Breaking down the basics of low-stress cattle handling

Proponents advise producers to get inside a cow’s head

Low-stress cattle handling is more art than science, Reg Steward of Buffalo Creek Consulting admits, but it might be boiled down to, ‘think like a cow.’

For many experienced handlers, that principle comes as little surprise, he acknowledged although some details of the practice may give some food for thought.

[VIDEO: MBFI staff demonstrate low stress cattle handling with the help of a transition pen. Reg Steward, the day’s speaker and instructor, narrates for attendees of the October workshop. Video: Alexis Stockford]

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Steward urged producers to be mindful of an animal’s flight zone, the proximity in which something provokes a response from an animal. Gentle pressure to the edge of the flight zone encourages the animal to move, he said. Starting from the “point of balance” (a point at the animal’s shoulders and just at the edge of its sight range), taking a step towards the head and more in the animal’s line of vision will encourage a stop, while moving alongside to the back of the animal encourages it to move forward.

Steward warned farmers to ease that pressure once that animal starts moving and to back off entirely if an animal has nowhere to go. Pushing harder at the back of a bottlenecked herd will do little good until the animals have actual space to respond to your movement, he advised.

Low-stress cattle handling replaces sudden movement with subtle steps towards or away from cattle, either giving or taking away space. Don’t “bump and shove,” Steward said. Instead, he urged producers to speak lowly, to let animals know they are there, but not to appear frantic.

Driving a herd, meanwhile involves blanket pressure against the rear flight zone. Steward advised producers to pace back and forth perpendicular to the direction they want cattle to go.

Steward also advised producers to get on eye level with their cattle. A facility can look very different from the inside of a chute or box compared to working outside it, he noted, and that practice can help identify potential flow issues.

Other experts, such as Tom Noffsinger, who ran a series of talks and workshops at MBFI on the subject in 2017, urged producers to “lead” rather than “drive” cattle, with a handler placed at the corner of a gate to indicate to cattle where they are supposed to go.

There are also different and emerging schools of thought, Steward admits. Some of the early principles around low-stress cattle handling centred around a cow’s tendency to return to where it came from, something that might be extended to say that a cow wants to return to where it came from, if that place is more comfortable, Steward said. Others suggest that, if a cow does want to return to where it came from, it is more likely to retrace its exact steps than turn.

Other schools of thought question the early suggestion that a curved path might fool cattle into thinking they are returning to where they came from. Steward pointed to emerging work which points out that, at a cow’s eye level, an approaching 180-degree solid-sided turn looks much like a solid wall.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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