One of the many downsides to drought is it often forces us into early weaning. While early weaning is not a bad thing and can be very profitable if done correctly, one of the challenges we find with these early weaned drought calves is we have to keep them in a dry, dusty pen. Dust isn’t ideal for a number of reasons, as it can affect health and decrease performance. But since short grass necessitates using these dry pens, how can we mitigate the effects of dust to keep our calves, and ourselves, comfortable?
To start with, we can prep the pen by removing last year’s manure. Dry manure is quite apt to pulverize into tiny particles, creating significant dust issues. If we can remove all the manure before the calves are placed in the pen, then their hoof action does not break that old manure down and we will have less dust to blow.
Once the manure is out and the cattle are in, the next most common treatment is to wet the pens with a sprinkler system. This is the most common method to keep dust at bay and it is highly effective. A California study found pens wet with sprinklers had 18 times less dust than those that remained dry.
To make pen wetting successful, ideally water treatment begins before the pen starts to get dusty. However, since it is likely the pen is already dusty due to drought, heavily wet the ground with water to bring the soil moisture level up to roughly 30%. This will be damp enough to allow a little mud to stick to your boots, but not become soggy enough to sink into the mud.
After the dust has settled, continue to wet pens daily at a rate of a half-gallon of water per square yard. This is akin to roughly a 1/10th of an inch of rain. Daily watering works better than watering every other day, as alternate day watering allows the ground to dry too much. A detailed description of this process can be found in a beef cattle handout entitled “Feedlot Dust Control” written by John Sweeten of Texas A&M.
One caveat is to try to prevent saturating spots in the pen. Soil with over 40% moisture inhibits aerobic bacterial activity, which causes the anaerobic bacteria to proliferate in the calves’ manure. This increases the unpleasant smells associated with livestock. Saturated soil also is more difficult for the calves to walk through, causing them to exert excess energy that should be going to gains. It is better to have some areas a bit too dry than create mud bogs in the pen.
Another technique that is suggested for reducing dust is to increase stocking density in the pen. With early weaned calves, I would not recommend this method. As the health risk in younger calves is often higher than it is for older cattle, it is best to give them more opportunity to spread apart. Also, increased density in the pen is typically associated with increased competition at the water and feed bunk, two places that need have ample room for newly weaned calves.
Dust is something we inevitably battle during drought that we hope will decrease with fall rain. However, even without rain it can be minimized. By properly cleaning the pen prior to receiving cattle and keeping the surface moist, we can reduce the amount of dust that blows. This will make life better for the cattle and yourself when you go to do chores every morning.