Fall Processing

Fall Processing

Heritage Animal Health


Fall Processing

Dr. Colleen Lewis / December 14, 2016

“Processing calves” can have a lot of meanings, but the phrase takes me back 25 years to the San Joaquin Valley in California, branding fall born calves on a chilly winter morning. We would start saddling horses at the crack of dawn with homemade cinnamon rolls warming and coffee perking on the branding pot. Our lunch was tucked away in a cooler as we hoped to eat before two o’clock. Nowadays, processing calves on our farm is a lot less nostalgic and a bit more mechanical. The horses have been replaced with a four-wheeler and a hydraulic chute; hot brands have been replaced with electronic identification (EID) tags; and the branding pot is a Keurig. No more ropes; no more chinks. But some things haven’t changed; while practicing gentle handling, we still use individual identification, strategic vaccination practices, parasite control, sanitary castration, dehorning when necessary and good old-fashioned record keeping. These practices can all be viewed as a broad definition of calf processing. Our beef industry has widely employed the use of dehorned animals (polled gene); we no longer need to dehorn on our farm. Organized beef quality assurance (BQA) programs bring proper management techniques and a commitment to quality to the beef industry. Our breed registries provide us with tons of useable data to assist us in making smart management decisions. A lot has changed in 25 years, as we have more technology and information available to us.

Calf growers are still charged with the decision of which calves to keep and which calves to sell. Fall processing prepares calves to be either weaned and sold, kept back to enter the reproductive herd, or retained to be backgrounded. Each processing procedure will depend largely on the next destination of the calves. What makes a productive day of fall processing? Planning. Knowing and planning for the next step in production will help you to create a tailor made processing program for your calves.

Processing calves starts with safe facilities and clean equipment. Good management practices, including a BQA program are important to prevent the spread of disease and to make sure we are producing safe and appealing beef for our consumers. No two ranches or farms will have the exact processing procedures and products. Processing is a growing and changing event that addresses the needs of each producer and their unique set of animal health needs.

Handling calves before weaning reduces stress and improves calf performance. When possible, process calves four to eight weeks prior to weaning to allow ample time to give two sets of vaccinations. Timing is important; processing before weaning will allow calves to optimally respond to vaccines and heal quickly from minor surgical procedures.

Individual identification is necessary to track a calf’s production progress, document medical treatments and to monitor the proficiency of an individual cow to raise a quality calf. A simple ear tag can be read from a distance, whereas a unique ear tattoo or electronic identification (EID) is permanent. Using both, ensures the identity of the calf is readily visible, yet, not lost. Identification can be used to track cattle through their entire productive process. Tamper proof EID tags have a high retention rate. They are commonly used where source and age verification is required by feedlots, packers and countries importing US beef.

Calf vaccines are the common denominator in fall processing. Vaccines are paramount in providing disease protection as animals are comingled like a group of first graders: wiping their noses and coughing on each other. An upper respiratory vaccine to prevent viral infections includes IBR, PI3, BRSV, and BVD. Vaccines against bacterial infections should include the Clostridium species, Mannheimia and Pastuerella. Vaccines will require a booster, according to labeled directions. Vaccine selection, handling and the use of modified-live viral (MLV) products, should be discussed with your veterinarian as part of your animal health team.

Castration will reduce unwanted pregnancies and produce desirable steers destined for the beef market. A fresh cut steer will return immediately to his dam and resume nursing, producing a calming effect that will reduced bleeding and maintain a healthy appetite.

Dehorning is often performed at the first processing. Calves are young and the horn bases are typically small, depending on age, weight and breed of cattle. Types of dehorning procedures at this time include scooping, cauterizing or a combination of the two. Small buds can be eliminated with the use of dehorning paste (typically used from birth to 8 weeks).

Growth promotion implants can be used to promote growth in both steers and heifers headed to market. Deciding whether to implant or not depends on personal preference. Implants will undoubtedly add pounds of beef to your calves, but your calf buyer or end market may be more favorable to “hormone-free beef.” This niche market could add value to your calves as well. Calculate the financial differences between the added pounds of beef on your implanted steers verses the added value of implant free beef. The market (or private buyer) where you sell your cattle can tell you what the trends are between the two prices to facilitate your decision.

Extra teat removal should be considered at the time of processing. This is a convenient time to remove undesirable teats, as they are becoming developed enough to recognize as problematic. As heifers mature to adulthood, teat removal is only recommended in cases of severe injury.

Internal and external parasite control has never been easier. Fall is a great time to get rid of internal adult worms and their migrating larva. Dewormers come in many preparations. Lice and mites may require your attention at the time of processing as well. 

About the Author
Dr. Colleen Lewis is a 1996 graduate of Kansas State University, College of Veterinary Medicine. Her career has taken her to many places as a practice owner, consultant, embryologist, and mentor. She enjoys mixed animal practice, teaching, traveling, farming and high school sports with her husband, Andrew and their three boys.