Ease Heifer Transition with Low Stress Livestock Handling – Jim Lewis, Vita Plus

Posted on November 21, 2016 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Jim Lewis, Vita Plus dairy field service specialist
Transition is a popular word in the dairy industry.  It is actually a synonym for change.  Virtually everything on the planet resists change to some extent and cattle are no exception.

The process of introducing transition or change to animals, in this case cattle, influences their performance to varying degrees. For example, we tend to blame slowed performance on a “move event,” which is a change.  But, in reality, it is the processes that occur during the move event that actually determine the results, positive or negative.

Young calves have brain plasticity, meaning they are influenced by surrounding stimuli, and can be negatively impacted by change. If the process to introduce change is done forcefully – rather than in a way that guides them through the transition – it can create stress.  Stress is a specific response by an individual – human or animal – to fear, pain or hunger caused by a negative external stimulus. This results in impaired immune function, which has been shown to reduce performance.

The introduction of a new process, environment or herd mates to animals requires thoughtful consideration of how it will be introduced.  Applying low stress livestock handling (LSLH) principles as you work with these animals can help minimize negative impacts of change.

LSLH is intelligence that is translated into skill through practice.  LSLH skills are not always inherent, but those who handle animals can learn and apply the skills with practice.  It is similar to learning how to ride a bike.  You can buy the bike, but you still have to commit to learning how to ride.

Use of an LSLH technique called “pen settling” can help minimize stress caused by change.  Taking the time to settle a pen is an investment that can yield significant dividends.  The practice is fairly simple, which may cause it to be discounted by those who do not understand it, but its use has been proven to have dramatic effects.

Pen settling is a simple practice that involves evaluation of the group as a whole to determine what it needs to adapt to a new environment.  Based on that evaluation, one of two dimensions could be applied – invoking movement or reducing movement.  Both are focused on teaching animals to adapt to their new environment.

  • Invoking movement could be necessary, for example, when calves are moved from hutches to a group pen.  Create pressure to drive the calves to one end of the pen and then release them back to the other end.  This works on the principle that cattle like to return to the place where they started.  Using pressure to drive them back and forth gets them familiar with their new environment and creates the habit of going to a specific spot like the feedbunk.  Something as seemingly innocuous as an 8-inch curb can create a temporary barrier and, without pressure, the animals will not cross it. A quantifiable measure of the success of their adaptation is sustained dry matter intake (DMI).
  • Reducing movement involves the identification of excessive movement and extreme mannerisms in individual animals. For example, when a group of heifers is put in a pen and they continue to move about – instead of lying down, eating or drinking – it may be due to the energy of one or two animals. The handler identifies the animals exhibiting nervous behaviors, such as holding their heads high with ears in the forward position.  Pressure and release is then applied to the energetic individuals to calm them.  Taking the energy out of them by applying pressure results in the rest in the group calming since their behavior was being driven by the few agitated individuals.  Again, sustained intake can be used to gage the effectiveness of this process.

We expect that calves will have a decreased DMI during transition and thus experience a stalled rate of gain. The more we can minimize or mitigate the stress caused by a transition can lead to consistent intakes and better performance, as measured by rate of gain or growth.

LSLH has numerous techniques.  All are targeted at handling animals in a way to reduce the stress they may experience from transition or change.  Learning and consistently applying the techniques can yield significant benefits to the animals as well as the handlers by making their jobs easier.

Category: Animal handling
Starting Strong - Calf Care