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Slow down to speed up cattle handling/improve productivity

Dr. Kristina Porter, DVM

Dr. Kristina Porter, DVM

WILLMAR, Minn. – Dr. Kristina Porter, DVM, grew up loving every opportunity to work cattle with her family. The family had fun and worked cattle quietly and efficiently.

She enjoyed working cattle with her family so much that she attended veterinary college specializing in large animals.

One of her first times out to work on a farm as a veterinarian was a rude awakening.

“As soon as the cattle working started, the family relationships that had worked very well got quite stressful in a hurry,” Porter said, speaking at the Minnesota Cow/Calf Council meeting.

The aggressive attitude of the producers put Porter in “fight or flight” mode.

“I got back in the pickup and I could hardly talk,” she said.

She realized immediately that the cows were also in “fight or flight” mode. She didn’t expect good results from working the cattle under those conditions.

If you vaccinate cattle when they are in “fight or flight mode” (cells are dehydrated), you might as well be pouring the vaccine on the ground for all the good it’s going to do, Porter said.

Now, 12 years into her career, Porter helps producers learn how to slow down and reduce stress to increase productivity. She was mentored by Dr. Tom Noffsinger, DVM, who specializes in facility design, stockmanship, and low-stress livestock handling. She took Noffsinger’s principles and is now applying them to improve cow reproductive rates. Porter has worked with the national Beef Reproduction Task Force to develop synchronization protocols for the industry.

Noffsinger’s and Porter’s message is to elevate the expectations of yourself, elevate the expectations of others around you, and elevate your expectations of the cattle. All will rise to the challenge and perform accordingly.

Porter’s expectation is that all cattle producers will understand what causes stress in cattle and will work to reduce stress. In turn, calm and comfortable cattle are much easier to breed and produce a calf.

She spends a lot of time AI’ing cows and heifers.

As a veterinarian, Porter uses specific protocols for consistent AI breeding – some ranches obtain a 74 percent AI breeding rate, while others get only 35 percent.

“You are the difference – what you do the rest of the year is what leads to a successful AI bred rate or a great failure,” she said.

What causes stress in an open heifer or cow? Physically, the cow is stressed when it is malnourished, trace mineral deficient, in bad weather, transported, exposed to pathogens or in pain.

Instinctually/psychologically, the cow is stressed by confinement, an unfamiliar environment, social disruption, transport or predators.

Removing stress or acclimating cows to situations they view as stressful will make a big difference in reproductive success. Selecting heifers that are docile and with an easy temperament is another key to reproduction and calf production.

“When you activate the ‘fight or flight’ response while working cattle, what are the cattle not doing? All their energy will go toward their response. They are not converting the feed you gave them that morning into pounds – they are converting it into energy,” she said.

Of all the things a producer can do to reduce stress, stockmanship is one of the few things that doesn’t have to cost much money. While some people may say it costs time to practice patience, Porter says working slowly and efficiently will save time.

For instance, recognizing the best and the worst times to trailer cattle can help save pregnancies, she added. During the first three days following conception, the embryo is not attached to the uterus and is relatively safe. It’s safer to trailer heifers/cows within the first five days of breeding, than days 5-45 of gestation.

“We say, ‘From days 5-45, those heifers are off limits.’ If you have to work something, know the risks and plan ahead,” she said.

Once the 283 days of gestation are past, and there is a new calf on the ground, it’s time to begin acclimating the calf. The three most important days of a calf’s life are the day it is born, the day it is branded or its mom is worked in the chute for the first time, and weaning day.

Both Noffsinger and Porter emphasize this.

When the beef calf is born, it’s important to give the mama cow and calf time to bond. While it’s easiest to tag calves when they are still wet, Porter suggests slowing down and coming back later.

“Let that calf get up,” Porter said. “You would be surprised at the impact it can have if you mess with those first 10 minutes of the bonding experience.”

She expects each cow will be responsible for her calf, and that means close bonding is needed. The calf needs to stay by the cow’s side when she goes to eat. In the pasture, she expects cow/calf pairs to get up when people drive onto the pasture.

As the calves get older, the producer can train them to not fear the bud box (small pen) or chute. Separated from their mothers (as the mothers are prepared for rebreeding) the calves can be taught to go through the chute to get back to their mothers. After weaning, those calves can teach other calves in their pen to not fear the chute.

“We have time for that – this is not a big deal to step back and spend a few extra minutes preparing those calves,” she said.

Weaning requires correct nutrition for both the cow and its calf. When weaning is done correctly, there should be very little bawling. The calves should feel comfortable going to the bunk and waterer on their own. The cows should feel relieved to not have a calf underfoot for a few months.

Porter mentioned a herd in western Kansas that had become conditioned to difficult weanings. Their morbidity rate for new calves was 45 percent. By adopting and changing a few things at the ranch, they were able to lower their morbidity to just 3 percent. In addition, the properly weaned calves converted weight better and finished sooner. The rancher made money.

Following that difficult experience back in the first days of her practice, Porter has recaptured her joy for working with livestock and cattle producers. She now recognizes that attitude is paramount when it comes to just about everything in life – and especially working cattle.

With proper stockmanship, producers can raise cows that are healthy and calm, and will provide high quality products as well as calves for about a decade. Low-stress cattle handling offers cattle producers the opportunity for fulfillment in their profession.

“I can’t think of a better world to be a part of than the world of agriculture. These cattle are healthy and providing a great service,” she continued. “We are caretaking them, and it’s a joy.”

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