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Recognizing the triggers of cattle stress

Kelton Spain for Progressive Cattleman Published on 28 April 2016
cattle and dogs

I consider beef cow stress one of the top issues facing the cattle industry today, including how producers may induce stress in their daily management practices.

Many experts are now recommending that producers take steps to lower the stress of cows and calves. These recommendations are backed by research in the field regarding why cattle experience stress and the best practices for reducing this stress. This article is a summary of this research for your practical use, outlining different stressors of cattle and solutions to help alleviate the effects of stress on cow-calf production.

What is stress?

While scientists have conducted studies and trials on the effects of stress, the concept seems to still be subjective. The reason for this is that stress is difficult to research when the research itself causes stress on the subject. To further complicate research, each subject responds uniquely to different stress stimuli.

What, then, is the definition of stress? A comprehensive definition would be “symptoms resulting to a situation or environment that is not normal for the animal.” Per this definition, stress can affect cattle in two ways: psychologically and physically. What happens when stress is present is a cascade of hormonal changes that includes the release of adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones. When stress is psychological, this can manifest in fear caused by restraint, handling or exposure to unfamiliar objects, or environment. Physical stress can be caused by hunger, thirst, fatigue, injury, sickness or temperature extremes.

Adrenaline-induced stress causes the fight-or-flight reaction that produces a chemical response, preparing the animal for quick muscle action to escape or fight. One problem with the fight-or-flight response is that it is reported to take time for the body to break down the chemicals and expel them from the body through the kidneys and liver.

After an experience of adrenaline, cattle tend to have a long memory of the incident, and this trigger can be activated at a later date again with an adrenaline response before a repeat action is taken. An example might be working the cattle though a chute facility that has caused pain or aggravation.

Elevated cortisol concentrations due to cattle stress can cause a suppression of the immune system – making the cattle more susceptible to disease – reduced reproduction and reduced weight gains. Many of these stressed cattle can have an inflammatory reaction and have digestive upsets, resulting in reduced consumption and fluctuating pH levels in the rumen and intestinal tract that can cause diarrhea.

Causes of cattle stress

Let us visit some triggers of cattle stress and how we, as producers, might think about reducing the stress caused by atypical situations in the field. We will never completely eliminate cattle stress, but with planning, education and observation, we can minimize the stress.

Many stress triggers start with fear. Fear can come from handling, restraint, neglect, unfamiliar objects or shadows, noise or a myriad of other causes known only to the animal at the time of stress. For this reason, cattle handling and restraint have been at the forefront of training for several years with the Beef Quality Trainings and Low-Stress Cattle Handling Seminars sponsored by university extension and other organizations.

Be open to new methods of cattle handling for the benefit of lowering stress. The way you have always handled cattle over the years may not be the most effective way. I have the opportunity to see many different ranches work cattle, and I have witnessed what truly low-stress handling can do in regards to health and gains. However, I have also witnessed the “ram and jam” method of handling cattle that is common among producers. This method runs the risk of equipment breaking or animals or people getting hurt in the process. Handling cattle does not have to be stressful, and I do believe over time, the cost-benefit of low-stress methods will change many producers’ practices.

Examining your practice

Stress on the ranch can be easily minimized when common factors are taken into consideration. For instance, trained dogs can be as effective as a hired hand for moving cattle. The reason they are able to move cattle so easily is that cattle are the prey animals and the dogs, wolves, coyotes, bears, cougars are the predators. However, dogs alone can cause great stress if they are not controlled, and between the dog and the handler, the cattle are stirred up and stressed. Even though the dog is meant to be a beneficial tool, the mishandling of a dog could condition cattle to be overly temperamental. This is due to adrenaline released in the cattle’s brain with the fight-or-flight reaction.

I have seen results of research done on a ranch with a wolf population that was harassing the cattle. One takeaway from the data was that the cow doesn’t care if it is a dog or a wolf or a coyote. If the cow feels threatened, then there is stress. I have observed ranchers doctoring sick cattle, and when they let the cow out of the chute, it is done by a bite to the flank of the cow by a trained dog. How do we expect these sick animals to respond to treatment with that kind of stress?

As producers, we need to observe the cattle and be patient. Look around the corrals for corners where cattle can be injured or for protruding nails or bolts that can cause cuts or bruises. Walk your corrals from the back to the front and then from the front to the back, and try to place yourself as the cow and observe how they work though a corral system.

I look at corrals and see panels bent and broke, or fences fixed with a panel, and I have to ask the question: Why is that bent or broke? Was it a cow that did it? And was it out of fear? As an example, vaccinations can hurt, causing a cow to thrash against its corral. Use sharp needles and change every five head. Stay calm and keep noise to a minimum, and the cattle will respond in a positive manner. Study the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) guidelines for low-stress cattle handling for further details on best practices.

The environment can be a strong initiator of stress. Heat and cold stress, for instance, are repeat offenders. Understanding the production losses due to both heat and cold extremes is important, along with providing solutions to optimize production. Personally, I know I am uncomfortable when I get thirsty. Your cattle are also uncomfortable due to hot or cold extremes, causing stress and stress reactions. Social structure and changes of cattle in a pen or adding cattle to a herd can and will cause social stress. Limited water supply and low quality of water are also contributing factors during heat and cold stress.

How to reduce stress

Stress is a killer of cattle, and morbidity can be high, resulting in lower production in the cows and calves. It is certainly important to look for solutions, as your financial investment is in pounds of calf sold. Producers should not only think of ways to decrease stress, but also of ways to help the cattle cope with stress when they are handled.

Probiotics and energy drenches are an inexpensive way to help the rumen and intestinal tract get back on track during and after a stressful activity. Most of the probiotics and energy drenches can be given orally as a paste or bolus, and can be administered without stress when done correctly. When therapy needs to be given to a cow or calf, use a probiotic with a vitamin mineral pack to help with the digestion process and immune function.

Remember, cattle stress is an enemy to your bottom line. Talk with your neighbors, veterinarians, consultants, nutritionist or extension professionals about reducing cattle stress. Sometimes, an extra set of eyes can bring stressors to light, and it may be a simple fix to eliminate or reduce.  end mark

Kelton Spain is a national accounts manager for Vets Plus Inc. He holds a Bachelor of Science in animal science and a Master of Science in agricultural and extension education. Email Kelton Spain.

PHOTO: Observe closely how dogs work with your cattle. If the dogs are excessively threatening, that will create stress on animals. Photo by Lynn Jaynes.

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