When people take up exercise programs for a single purpose, such as weight loss, they often discover additional benefits. They might, for example, need less sleep, have more energy for other activities or catch fewer colds.

So, if it works for people, how about feedyard cattle? A growing number of cattle feeders and veterinarians are finding that exercising cattle can provide multiple benefits, as long as the program is built around calm, low-stress handling methods.

Consulting veterinarian Tom Noffsinger with Twin Forks Clinic in Benkelman, Neb., identifies three key areas where an exercise routine can benefit a feeding program.

  • Direct improvements in cattle health, well-being and performance.
  • Opportunity for better detection of sickness as cattle communicate their true state of health.
  • A means for teaching cattle to work with minimal handling and to trust their handlers, leading to reductions in stress at processing, sorting and shipping.

Two years ago, Dr. Noffsinger and the Twin Forks Clinic veterinary team brought animal-handling specialist Bud Williams to Nebraska to spend most of one year working with local cattle feeders and ranchers. Now, he and fellow Twin Forks veterinarian Lynn Locatelli continue that work, conducting seminars and training based on principles they learned from Mr. Williams, along with ideas drawn from other sources and their own experience.

Kirk Laux, who operates Laux Feedyard of Bridgeport, Neb., participated in a seminar Dr. Noffsinger conducted at a neighboring feedyard. Mr. Laux and his consulting veterinarian Phillip Kesterson then arranged for a training session for his staff last summer. "Our goal was to improve cattle handling in the feedyard as a means toward improving animal health and performance."

The training included about three hours in a classroom setting, followed by hands-on application. The Laux operation also employs Hispanic workers, so they hired a translator to repeat Dr. Noffsinger's presentation in Spanish.

The seminar, Mr. Laux says, helped the staff make several positive changes in the ways they move and handle cattle. "One new concept we decided to try was the idea of moving cattle out of their pens for exercise." A 25-acre field adjacent to the feedyard was idle due to irrigation restrictions, and a fence across the middle created two "playgrounds" for exercise periods Mr. Laux refers to as "recess." The crew puts out two pens at a time, usually for a few hours, allowing recess for four pens each day.

In facilities that lack a designated playground, Dr. Noffsinger says crews can exercise cattle by turning them out into a drovers alley, and some large feedyards have trained pen riders to exercise cattle within their home pens. Managers with Heartland Cattle Co., which operates two commercial feedyards and a heifer-development facility in southern Nebraska, routinely exercise cattle. Chuck McNall, manager of the company's Holdredge, Neb., facility, says the ongoing process of improving handling practices generates positive results for cattle and for his staff.

Two years ago, Bud Williams worked with the Heartland crews in a series of training sessions that initiated the change process. A follow-up program with Dr. Noffsinger this spring reinforced the message and further motivated the staff to refine their handling methods, Mr. McNall says. Dr. Noffsinger spent one afternoon with the group in a classroom setting, then returned the next day to work one-on-one with crew members out in the pens. He also videotaped crew members as they handled cattle and later sat down with them to watch and discuss opportunities for improvement.

"The guys have been very receptive," Mr. McNall says, noting that crew members enjoy being part of an effort that will benefit the business and can make their jobs easier in the long run.

For performance
Mr. Laux acknowledges that numerous factors can influence year-to-year health and performance. He has, however, noted improvements in gains, with lower treatment costs and death loss since implementing the program last fall. During the same time period, Dr. Noffsinger says  feedyards in his database experienced more health problems compared with the previous year.

Greg Comfort manages the Heartland II feedyard, where the crew has undergone similar training. Last year, he conducted a small trial using a gate cut to sort a set of calves into two treatment groups. His crew exercised one group every day, and the other group just once per month. At closeout, the daily-exercise group averaged a quarter-pound higher daily gain and $1 per hundredweight lower cost of gain compared with the group that exercised less. Regular exercise, Mr. Comfort says, "definitely does not hurt performance."

