Husbandry practices for rearing dairy steer calves

Dairy steers supply 15-20 percent of the nation’s fed beef cattle. On farm husbandry practices are important to ensure the long-term calf health.

Dairy steers calves are an important contributor to domestic beef supply. The care that these calves receive at birth is important to the long-term health of the animal.

All calves should receive an adequate volume of high quality colostrum. The future health of cattle is more highly correlated with immunoglobulin transfer than any other husbandry practice.

Dairy bull calves should be dehorned and castrated. Livestock managers should adhere to management practices that cause minimal discomfort of animals with a long term perspective. Husbandry practices such as dehorning and castration cause less stress on animals if performed at a younger age. Certainly, the size of horn and testicle is an important contributing factor to the degree of discomfort that is caused.

Cattle can be dehorned by using a burning tool, caustic paste, tube, gouging or keystone. Burning and caustic paste can be performed at the earliest ages and are recommended. Dehorning paste should be performed as close to birth as possible, within the first two weeks of life. Burning can be performed within two months of birth, but earlier is better.

Cattle can be castrated by banding, surgically or by crushing of the spermatic cord. Banding calves at birth is considered the least invasive. Producers utilizing this method must take time to ensure that both testicles are under the band after the tool is removed. Too often one testicle is banded into the body cavity creating a cryptorchid animal. Cryptorchids do not have the entire testicle descending into the scrotum. Consequently, part of the testicle remains in the body cavity and these animals can likely have bull type characteristics of being overly aggressive and having lower carcass quality. Banding tools are also designed for use on older steers. This method is more stressful on animals when conducted at older ages than the method at birth. There is debate as to whether this method is more or less painful and stressful than surgical castration at older ages.

Surgical castration conducted at or near birth will result in an acceptably low level of discomfort for the calf and almost never results in stags. Another method frequently used for older cattle is the crushing of the spermatic cord. This method results in a higher percentage of stags than other methods.

Regardless of method and timing, procedures should be conducted correctly. Poor technique in dehorning and castration can either result in animals with deformed horns or stags/cryptorchids. These practices frequently result in producers attempting to dehorn or castrate at an older age. Older animals can be more difficult to perform these practices on and they can cause increased levels of discomfort and pain.

It is important to consider the pain and discomfort that husbandry practices may cause. Minimizing pain and discomfort improves animal performance. Pain management is going to be a growing issue in livestock production and an area that needs more research. Topics such as approved usage of analgesic drugs and how to quantify pain are already emerging. Producers should use management practices that minimize pain and discomfort.

Ensuring calves receive high quality care is a critical first step in raising healthy cattle that grow rapidly and efficiently. Producers need to accept the responsibility to ensure that they and their farm employees are proficient in performing animal husbandry practices. For more information on animal husbandry practices for raising calves, contact Frank Wardynski, Ruminant Educator with Michigan State University (MSU) Extension.

Related MSU Extension News article: Raising dairy steer calves for profitable beef production.

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