The arrival of a new, healthy calf is the culmination of months and years of work with a cowherd. As a cow-calf producer, you are the first step in the beef production cycle and a critical control point for animal health, welfare, and the production of a safe, wholesome final product, whether that is a beef animal or a breeding animal.

It may seem that if you send a calf to market which is healthy at the time of sale, then you have met your obligations for the support of animal health and welfare. I would argue, however, that the most important animal health and welfare step you can take is to make sure he is prepared for the next step.  A calf being marketed off the ranch could experience at least two major transitions during his lifetime.  Performing certain procedures while he is still home can go a long way towards ensuring that his risk of illness is minimized during the stocker and feedlot phases of growth.

Castration and Dehorning

Castration and dehorning are unquestionably the most stressful procedures performed on calves in the beef production cycle. For those with only Angus-based herds, you get a pass on dehorning, but horns may enter the picture if your enterprise includes non-Angus genetics. Intact bulls and the presence of horns introduce undesirable qualities into the carcass and beef product, which the feedlots and packers wish to avoid. For this reason, after a calf leaves a cow-calf operation, the operator of the next step will more than likely perform one or both of these procedures immediately or soon after the calf arrives.

The most important thing to know about these procedures is that the stress associated with them can be minimized by performing them when calves are younger, smaller, and still with the dam. Delaying these procedures until after a calf arrives at a new facility results in a more complicated procedure being performed on the calf during a time when he is already stressed due to shipping.

There has been much research in recent years regarding various methods of castration and which one produces the least stress response in calves. Talk to your veterinarian about what procedure is best for your operation. Regardless of the procedure you select, get it done well in advance of weaning to give that calf time to heal and be ready for the next phase of life.

Vaccination and Parasite Control

Calves are exposed to an abundance of bacteria and viruses during the beef production cycle which significantly impacts the individual calf and the industry as a whole. From a numbers standpoint, Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex or pneumonia is the most significant of these. As a calf moves to the stocker and feedlot phases, the transition time produces conditions which allow these pathogens to set up shop and cause disease very soon after the move. Think about sending a child to daycare or school. While there, they are going to encounter agents brought in from children from a variety of backgrounds. It’s important that kids be immunized against the most common of those bugs in order to minimize illness. We are fortunate to have very effective vaccines against the most important bacteria and viruses. When planning to give vaccines, remember that vaccines given by injection typically require at least 2 weeks to begin to provide solid immunity against their target; and some will require a booster a few weeks after the initial dose. What this means is that, in order to make sure a calf has the immunity he will need to fend off the bugs he will encounter at transition time, we need to plan ahead and get him vaccinated early.

Making sure that calves have been treated for parasites helps to ensure maximal weight gains prior to sale and also bolster the calf’s ability to mount strong immune response. The presence of parasites causes a drain on calves, limiting the calf’s ability to properly utilize nutrients. An outstanding vaccination and nutrition program can be completely undone by a parasite burden.

The selection of the best vaccine and deworming plan for your operation can be tricky. Be sure to work with your veterinarian to determine which types of vaccines will produce the best immune response in light of your herd management and which parasite treatments are indicated. At a minimum, calves should be protected against clostridial diseases (blackleg) and viral respiratory diseases, including IBR and BVD, with parasite considerations to include stomach worms, coccidia and external parasites. Then, make sure that products are being properly stored, handled and administered – I will address this in another article in this newsletter. An inactive product does nothing to further your cause.


When a calf arrives at a feeding operation, he must immediately know how to drink water from a tank and eat feed from a bunk. A calf weaned on the truck to the facility can take a few days to figure these out and the calf pays a significant price for this delay. By providing calves high quality creep feed and forage, weaning at home and starting them on feed, calves arrive at the next step ready to go. Starting calves on feed prior to departure not only benefits the calf, but also increases weight gain prior to sale. Some will advocate that calves be kept at home up to 45 days post-weaning to give them an opportunity to recover from the separation from the dam, develop strong immunity, and produce weight gain that increases profitability.

So what’s in it for you? Healthy, prepared calves have added value to subsequent phases of the industry. After you have made this investment, make sure buyers know that your calves have been equipped to perform. Even simple eartags can be a silent indicator to a buyer that a calf has gone through the chute and likely been vaccinated. If you are selling through a local livestock market, let the market owner know so that it can be announced. When cattle prices are low, every extra bit of value counts.

Preventable illness, specifically from respiratory disease, is a substantial detriment to animal well-being in our industry. Getting calves ready for the next phase of production by dehorning, castrating, vaccinating, and starting on feed can significantly reduce their risk of disease down the road. Make sure your calves don’t pay the high cost of arriving without the tools they need to safeguard their health. It’s just the right thing to do.

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