Even without experimental data, Mr. Laux says he knows the calves respond favorably to recess in terms of their attitudes. "They come out with tails up, they buck and kick and play with each other." Most of the calves will start by walking the entire fenceline, then spend the rest of the time milling around and playing. It's fun for the cowboys too, he says. "It gives them a chance to interact with the cattle."

For health
These periods also improve the opportunity for cowboys to find sick cattle. Most of the calves are so active and high-spirited during the recess that sick ones stand out better than they do in a pen.

   "During Dr. Noffsinger's visit this spring," Mr. McNall says, "we identified some pens that just were not doing as well as they should. The calves were not sick, but we noticed some coughing and loose stools and feed intake was low." Dr. Noffsinger suggested exercise, so the crew walked them up and down the alleyways each day. "After a few days, the respiratory and digestive problems went away, and within a week, feed consumption had increased by a couple pounds per day."

Dr. Noffsinger has seen similar results in other facilities. "In some pens, just a moderate amount of exercise causes widespread coughing among the cattle, even though they had not shown any other signs of respiratory disease." If crews continue to exercise those pens on a daily basis, the respiratory noise generally goes away. Exercise, he says, helps these animals clear dust and fluids from their upper respiratory tracts. "The alternative is to let it accumulate and become a source of infection." He adds that regular exercise seems to encourage more balanced feed intake, reducing the chance of digestive problems.

Handling makes it possible
All of these potential benefits, Dr. Noffsinger stresses, depend on one critical component good cattle-handling practices. Ideally, he says, calves look forward to their exercise sessions. Rather than fearing their handlers, they react positively to their arrival. This creates a situation where stress becomes a non-issue when it is time to move cattle for sorting or reimplanting.

At the Laux feedyard, the training begins as calves arrive off the truck. The operation specializes in feeding freshly weaned calves, many shipped considerable distances from ranches in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. These high-risk cattle need gentle treatment to minimize stress and health problems.

"The first impression we make on a calf is important, so one of the first things we do is teach them they can walk past humans without harm," Mr. Laux says. "First we allow them to walk them past one person in the tub as they come off the truck. After weighing, they walk past a person again. We then let them walk past the entrance to their new home pen and all the way to the end of the drovers" alley. After the calves find the boundaries, we try to let them come back toward the handler on their own." A person stands near the gate as they enter the feeding pen, making a pass or two across the back of the pen. This encourages the calves to move toward the front of the pen, helping them learn the location of feedbunks and water troughs. The crew always has feed in the bunk and clean water in the tanks before new calves enter the pen. These positive experiences allow for easier handling throughout their stay.

"We used to have trouble getting calves out of the pens for processing or shipping," Mr. Laux says. "Now, after they have been out a time or two for exercise, they willingly walk out on their own." Whenever the crew takes a pen out for recess, they first lead them into the holding area leading up to the processing/shipping alley and allow the calves to mill around in the holding pen for a few minutes. Then they lead them back up the alley and out of the gate to the recess pasture. Over time, the calves have become completely accustomed to going where the cowboys want them and are familiar with the journey to the shipping and processing area. At the end of the recess period, two riders easily round the calves up and walk them back to the holding area and then their home pen.

Mr. Laux began using the new system with calves placed last fall. He has begun shipping those cattle this spring and expects to see improvements at marketing time with less stress, less shrink and fewer dark cutters. "If there were no other benefits to the exercise program," Mr. Laux says, "the ease with which we have been able to ship cattle out for harvest has made it all worthwhile."

At Heartland II, the crew walks each pen of cattle on different routes, sometimes taking them up to the processing or shipping area to help them acclimate. "It's just a breeze at shipping," Mr. Comfort says. "It takes about half the time and half the work."

Dr. Noffsinger agrees. "When managers ask about the time spent in exercising cattle, I stress that the time they can save in processing, sorting, managing bullers or treating sick calves in the hospital pen can more than make up for it."