Does Acclimation Upon Arrival Pay Off?

So you already use low-stress handling practices for cattle arriving for backgrounding or finishing, including allowing calves to rest for a day or two before processing. Can you do more to help them acclimate, and if you do, will your efforts pay off in better health?

Nathan Meyer, DVM, with JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, decided to test some assumptions in a feedyard trial with over 2,000 newly weaned calves shipped from Florida to an Oklahoma feedyard. The test was designed to evaluate whether an alternative cattle-handling system would improve health, performance or carcass traits. Meyer presented his findings during the recent American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) conference.

In this case, the feedyard crews processed all the calves through the same modern, indoor processing facility using low-stress cattle-handling methods. Prior to processing, the feedyard rested and observed all the calves for four days prior to processing. All the calves received the same treatments at processing and were re-implanted and re-vaccinated 90 days later.

The only difference between the treatment groups was that the crews spent time acclimating one group, using a two-step process over a 10-day period. The two groups each included 1,057 calves managed in eight pens. In the treatment group, cowboys initially left the calves to rest after processing, then rode the pens once 90% of the calves were up and walking. They quietly moved groups of calves into the pen corners, and gathered any stragglers and returned them to the groups. They moved calves away from the feedbunks, then allowed them to circle back to the bunks on their own. After six to 12 hours, they repeated the process, and for the next 10 days practiced moving the cattle around each pen and into the drovers alleys on a daily basis. The “traditional” group experienced the same initial processing and daily pen checks, but not the acclimation.

Analysis at closeout showed small numeric advantages for the acclimated group in hot carcass weights and in the number pulled for health reasons, but the advantages were not statistically significant. Overall mortality rates did differ significantly though, with the acclimated group showing an advantage. Total mortality for the acclimated calves was 1.19%, compared with 2.19% for the traditional group.

The researchers tracked employee time, and after accounting for the relatively small increase in labor costs, the acclimated cattle closed out with a $10.58 per head advantage over the traditional group, due to the lower incidence of mortality.

Again, it is important to note that the feedyard crews used low-stress methods in handling both groups of calves, and designed the trial to evaluate the additional step of working calves daily during the receiving period to help them acclimate to the feedyard.  

In the future, Meyer would like to see additional trials with more replications, and tests to objectively compare various handling methods and facility designs.