Host: Hodgson River Station
Written by Jo Bloomfield – Manager, Hodgson River Station.
The process of removing weaners from the cows is extremely important for the long term health and handling ability of the herd. If the weaners (being calves over four months old) weren’t removed from their mums then the drag they would create on continuing to suckle off a cow while growing and maturing would actually deplete the cows own nutritional/body condition.
Weaning allows the cow to have a break from rearing a calf. Maintaining body condition and ready to be able to conceive allows another birth to occur at optimum times when the feed is most plentiful and nutritious, during the wet season. This doesn’t always go to plan but in general the aim is to maintain the cow in healthy condition so that she can reproduce without making her condition fall below a point in which she isn’t able to conceive or carry a pregnancy to a healthy full term calf while herself staying healthy.
Handling ability is also a direct result of weaning cattle, and you can have the best bred cattle in the world but if you can’t catch them they aren’t worth bugger all. If you sell cattle to someone and they think they are crazy then you’ll never get a repeat sale. Touchy, nervous cattle are simply mongrels to handle. The quietness of the herd and the impact this has on their management, survival, and future should never be underestimated.
Weaner handling starts once the weaner is removed from their mums in the yard. They are all placed together in a yard after drafting (See Central Station Day Three). They have lost their leader or who they follow as in their mum and quite honestly don’t know or understand what you want them to do. Typical behaviour of a freshly weaned mob when you enter the yard is they all rush away from you, jam in corners, push, and shove each other in a panic as if you’re there to beat the heck out of them. So your standing at one end and a 100 head are jammed in the far end as far from you as they can get, shoulder to shoulder with no space in between. Not good, because if you were to try to walk towards that mob they would all rush as far as they could to another part of the yard, jumping and running into each other, even knocking each other over.
Firstly after drafting we have to get these animals to another yard. We have a terrible wild dog problem on our property and though I bait each year we still have high injury to calves of at least 3% across all our calves, one year it was over 10%, the deaths are unknown as we often don’t find them but at times I suspect as high as 5% in a normal year. So we take the weaners to a yard very close to our homestead where we can keep a much better eye on them and ensure the wild dogs can’t get them as they are more vulnerable without their mums to watch out for them.
This little fella above we happened to see when he was with his mum, probably born the night before. We happened to go past the same place the very next day and found him in the condition on the right, his whole rear , shoulders and withers were swollen where the dogs had tried to drag him, his ears torn, his mum was still with him. He couldn’t stand. So I took him home to try to protect him at least from another attack, he died that night.
We use a small body truck and trailer to cart the weaners’ home. While being loaded we give them a first of two needles, 5 in 1 vaccination, this is mainly for Tetanus, which is very prevalent in the soils up north. The trip home is only 5km so the weaners are on the truck for about 20 minutes.
As soon as we unload we place them in a yard with hay and a Beachport product, a special mineral water supplement, it has an additive called Fulvic acid that works by supressing stress causing hormones, therefore assists in keeping the animals calm. This is really important, especially in the first few days as you want to minimise the silly panic rushing around of the mob as much as possible because they invariably hurt themselves or each other. A calmer animal will be more inclined to want to eat and the sooner you have them eating hay the less stressed they will be. Being natural pasture raised sometimes the animals take a few days to actually learn hay is to be eaten and for their gut to accustom to it.
For the first week we will do a basic game of placing hay in one yard, move the weaners through the yard, even a number of gates to ensure that the reward is the hay. Simple things like actually following each other as a mob, understanding that a gate when open means it’s to be moved through or even getting used to us, sound so basic but they are vitally important to imprint on the learning of the animal. The next day the hay is in a different yard and the route to it through different gates or a series of yards, nothing extreme and all in a short time but again the end reward is food. Very quickly the weaners learn that when that tractor starts up it means hay and when a gate is opened they are to move as one and move through it because there is hay there.
I do have one old fat blue heeler I use to help, I haven’t trained him overly well and the only commands he sometimes listens to are back, over, and out but that’s enough for him to help move the weaners around to ensure they don’t try the ‘duck past you’ tactic. He thinks he’s doing heck of a job, for five minutes anyway.
After a week the weaners are completely different temperament to when first in hand, some will be so accustomed to you they will actually rub up against you to get hay if you were to place a bale in a yard, they aren’t rushing away in a mad panic, they will still move away but generally only a few metres if you were to walk through them.
