5 - Manage the welfare of your cattle herd

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Guidelines for managing the welfare of your cattle herd

Animal welfare management is a critical component of whole property management. 

Producers have a duty of care to their livestock.

Review all factors that affect cattle welfare and wellbeing. Tool 6.12 outlines a checklist of all important factors potentially affecting cattle welfare on-property.

  • Check all health, nutrition, climatic and management factors that can affect cattle welfare
  • Use appropriate and efficient stock handling methods and well-designed facilities that exploit cattle’s natural behaviour.

 Meet nutrition targets for all cattle classes

Ensure stock maintain recommended condition score targets or weights for their class. 

Generally, cattle should be maintained at body condition score 2.5 or above to achieve satisfactory reproductive performance and welfare requirements. (see Module 2: Managing your feedbase and Module 5: Maximising weaner throughput).

Keep animals free from important diseases

Basic animal welfare standards include freedom from disease. All diseases need prompt diagnosis and treatment.

Major diseases can be well controlled with an integrated approach to management. See Procedure 2 and the tools in this module for further information.

Follow national and state codes of practice

Follow the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines.

Some states may also have specific requirements in relation to keeping livestock. Contact your state department of primary industry and/or agriculture for further information.

It is essentail that producers are aware of the various codes of practice, guidelines and requirements set down nationally and state-by-state and that they are adhered to.

Follow all relevant codes of practice to ensure all important animal welfare standards are being met.

Follow guidelines for the transport of cattle

When transporting livestock, it is essential that they are managed in a way that reduces stress and minimises any risks to animal welfare.

It is also important that producers understand their roles and responsibilities when transporting livestock.

Cattle should be transported in accordance with the guidelines outlined in the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for the Land Transport of Livestock.

Undertake routine husbandry procedures correctly

When performing routine husbandry procedures are conducted on all stock:

  • plan husbandry procedures to minimise stock handling, reduce stress to livestock and maximise disease control 
  • Wcombine procedures so cattle are handled less frequently where possible
  • ensure the correct techniques and procedures for invasive husbandry procedures that cause pain, such as castration or dehorning are followed. Such procedures include adhering to age guidelines and taking care with hygiene. See the Further information section for specific information on these procedures.
  • ensure people handling livestock are skilled and competent to do so effectively. If the necessary skills are not available through on-property labour, consider accredited contractors (such as members of the Livestock Contractors Association). It is important animal handlers are technically competent to ensure appropriate health and welfare standards are met.

Manage breeding heifers to minimise dystocia

While some neonatal calf losses are likely, they can be significantly reduced through good management practices. 

Good heifer management including management of nutrition to ensure heifers are well grown but not too fat (see Module 5: Maximising weaner throughput) and careful use of genetics in selection of bulls and heifers (see Module 4: Cattle genetics) help to minimise dystocia.

Develop a disaster management plan

Develop and implement a disaster management plan when cattle come under increased stress from naturally occurring events, such as drought or flood.

This package does not contain detailed drought feeding information, however extensive and detailed assistance is available from state departments of primary industries and agriculture and private consultants. Various decision support tools and training such as StockPlan® are also available which enables producers to explore options during a drought and to make informative and timely decisions before the onset of drought.

Issues that should be considered in a disaster management plan include:

  • feed and water options 
  • cost to feed and/or water stock for a specified times
  • feeding, selling or agistment strategies
  • impact of decisions on the herd and finances, both immediatly and following years
  • buy or breed in the recovery phase

Monitor all retained herds body condition closely to ensure they do not fall below condition score 2-2.5, as this will adversely affect their welfare and performance.

The aim of a disater management plan is to allow producers to make management decisions that minimise the adverse cattle welfare, environmental, personal and financial impacts of natural events and minimise the recovery time.

Design an effective livestock handling system

Keep cattle handling to the minimum level necessary for health management and productivity. 

Design handling facilities (eg. yards and laneways) to minimise the risk of injury to cattle and to take advantage of natural cattle behaviour. Some important features include:

  • Design yards to ensure a smooth flow of stock.
  • Avoid shadows, which can cause cattle to baulk, in yards .
  • Use materials that do not make a noise and are designed to avoid potential injury to cattle.
  • Maintain cattle handling facilities in good working order and complete repairs well before major husbandry practices are carried out.
  • Cattle that are familiar with particular directions in yards tend to move better. They also remain calmer if they can see and hear other cattle.

Use low stress stock handling techniques

Stockmanship is a broad term that encompasses the expertise of people involved in handling stock. 

Cattle handling methods are very important for ease of movement, increased productivity, reduced occupational health and safety issues and animal productivity. 

Understanding cattle behaviour is an important part of good stockmanship and improves a handler’s ability to move stock whilst minimising stress. Poor stockmanship can result in bruising, carcase downgrades and dark cutting meat.

Low stress stock handling techniques increase productivity and improve meat quality. Courses are available through state departments of primary industries and agriculture as well as private training providers. Search on-line for 'low stress stock handling' for further information.

Heat Stress

Heat stress occurs when an animal has excess body heat that it cannot lose. 

Heat stressed cattle eat and ruminate less, seek shade, or if no shade is available align themselves with the sun, breath with their mouths open, pant, salivate and splash water if it is available. Cattle will lie down and die if body temperature reaches 41.5°C.

Cattle with quiet temperaments are less likely to become excited and overheat. Steady mustering and low stress stock handling reduce the chance of cattle becoming agitated. Rest during mustering particularly helicopter mustering gives cattle an opportunity to settle down, decrease body heat production and improve heat loss.

Fat cattle have a greater risk of heat stress due to excess body fat acting as insulation and slowing down body heat loss. It is also harder for the heart to pump around oxygenated blood to the vital organs. Certain breeds, such as Bos indicus, have certain attributes which makes them better adapted to hotter conditions including shorter coats, longer dewlaps and more sweat glands which enable them to lose more heat. 

Cattle suffering from an existing health issue are less able to cope with heat.

The risk of heat stress can be reduced by:

  • shaded yards, provided their structure does do not interfere with air flow through the yards
  • provision of cool fresh water
  • allowing room in yards and pens for cattle to spread out enough to maintain airflow and allow more effective body heat loss
  • handling and transport of cattle during the cooler hours of the day
  • not overloading trucks
  • loading cattle that are more susceptible to heat stress on the shaded lower decks of trucks
  • providing electrolytes when handling and transporting cattle during hot weather as this will enable the animal to replace body salts and fluids more effectively.

What to measure and when

  • Review all aspects of cattle welfare on-farm including relevant codes of practices, animal husbandry procedures, disaster management plans and on-property handling facilities on a regular (eg. quarterly) basis.

Further information