Major changes needed to process calves amid COVID-19

Spring processing is here, when larger groups of cattle producers sometimes gather to process the calves. This year, major changes are needed.

I think some changes will become the new normal in the cattle industry and some will benefit us in other ways.

Livestock producers are among the most knowledgeable when it comes to biosecurity on our farms and ranches. We take great precautions with boot dips or changing coveralls when we treat a scouring calf and we know the hazards of introducing a Holstein calf into our herds to nurse a cow that has lost her calf.

These are practices designed to decrease disease transmission. We are now doing similar procedures to minimize COVID-19 in the human population.

COVID-19 has the whole world taking these precautions.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association released a three-page document that details some of the things producers should do. This article will hopefully offer practical solutions.

To minimize the risk of disease spread you want to have the same person handling all the vaccinations, for example. This will reduce the touching of the guns and filling of syringes.

With fewer people it is easier to practise social distancing and disease spread is far less likely.

Working around the tilt table on a calf is likely the only time we need to be in closer proximity, and that is only for an instant. In those cases, maybe family members should work together, which is how it often happens.

It is also a good idea to limit the number of calves processed in one day.

The traditional brandings, where large groups gather and calves are processed fast, will need to be scaled down considerably. I know they have been a great worker bee social event in the past but that will need to change.

The correct physical distance of two metres between people is easier to maintain if there are only one-third of the usual people. I know some brandings where they had two halves working simultaneously, demonstrating that if we cut down to half of the usual amount of workers and keep observers away, processing can work well with fewer people.

It will take twice as long but simply separate the calves out that you can do in the right period of time.

From an efficiency standpoint, the best person for the job sticks with that same job.

A lot of the handlers wear gloves and that is a good thing. I like to be very engaged and would speak closely to people around me in the past. I have learned to converse with someone from a distance across from the hood of a vehicle, at two metres or more apart. This will become the new norm and if you think of it, we can still communicate well that way.

To cut down on the workload, some producers may decide to adopt the tilt table approach. Others can make it more efficient by changing the pen so calves when done are not released back into the group, making it easier on the ropers.

This is a year to think about the necessity of branding. I know there are many instances when it needs to be done, but maybe it is only the heifer replacement calves that need to be done or only a small group that is going to a community pasture. Branding is probably the most labour-intensive thing at spring processing.

In addition, we need to maintain the proper practices like spreading vaccines a hand-width apart and disinfecting the implant gun.

Most producers use NSAIDs as pain control, especially if castrating and branding. Some even clip the branding site and there are rechargeable clippers, which makes the branding easier and with fewer smudges. However, that’s another task to assign. We always clip with freeze branding to achieve a better brand.

Lastly, if a meal is served, remember that researchers have found buffet style is dynamite at spreading infectious diseases.

Offering workers prepared, wrapped foods may be the new normal. I am going to miss the fantastic meals and hospitality but for this year and the health of everyone, it is a wise move. Stay safe everyone.

Roy Lewis works as a veterinarian in Alberta.

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