New ideas and improvements available for calf processing


The traditional time for getting calves ready for grass is over.

Now it is time to review problems you had this year with an eye toward improving the operation for next year.

There are two main ways that ranchers process their calves:

  • When branding, calves are roped and pulled backward to an area where wrestlers restrain the calves. All procedures are done almost simultaneously. These can go extremely smoothly, depending on the experience of the crew, but it requires lots of people power. This process, where neighbours help out, is steeped in tradition.
  • When using a runway, calves go into a calf cradle, which is essentially a small chute, and are restrained and processed by a much smaller crew.

A traditional branding operation requires lots of planning, but it also gives people who aren’t 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.

When administering vaccines, it is best to give a person one needle. The syringe should be labelled with that vaccine and the shot should always be given in the same location.

The calves are on their sides in traditional branding, which means the shots are given on the side facing up. The wrestler is often lying over the 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 in this location, which is the one containing the viral vaccines. They are generally less reactive if they are modified live.

Costridial vaccines could be given higher in the neck, which allows great separation of vaccines.

I was at a branding where the owner had us use different coloured paint sticks for each vaccine.

That helped the wrestlers ensure everything was done before releasing them.

Store the vaccines in a cooler with ice packs and reconstitute only enough modified live vaccine to use in one hour. The breaks between groups are the time to reconstitute more vaccine.


Change needles frequently.

Vaccinating during the rain leads to more injection site abscesses.

Check with a veterinarian to make sure the vaccines cover the diseases that need to be protected against.

Gone are the days when only clostridial vaccines were used. Many combination vaccines are available that help prevent respiratory disease and will serve as the priming shot for the booster in the fall at weaning.

If castrating with a knife, ensure experienced people do it.

Young calves are often castrated with a closed technique where the testicle is kept in its outer protective membrane and the cord is pulled. This will lead to less infections .

Follow this up with a disinfectant spray. The castrator should keep his hands as clean as possible.

With all the stress of vaccinating, castrating and branding, it may be a wise to give a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDS). This will soon be mandatory for bigger calves in our beef code of practice.

You will find that calves given NSAIDS (on the advice of a veterinarian) may recover quicker, not miss a meal and gain more weight.

A few calves get the odd sprain and strain from being roped and pulled to the processing area, and NSAID will help there as well.

Branding may one day become a thing of the past, but for now it still acts as identification and takes a lot of labour at spring processing.


There really is little reason to brand these days unless cattle are run on community pastures or financed.

If you do brand, use the smallest calf irons. Producers often spray the brand with an aloe vera liquid. It promotes healing of burns much like it does with humans.

An added benefit of NSAID is that it will decrease inflammation and pain at the branding site for up to two days.

Branding is also the ideal time to implant all steer calves and non-replacement heifer calves. However, replacement heifers could also be implanted safely between one month and weaning, depending on the implants. The implants replace some of the hormones we remove with castration.

Only 25 percent of calves are im-planted in Canada, so we are missing out on lots of gain.

Implants are extremely safe, but it takes practice to become proficient.

A veterinarian may also recommend giving calves long-acting antibiotics as a preventive treatment during spring processing in certain years because of weather stress or sickness in the herd.

Some new macrolide antibiotics can last as long as four weeks. The dose is extremely low for young calves.

Fly control can be considered at branding, as can reading or replacing lost radio frequency identification tags. Some will use tag readers to monitor which calves have been processed.

There is time for socializing once the day’s branding is over, but re-member that the proficiency in which you handled the job affects your livelihood, so always critique the operation.

Look for innovations when you attend other ranchers’ brandings. We can always learn from each other and improve what we are doing.


Make a list of things to implement time to improve the health, welfare and productivity of your herd.

Roy Lewis works as a technical services veterinarian part time with Merck Animal Health in Alberta.