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10 tips for managing heat stress in the corral

Dana Charban for Progressive Cattle Published on 29 July 2021

It is that time of year again. We are in the middle of summer, and one of our biggest concerns is managing heat stress in beef cattle corrals.

Heat stress is an even larger concern this year, as unprecedented heat waves have challenged humans and animals throughout the western part of the United States and Canada, breaking previous high temperature records. Despite the heat, cattle producers have necessary tasks that must be completed in their corrals. It is important to incorporate heat stress management into cattle production to avoid problems for your cattle or, in extreme cases, death.

What is heat stress in cattle? The simple definition is that cattle are absorbing and making more heat from the environment and fermentation than they can clear out of their body through sweat, airflow and respiration. Cattle can sweat, but not the same way humans do. Respiration is one of the primary ways they reduce excess heat in higher temperatures. They also rely on environmental conditions to help manage the heat.

Any temperature-humidity index above 80ºF is problematic for cattle and may cause heat stress. Overnight temperatures of 70ºF or higher also contribute to heat stress in beef cattle, as there is no break from intense temperatures for them to cool down in the evenings. Signs of heat stress include decreased feed intake, restlessness, slobbering and increased respiration. If cattle are open-mouthed breathing and clumped together, it is likely they are experiencing heat stress and you should take immediate action.

Heat stress in beef cattle can occur even when we do not have the extreme heat waves we are currently seeing. High humidity and elevated overnight temperatures, lack of airflow, and even too much direct sunlight with no shade or cloud cover are all potential causes. Other compounding factors that can increase the negative impacts of heat stress are overall health and life stage. Even genetics such as a light or dark hide or a calm or excitable disposition can all play a factor. Cattle that have previously suffered from heat stress are also at greater risk.

With all this knowledge and our current high temperatures, how can we mitigate and reduce heat stress in beef cattle? Here are a few ways you can mitigate the risk of heat stress and ensure your cattle remain safe when processing them in the hot summer months.

1. Monitor your cattle. First and foremost, monitor your cattle daily before, during and after high temperatures for signs of heat stress. Remove cattle that are struggling and place them in a separate area where they can cool off more effectively and you can keep a close eye on them to ensure they recover properly.

2. Plan ahead. The best strategies for managing heat stress in beef cattle are implemented well in advance of high temperatures. Prepare places where cattle can cool off effectively in advance, and prepare for heat beforehand so you do not have to be out in it yourself.

3. Provide plenty of shade. Beef cattle corrals do not always have access to shade, and radiant heat from the ground compounds the effects of heat stress, even in corrals with a dirt footing. Add shade to corral areas whenever possible, or create a shaded area for higher-risk cattle: older cattle, young cattle, any with dark hides and those that have previously had pneumonia or heat stress. Monitor these cattle more closely, as they may be the ones you move to a separate pen in the corral.

4. Reduce protein intake. Research has shown that a lower protein or energy intake will decrease heat stress in beef cattle. Consult with your veterinarian and consider lowering protein amounts by 5% to 7%.

5. Increase water intake. This can be done by increasing the number of stock tanks and ensuring water is clean and cool. Whenever possible, add new stock tanks before the heat wave begins, as we all know that cattle need time to adjust to new things.

6. Change feeding times. Digesting feed increases the core body temperature of cattle. We can decrease heat stress by feeding cattle when it cools down so that fermentation occurs during the overnight hours.

7. Keep airflow moving. Remove any windbreaks that were set up for the winter to help reduce heat stress. Add earth mounds to pens to increase airflow. Also, analyze all pens prior to extreme temperatures to determine which have the best airflow, and try to use these pens exclusively during high temperatures. Reducing herd density in pens can also help improve airflow, so consider working smaller batches and be cautious not to overload pens.

8. Use sprinklers. Applying water to cattle with sprinklers helps them manage higher temperatures. Remember to introduce sprinklers prior to high temperatures, otherwise cattle will avoid them. Sprinklers should thoroughly wet cattle and not just mist them. Keep sprinklers away from the feedbunk and water troughs, using them intermittently to reduce mud.

9. Minimize insects and flies. Cattle stressed by biting insects bunch together, increasing heat and reducing airflow between animals. Try and remove all fly breeding areas from your beef cattle corrals and utilize fly control methods to keep this to a minimum.

10. Handle with care. If possible, work cattle first thing in the morning, before the hottest parts of the day. Try to avoid working cattle in the evening, as they will still be recovering from the higher temperatures of the day. In higher temperatures, cattle should be kept in the holding pen or alleys for a maximum of 30 minutes to minimize stress levels. As always, use low-stress cattle-handling techniques and proper equipment to keep other stressors to a minimum.

Managing heat stress in beef cattle corrals is crucial for the success of your operation. We must also remember to care for ourselves and other handlers; managing human heat stress allows workers to better care for cattle. Heat stress in beef cattle is a constant challenge in the summer months, but one we can mitigate with planning and having the correct strategies in place.  end mark

PHOTO: Keep heat stress management in mind for both cattle and their handlers when working cattle in the heat. Photo courtesy of Arrowquip.

Dana Charban is with Arrowquip. Email Dana Charban.