Initial studies on the benefits of acclimating heifers to handling facilities before breeding have shown promising results through better conception rates and calmer animals.
Researcher Desiree Gellatly has one year of data on heifer acclimation and plans further studies to test the findings.
Gellatly, the business development co-ordinator at the Olds College Technology Access Centre in livestock production, did a similar study in Brazil. Allowing heifers to experience the chute and squeeze area without any other activity tends to make them calmer in future handling.
“We noticed that if you acclimated heifers to the handling facility prior to the breeding season, you can reduce the behavioural response, the fear of the animals, and that will affect the pregnancy rate of the heifers. So that is not a new idea,” Gellatly said of her Brazil studies.
A similar study using heifers at Neilson Cattle Development near Stettler, Alta., showed heifers that were put through the chute and given a small feed reward afterward were calmer than the control group.
Gellatly is cautious about the findings because she has only one year of data. However, Lance Neilson of Neilson Cattle Development said he is convinced that heifer acclimation is beneficial.
“There’s a bigger difference than I even expected,” he said. “The heifers that we did the acclimation process with, they were more fertile. More of them were in calf. They are much easier to handle, much more calm.”
In research last year, a group of heifers were allowed to walk through the chute and headgate without restraint. A few days later they were put in the chute, enclosed for five seconds and released. On the third day of handling, each animal was held in a squeeze chute for 15 seconds and then released.
Gellatly said heifers were already calmer in the chute by the second day, and less reactive than the control group, in which animals likely associate the chute and squeeze with a negative experience.
Neilson has no doubt about that.
“Most times an animal is in the chute, it’s a chaotic time. Bad things are happening to them. Branding, needles, who knows what. It’s a very chaotic time.
“We took that acclimated group and gave them good experiences through that handling system and it changed their personality. To handle them now is much easier. Even now, a year later, if you have to get one in… it’s a pleasure. It’s just no problem at all. They just walk in.”
Gellatly said she sometimes hears producers say they limit cattle handling to reduce stress on the animals. Her study seems to indicate the opposite is true.
“Cattle don’t like novelty. They get stressed when something new is happening to them. But when they are adapted… to a routine handling procedure, they know what is going to happen so their fear and excitement, it doesn’t go too high.”
She is still crunching the numbers of pregnancy rates on the artificially inseminated versus naturally bred heifers in the test and control groups. Early results indicate a better pregnancy rate in the acclimated heifers. She is also testing saliva samples for cortisol levels, which are indicators of stress.
Gellatly also notes many factors can affect breeding success, including breed, body condition score, nutrition and other variables.
Neilson said he plans to acclimate all the heifers at his facility to the chute and squeeze, which will add to the service he offers to customers.
“We’re making this our business to do. We approach this with the idea that this is something we want to add to our product offering on our farm. You need a replacement heifer, whether it’s an open heifer or a bred heifer and you’re going to get a higher fertility, calmer heifer from our program.”
There is a time factor involved in acclimatizing heifers but Neilson said it is minimal and worth the few minutes it takes to put animals through the chute a few times. If it leads to even one more calf conceived, he considers it a good investment.
More relaxed animals with improved chances of conception are also a money saver when using embryo implants, he added.
“People are spending thousands of dollars on embryos and if you can have a higher fertility animal to put those embryos in, so you’re not wasting a $1,000 or $2,000 embryo, it’s even more important, more valuable to have that higher fertility, calmer animal.”
In year two of the study, Gellatly plans to re-acclimate some of the animals initially acclimated last year. Others in that group will not be re-acclimated to see if they retain last year’s experience. The control group from last year will be acclimated and a fourth group will serve as a control.