Reducing stress for calves of all ages is important for their overall health

Stress is detrimental to livestock of any age, but it can be especially rough on calves. Taking steps to reduce stress can help calves perform well throughout their lifetime.

For newborn calves, especially those born in the colder months, keeping them dry is vital to reducing cold related stress.  

“For calves this time of year, having some coverage from the elements of winter weather is a key factor,” Andy McCorkill, livestock field specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, explained wind, snow or, worst of all, cold rain can take their toll on young calves. Besides what comes from above, having some insulation from the mud and cold below is important. Unrolling hay is one alternative that works well.” 

If a calf does become chilled and stressed, Eldon Cole, livestock field specialist with MU Extension, advised producers get the calf dried off as quickly as possible and into a warm location, such as a heated pickup cab or even a warm mudroom or kitchen. 

Cole also suggested producers research commercial calf warmers and consider purchasing one to have on hand. Another way to reduce stress on young calves is to provide them a creep-style area where they can get out of the way of adult cows or older calves to eat and rest. 

As calves get older, there will be some experiences where stress is almost unavoidable, but even in those situations, there are things a producer can do to make it easier on the animals. 

“Weaning and shipping stresses are probably the worst a calf will encounter,” McCorkill said. He recommended producers utilize the fence line weaning practice where cows and calves still have nose-to-nose contact, or at least visual contact, for a few days until the calves calm down and ease up on the crying. 

“Make sure they still have adequate access to feed and water,” he advised. “Going without will severely affect the microbe population of the gut and put the animals behind and more likely to get sick. Place feed and water in a way that it is along a fence where they will find it quickly while investigating their new environment.”

The way a producer handles calves can also help reduce stress. Handle them calmly, McCorkill said, and try to keep things that may make sudden noise, such as loose tin or old feed troughs, out of the weaning pen. Vaccinations to reduce the incidence of sickness will also reduce stress. 

Spreading the stressors calves experience around weaning out over time will help keep them healthy.

“Castrate and dehorn early and it will be less stressful and one less thing to add stress at weaning,” McCorkill said. “I like to have at least one round of vaccinations in them prior to weaning, if possible, as well. That way they are more protected against respiratory illness that often come with added stress. Having them used to feed ahead of weaning is also helpful and reduces the time off feed as they learn new surroundings,” he suggested. 

Signs of stress can include tense or excitable behavior, freezing, shivering, scours, not eating or a significant decline in weight. If producers notice any of these signs, they should evaluate the situation to determine the cause of stress and take steps to reduce it. Consulting with the herd veterinarian is always a good option to ensure stressed calves receive the treatment or management changes they need.


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