for sick calves but there aren’t any, in a sense we’ve wasted that time. We’ve at least wasted the opportunity to teach our calves something good.


But if we will go out with a good mindset and positive attitude, ride for health instead of sickness, work with the calves and provide what they need, dissipate any stress they acquired during weaning, teach them that there is no reason to be afraid and that we are no threat to them but can be trusted to look after them, then they should stay well. The people who are not willing to do those things are much more likely to get sick and underperforming calves.

In our own case, our historic average morbidity rate postweaning was 23%. When we first started working with and exercising our calves it dropped to 5%, the
following year it dropped to 3.7%, and the next year it was 1.1%. So, working with your calves postweaning pays dividends.