The importance of teaching them about hay and people is that these animals will eventually be released into the open paddock again, to only be handled once a year, but if you were to place hay in a yard or needed to work them in the yard they would know that the hay was to eat and go straight to it and know to move through gates and such as required. As a large older animal to have them be quiet and docile is vitally important as a large animal that is feral in the yard is very dangerous to themselves, other animals, and the people. They smash gates and try to jump fences. They also stir up other otherwise quiet cattle.
Branding is the next important step. It is a general term that really means all the following and is carried out all at the one time
- Fire branding – Each property has a registered legal brand with which only they are allowed to use; it must be placed on the animal in a very specific position. Ours is one of the original symbol brands registered in the territory. It originally belonged to my husband’s great-grandfather, registered in 1910’s and has been transferred through the generations, and our children are the fifth generation to use it.
- Ear mark – When you own a brand you can apply to own an earmark, the tool is a special shape and is particular to your registration. It is used to cut a notch in the ear of the animal. Unlike the brand it is only an identification to support the brand but on its own is not legal proof of ownership.
- Ear tag – we use a colour ear tag to easily identify approximate age of the animals. The colour relates to the year branded and we can view it from a distance and use when drafting to help assess where the animal needs to go.
Above is a cleanskin, this animal has no brand or earmark, no ownership of identification. The below is a branded animal and would have a fire brand and show an earmark in the same ear as the year colour tag.
- Castration – We use a ring bander which is a tool that holds a very small rubber ring open, we slide the testicles and the bag holding them through the ring to capture and then release the ring. The ring acts as a blood flow constriction that will eventually kill the ‘ball sack’ causing it to drop off.
- Vaccinations – the weaner is given a second shot of 5 in 1 and a Botulism needle.
- De-horning – To be able to sell animals they must have horns shorter than their ears or a blunt end. In some cases buyers will not buy cattle with horns at all. We use a cutting tool to cut the horns off. We then place a special fly repellent, anti-coagulant and antiseptic on the horn area to prevent infection and improve healing.
Pain relief needs to be mentioned at this point. Legally there are no pain relief applications that a cattle producer is able to use at present that are tested and registered for commercial use, or which are able to be applied without authority from a vet for the drugs or as a post-operative procedure. There are some which are pre-operative, being needle applications.
Particularly de-horning, an obvious painful and at times stressful process for the animal, pre-operative application of these drugs would be likely to be most times ineffective, dangerous to administer and very expensive. In the future I do hope there is a pain relief developed like Tri Solfen, currently used for mulesing sheep that we could spray on an animal after dehorning.
In the case of castration, we use a bander as the incidence of tetanus seems to be reduced with its use than a knife in which the ‘ball sack’ is sliced and the nuts removed. While cutting is painful initially the bander is painful for a longer period and to have an effective drug effective long term is not yet available.
While we don’t like to inflict intentional pain on our animals and it goes against everything we are trying to accustom the animal to in teaching docility we must perform these procedures for basic husbandry control of the herd. Therefore the infliction of pain short term on one animal is necessary to enable the general health of the herd to be optimised, maintained and improved in the long term.
The day after branding we will release the weaners from the stockyard as a group for the first time since being in hand. We use four-wheeler motorbikes and will hold them in a group in a small holding paddock. We will stay with them for a period to ensure none are going to try to rush around or walk tirelessly. We want them to be grazing or resting, staying together and not looking to run off on their own.
By placing hay in the yard each evening we will ‘yard up’ each night, the weaners not being allowed yet to stay out at night, especially as some of them will have unhealed wounds from the branding process which dogs would easily smell. Each morning we let them out again. We will do this for at least another fortnight.
If we feel there is a group of smaller animals that are particularly small or sick for whatever reason we will have drafted them at branding and continued to lock in the yard to feed hay, due to their vulnerability with dogs we won’t release them from the yard at all.
The process of release, capture and yard up is a time in which we observe closely any animals that may be looking ill, not moving around, or generally ill. We are looking for any unhealed wounds, animals that may be showing a sign of tetanus, scours (runny poo) that is persistent and smells badly is an indication of intestinal infection.
Depending on the dog situation and herd health we will then leave the weaners in their paddock for one night, yarding up each second one. We will still ride through the mob to check every day. Eventually we’ll not yard them up at all and will feed hay intermittently to just check on them.
During the time that one weaner group are being paddock trained we may have done another general muster of paddocks and handling a new mob of weaners in the yard.
We have a larger weaner paddock the older group progress to with more feed, eventually when we have the start of our wet season we’ll then walk the weaners out into a paddock to start their adult lives as free range and when we handle them next will be as truckers.