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Working smaller: Process calves early

Cattle and Beef Industry News
Apr 14, 2017

—Working calves early comes with benefits, but also size considerations for equipment

A young calf suckling its dam.
WLJ file photo

It’s often been “Go big or go home” in this industry. Bigger calf crops, bigger cattle, bigger ribeyes, and more. But when it comes to calves and equipment, sometimes bigger isn’t better. And with an aging cattle industry, using the right tool for the job is increasingly more important.

In the interest of both animal welfare and marketing success, BQA recommends ranchers dehorn, brand, and castrate calves as early in life as possible, defining this as between birth to 3 months old. Doing these chores earlier reduces the stress calves experience. Not only is lower stress a good for its own sake, consumers are increasingly interested in how food animals are raised and handled.

Additionally, calves processed early in life—rather than at or after weaning—are more likely to be healthy, vigorous, fast-gaining cattle at the backgrounder or feedlot operation than their later-processed counterparts. This makes them more attractive at the sale barn.

Feedlot operators face added morbidity and mortality risk with intact calves or yearlings that must be castrated at the feedlot and discount accordingly. For example, 4-weight bull calves trailed their steer counterparts by $2-8/cwt. in all but one case of comparable sales in the surveyed feeder auction reports from last week alone.

The discounts get more extreme when the animals get older, as well. In the one instance of comparable sales of 8-weight feeder bulls versus feeder steers, the bulls were discounted $29/ cwt. Assuming 850-lb. animals, the sellers who did not castrate before selling lost roughly $245 per animal compared to those sellers who did.

Equipment for small stock and safety

The image of a cowboy roping a calf from horseback and dragging it to the branding fire is both nostalgic and a real-world strategy for processing calves. However, the risks of operating on horses, aggressive mother cows, and struggling calves are very real, and ranching is a graying industry. Injuries are often worse and take longer to heal when you’re 65 rather than 35.

This dynamic, plus the growing awareness of the importance of working calves early, has opened up the market for a whole host of specialized calf equipment. Such calf equipment can help facilitate early working of calves while keeping cattle producers safe and efficient.

ATV-mounted calf cages: Several companies produce lightweight, durable cages to catch young calves out on the range. The cages allow a single operator on an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) to work a single small calf while being protected from potentially aggressive mother cows.

Though designs differ, the cages generally act like a side car to the ATV. The operator rides up alongside the calf with the cage’s front gate open. Once the calf is safely inside, the front gate is closed with a handle, trapping the calf. The operator can then dismount the ATV directly into the cage with the small calf to work it as needed. Many models include carry baskets for tools, a tight pen that functions as a squeeze chute, and a back gate release to return the processed calf back to its waiting dam.

Most ATV-mounted calf-catching cages are suitable for very young calves. Various demonstration videos show operators working calves they are able to lift and maneuver by hand. Models, sizes, and tolerances differ between manufacturers. Examples include the Safety Zone Calf Catcher and Polytin’s calf catcher.

Calf-sized alleys: Calves in the BQA-recommended working age range are relatively small things compared to the rest of the herd.

Most beef-breed calves are around 80-100 lbs. at birth. Depending on numerous factors, including breed, management and nutritional situation, a 3-month-old beef calf is likely to be in the 250-350-lb. area.

As a result, cattle alley systems that are intended for adult animals can be enormous and ineffective for small stock. Alan Winkel of Winkel Manufacturing said that baby calves can “just disappear” in half circles intended for adult stock. Additionally, wide alleys for adult cattle allow calves to get turned around or fall when they attempt to escape.

Though several sized-down versions of half circles and alleys exist for calves or sheep, Winkel saw an unserved niche and made something even smaller with solid sides specifically intended for calves under 300 lbs.

“We shrunk it from 16-inch wide to a 14-inch wide alley. People think it looks a little narrow, but if you’ve ever worked calves that size, it’s perfect.”

Both BQA and livestock handling expert Dr. Temple Grandin recommend cattle alleys have solid sides to prevent cattle from seeing people or other animals moving around outside the alley. Solid sides also have the benefit of preventing kicking animals from connecting with people, as well as preventing escape attempts or limbs getting caught.

Small squeeze chutes: “Animals have long memories,” noted the Calf Track management program guide, created by the Pennsylvania State University Extension. “If calves experience stress during handling, they will experience stress when handled later in life.”

Grandin, in a 1997 paper on cattle handling facilities, noted that “roping calves properly so excitement is minimized is a highly skilled occupation.” She pointed out that calf tables or calf chutes are a common alternative. These are nothing new, but they are quite valuable as tools for quiet, humane handling.

Some calf chutes are simply smaller versions of usual squeeze chutes. Others, however, are quite small, simple things that are little more than moveable crates suited for holding a baby calf in a standing position. Many of the models of calf-catching cages mentioned above come with simple versions of these.

Various companies down to individual backyard inventors produce calf tilt tables and calf chutes. Among these are Powder River, Hi-Hog, HiQual and others. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor

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