Stress! Creating an environment for animal performance.

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At 22 I moved to London, with no experience of urban or community living other than a few months in Nelson, a small town at the top of the South Island and a short stint in a Hare Krishna community. Not exactly good preparation for big city life. The only other experience I’d had with high human stock density was moving from a rural school of 18 kids to a high school with a 1000. A highly stressful experience, at a vulnerable age where fitting in is high on our social radar.  

Many people will have had similar experiences but have you thought about this principal in relation to how it applies to your livestock? 

The question I have been pondering, is how, as producers, do we best prepare and manage our animals as we transition from set stocking or smaller mobs to high density mob grazing? It’s easy to consider the obvious things like pasture utilization and residual, or animal gain, but what about the unseen impacts of stress and community dynamics inside a mob. Personal space is not just a human need. 

Observing animals, we can see them claiming their territory, whether that is picking out a spot to bed down, chasing another away from desired forage, or selecting a spot to give birth. Stress causes the release of adrenal and cortisol hormones which supply energy for a fight or flight response. This in turn causes the heart rate and respiration to speed up, blood is sent to the major muscles, and prioritized away from basic functions, such as the immune system. A suppressed immune system opens the way for disease susceptibility, as an animal will have a less effective response to pathogens. Issues such as respiratory diseases and poor reproduction can be the result of stress.  Stress can also reduce feed intake and therefore animal performance.

With lambing and calving upon us in the southern hemisphere, one method that comes to mind to reduce both stress and improve soil health is drift lambing or calving. For those not familiar with this method, drift lambing or calving is the practice of quietly moving (drifting) a group of animals through a series of pastures leaving those that have given birth that day behind. This gives the new families plenty of space to bond and forage, a quite safe place for the newly born to explore its environment and learn how to operate as part of the herd. During or after the rotation is complete the first paddocks are mobbed together. If this is done over a period of time, the smaller group from each paddock has a period of adjustment as the mob size increases. The new born stock learn to travel with mum, negotiate gates and are introduced to new paddocks gradually rather than going from life in a small community to a large city environment in one day. For anyone wanting to mob stock into larger groups while lambs or calves are relatively young it has some merits as a low stress training method. It also addresses an animal’s need to learn and adapt to change over a period of time. 

For the northern hemisphere weaning time is approaching. Another time of change and adjustment for livestock. One consideration in any stressful time is the use of salt, minerals and kelp as additions to an animal’s diet. Stress increases the demand for minerals and vitamins, and they in turn impact digestibility and utilization of feed. Fence weaning is an effective method used to reduce stress at this time. Introducing young stock to any supplements along with any other feed they will be given at least 1 week prior to weaning will ensure an easy transition to life without mum.   

In nature high density animal impact is not a constant. There are no fences, no waiting for the farmer to open the gate. In nature, animals will often remove themselves to give birth and take time to reintegrate into the migration. How, and when, as farmers we apply the different methodologies available to us will depend on our environmental, social (including animal needs here) and financial considerations. Our success as producers depends on animal performance. This performance is directly correlated with our ability to provide quality forage AND low stress environments for our stock to naturally express themselves. 

With spring on the horizon in the southern hemisphere it is time to connect with the magic of new life and all the possibilities that come with that. For those of you with autumn approaching, it is time to reap the bounty of another season regenerating your ecosystems to produce livestock and crops.  Enjoy the months ahead!

By Jules Matthews

Jules is available for coaching to help you achieve your regenerative agriculture goals and can be contacted by phoning +64 21 681 220 or by email