Manage Heat Stress and Mobility in Cattle

Heavier-finished cattle fatigue easily ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Michelle Calvo-Lorenzo, MS, PhD, is Chief Animal Welfare Officer, Elanco Animal Health

As a cattle producer, you work every day — often in extreme temperatures — to ensure cattle are comfortable, safe, properly hydrated and fed, and in good overall health. But we all know this summer is different.

The hot summer temperatures we can count on have arrived, but a new complication has been added: COVID-19. This new factor drove animals to live on the farm longer and, as a result, to reach higher body weights than usual.

Here are some ways to help manage stress in cattle during the summer and how to help their caregivers manage their own stress to enable them to be successful.

Managing mobility conditions is crucial

With hot weather, heavier-finished cattle fatigue easily. Because of this, they can often have poor mobility. Producers want to know what they can do to equip themselves and their employees to mitigate the unwanted conditions of fatigue, mobility problems and heat stress, all of which can make it difficult for cattle to make the journey from their home pen to slaughter plant. Planning ahead and having good communication between farm and feedlot staff, truck drivers and packer partners can help make this time in the animal’s life less stressful.

There are also tools available to evaluate how a particular feedlot is doing, one of which is Elanco’s Cattle Mobility Assessment (CMA) Program, where trained scorers evaluate the mobility of fed cattle in packing plants across the U.S. and identify mobility risk factors, which includes the factor of summer heat. The program uses five years of historical data to monitor trends and run analytics on them. Our CMA database does confirm heavier cattle weights today due to COVID-19 market disruptions, and that heavier animals were at risk for poor mobility in a pre-COVID world. Long-haul distances and mixed pens of steers and heifers also tend to be mobility risk factors.

Elanco is able to share learnings with the industry to provide insight and recommendations. We look forward to getting back to monitoring cattle mobility in packing plants once the pandemic conditions have subsided, because poor mobility is a disease state that is important for the fed cattle industry to understand and manage.  

Tips for making shipping day easier on cattle

There are four things that cattle handlers and transporters can focus on to help keep cattle as calm as possible in preparation for the day of shipment for harvest.

1. Always move cattle with a lead rider. Using a lead rider in front of groups of cattle can effectively slow cattle down when moving them, even for short distances. Cattle reach their heavier-finishing phases while being comfortably fed and cared for in their pens for many months. Just as humans who have been quarantined and snacking too much shouldn’t immediately run a 5K race, we shouldn’t expect cattle to run a mile to the loading facilities or to a barn for medical treatment. Handlers shouldn’t yell or use the hot shot as a first resort; rather, they should do everything possible to use low-stress handling techniques to keep cattle calm while moving and handling them.

2. Stage heavier cattle closer to the loading facilities. As cattle go through their time at the feedlot, they should be staged at re-implanting into pens that are closer to the loadout facilities. This will help minimize the distance cattle have to walk when they’re moved on the day of shipment for harvest.

3. Identify cattle that are unfit for transport. If cattle have severe mobility issues that handlers believe will prohibit them from standing properly after getting off a truck, they shouldn’t be put on the truck in the first place. Producers should work with their veterinarians to find another solution for cattle that are unfit for transport, such as letting them rest for an additional period of time. In some cases, mobility may be so severely impacted that euthanasia may be necessary to avoid needless stress and suffering during transport. Ensuring that cattle are loaded when they are in good condition also helps handlers on the receiving end avoid having to manage animals that are in dire shape. Loading cattle that are fit for transport is critical for cattle welfare, but it’s also important to note that there are significant costs that can come from shipping severely fatigued or non-ambulatory animals, from both the producers’ and packers’ ends.

4. Minimize time in transport and lairage. It’s important for cattle not to remain on a truck any longer than necessary, particularly during extreme weather conditions. It’s the responsibility of truck drivers to ensure that their trailers are in proper condition to haul cattle and that routes are direct with no unnecessary stops. During times of hot weather conditions, stopping allows heat to build up within the trailer, which can cause heat stress, especially in very heavy animals. It’s also important to minimize the time spent in lairage at the plant. Heat stress mitigation measures and low stress handling at the plant helps cattle cope with the stress of the climate, as well as any stress experienced from transport and leaving their familiar home environment.

Empower people for success

Just as hot weather and the effects of COVID-19 are tough on cattle, they’re also tough on the caretakers that interact with cattle on a daily basis. Owners of farm, feedlot, transport and packing operations need healthy employees to ensure cattle are cared for properly every day.

Simply put, if people aren’t taken care of, animal welfare cannot be taken care of. Producers need to focus on both people and animals to help ensure that the cycle of care doesn’t break down.  

New hires should be adequately trained on and familiar with all animal-handling protocols for the operation. Everyone on the farm needs to know not only about cattle treatment, management, feeding and care, but also why these best management practices are in place. Managers should explain and emphasize, both verbally and also through their own actions, how to use low-stress techniques to handle cattle and why employees need to carefully monitor cattle behavior to ensure issues like heat stress or poor mobility are detected and managed according to protocol.

Empower employees to realize that they are the experts on the animals in their care, that they are valued staff members and that without them, animals cannot be cared for properly. There is a huge “people” aspect to animal welfare. It starts at the top with owners, managers, veterinarians and nutritionists, and extends out to every single person who is responsible for animals on an operation.

In addition to empowering employees with responsibility, it’s important to ensure they have the physical tools they need to do their jobs well, including the proper equipment, software and applications to monitor animal health and maintain comprehensive, up-to-date records. Make sure employees have access to these well-maintained tools and are properly trained on using them.

Creating a holistic experience

Producers who recognize that they need to keep employees safe and happy in their workplace know that this will ultimately translate to enhancing the animal’s positive experience, comfort level and health status. As an industry, we need to think holistically about how every segment works together, fill gaps and fix broken systems. We need to heighten communication across the farm and the industry, as well as with consumers and retailers. Together, we can overcome the intense stressors that we’re all experiencing during unprecedented times — and in the dog days of summer.