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Important tips for calf processing

Be properly prepared and do it right – good for cattle and business

Implants can really improve calf performance but proper application is important.

As spring calves are ready to head out to grass soon with their mothers, it is a good time to review your protocols, methods and any issues you had this year and introduce ways to improve even more so for next year.

There are two main ways ranchers process calves. The first is the traditional way we call “branding” where calves are roped and pulled backwards to an area where wrestlers restrain the calves and all procedures are done almost simultaneously. These can go very smoothly depending on the experience of the crew but require lots of people power. Branding day is mixed with steep tradition and neighbours help each other out. The other method is separating and using a runway where calves go into a calf cradle (essentially a small chute) and are restrained and processed by a much smaller crew.

While the traditional branding does require lots of planning it also allows people not all that familiar with cattle a chance to participate and experience a western tradition. I have observed and participated in several brandings over the years and for the most part they are well organized and accomplish excellent processing speed and accuracy. The key person to me is the one who assigns the jobs and of course I always focus on the health aspect.

About vaccination

With the vaccines, it is best to give a person one needle and have the syringe labelled with that vaccine and have them always administer it in the same location. With traditional branding the calves are on their sides and through necessity the shots need to be given on the same side.

The wrestler is often lying over the calf’s neck so we must often pick the next best location. With the front leg lifted many give one vaccine under the elbow. I would give the least reactive vaccine — the one containing the viral vaccines — in this location. If these are modified live vaccines they are generally less reactive. Your clostridial vaccines could be given higher in the neck so this allows greater separation of different vaccines.

At one branding I attended the owner had us use paint sticks on each calf with a different colour for each vaccine that helped the wrestlers insure everything was done before releasing calves. Store the vaccines in a cooler with ice packs and only reconstitute enough modified live vaccine to use in one hour. If taking breaks in-between groups that is the time to reconstitute more vaccine. Change needles frequently and use the disposable sharp needles, not the old thick-walled steel needles. Vaccinating during the rain also leads to more injection site abscessation. Insure from your veterinarian vaccines selected are covering the intended disease complex. Gone are the days when just clostridial vaccines are given. There are many combination vaccines that help prevent respiratory disease and will serve as the priming shot for the booster in the fall at weaning.

Pain control

If castrating with a knife ensure the same experienced people do it. The young calves are often done with a closed technique (testicle is kept in its outer protective membrane and the cord is pulled). This will lead to less infections as all that is touched is removed. I would follow this up with a disinfectant spray and have the castrator clean their hands as much as possible. With all the stress of vaccinating, castrating and branding it may be a very wise idea if NSAIDS (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) are given. This will soon be mandatory for bigger calves in our beef Code of Practice. If calves are given NSAIDS (on the advice and consultation with your veterinarian) you will find they may recover quicker not miss even one meal and gain more weight. Your veterinarian may advise even just using the product on castrated bull calves for starters. A few calves get the odd sprain and strain from being roped and pulled to the processing area so the NSAID will help in that regard as well. NSAIDs are available only through prescription so must be prescribed by your veterinarian.

Branding tips

Branding may one day become a thing of the past but for now it still acts as identification and takes a lot of the labour at spring processing. Use the smallest calf irons. And to promote healing, treat the band area with an Aloe Vera liquid. They had found it promotes healing much like we do by applying it to burns. An added benefit of the NSAID’s is they will decrease inflammation and pain at the branding site for up to two days. This all bodes well for animal welfare concerns. Unless running cattle on community pastures or if pasturing finance cattle there really is little reason to brand these days. Think why you really need to brand. It may only be needed for your replacement heifers?

Branding day is the ideal time to implant all steer calves and the non-replacement heifer calves with a growth promotant. Replacement heifers can also be implanted safely once between one month and weaning with some of the implants. The implants simply replace some of the hormones we remove with castration.

Only about 25 per cent of calves are implanted in Canada so we are missing out on lots of gains. Implants are extremely safe but it takes practice to get proficient in injecting the capsules in the proper location.

Also on branding day, if due to weather (too wet, or too hot) and any sickness in animals, your veterinarian may even advise on certain years giving long-acting antibiotics as a preventive treatment. Some new macrolide antibiotics can last upwards of four weeks and for young calves the dose is very low. Fly control can be considered at branding as well as reading or replacing lost RFID tags. Some will use tag readers to monitor which calves have been processed.

When the work is done “branding day” allows for some good camaraderie and socializing but always remember doing a good job is your livelihood so always critique yourself and get good ideas when attending other ranchers brandings. We can always learn from each other and improve what we are doing. Make a list of the new things you will implement next branding to improve the health, welfare and productivity of your herd.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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