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Cattle are worked through the facility at Cold Springs Farm in Manchester, Pa.

Having facilities that allow cattle to be worked in a safe, efficient manner provides a wealth of opportunities to improve animal health.

Though efficiency is important, focusing on safety is key when designing handling facilities because it will allow you to manage cow health while reducing the risk of injury in both cattle and people.

Although many dairy cattle can be safely handled in headlocks or behind a gate, the same is not true for beef cattle. The only truly safe handling systems for beef cattle are chute systems.

If you are looking to add or improve handling facilities, remember that Extension educators and veterinarians travel from farm to farm and use a variety of equipment. They can provide pros and cons on many brands, which can help narrow your search before you head to the equipment dealer.


In late fall or early winter, the risk of new parasite infections becomes quite low, but your cows may still harbor parasites in their intestinal tract, which can negatively affect feed efficiency and weight gain.

A handling system provides the opportunity to rid cows of parasitic burdens and optimize feed efficiency right when cows need extra energy to stay warm in cold weather.

Fecal samples, which can be collected from fresh manure pats without handling cattle, can be tested by your veterinarian to determine if your cattle would benefit from deworming as well as the best product to use to treat your herd, should they need it.

Vaccine Programs

Another opportunity afforded by good handling facilities is optimization of vaccine programs.

Which vaccines to give and when will depend on several factors, including when cows are entering and exiting confinement facilities for the winter if your operation uses them, calving window, timing of the next breeding season, biosecurity level of the herd, and disease issues present.

As there is no single vaccine protocol that works for every farm, your veterinarian is the best resource to help you build a program that will work for you and your operation.

Though good facilities make it easier to handle cattle, it is still best to minimize how often cattle are handled. Your veterinarian can help integrate your vaccine program into your deworming and breeding programs to get the most done each time you handle cattle.

While discussing integrating a vaccine program with your other routine management procedures, your veterinarian may discuss vaccines that fall into three major categories: reproductive vaccines, respiratory vaccines, and vaccines to benefit the calf.

Reproductive vaccines are designed to prevent diseases that may cause embryonic loss or abortions in cattle. These vaccines are timed to assure that cows are protected during the breeding season and into early pregnancy.

Respiratory vaccines are considered a core vaccine for all cattle. They protect against a variety of viral respiratory pathogens, with the option to add protection against bacterial pathogens as well. These vaccines are particularly important in herds that bring in outside animals and for cattle housed in confinement. In beef cows, these vaccines are not only important to protect the cows, but they also help boost the antibodies that will go into colostrum. Therefore, they help to protect the calf too.

Preventing and Managing Scours

The final category of vaccines are those that are designed specifically to protect the calf. These most often increase in the cow antibodies against scours pathogens that affect calves.

As the cow produces colostrum, these antibodies will be included, providing protection to the calf early in life. Typically, vaccination is timed so cows reach peak antibody production during colostrum production. Ask your vet when to give scours vaccines to maximize the benefit to the calf.

Although scours vaccines are a great tool to improve calf health, they cannot be the only practice to prevent scours.

Whether you use this type of vaccine or not, the cornerstone to calf health is colostrum consumption.

Calves should be up and nursing soon after birth so that they get plenty of colostrum. If a calf does not nurse, it should be hand-fed colostrum to assure it has disease protection early in life.

Easy access to handling facilities can allow you to harvest colostrum from the cow to give to a weak calf that will not nurse.

Even with the best handling facilities, some cows will not tolerate this. A good alternative is to have a high-quality colostrum replacer on hand. Though these products are expensive, they have a long shelf life and are well worth the investment.

If you are designing a handling facility for your cattle, consider including a few isolation pens in the design. These pens can make it convenient to separate cattle for various reasons, but they are particularly helpful in managing a scours outbreak.

One calf with scours can quickly infect many other calves. Having facilities where these calves and their dam can be separated away from the herd can help break the disease transmission cycle. It also allows for intensive management of the calf, increasing its chances of survival.

Ideally, these isolation pens would have a concrete floor with plenty of clean, dry bedding on top. Concrete floors allow thorough cleaning after the calf recovers.

Though working cattle is not an easy task, good facilities can improve efficiency and safety for both people and cattle.

Good handling facilities open the opportunity to prevent problems by simplifying deworming, vaccination and other preventive practices.

Good handling facilities also aid the management of the farm when problems hit by enabling the collection of colostrum for a weak calf or by separating and treating sick animals.

Hayley Springer is an assistant clinical professor with Penn State Extension with expertise in calf health and infectious disease in livestock.


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