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Tips To Minimize Stress When Handling Cattle

There are many small improvements we can make to the way we handle cattle. I have gathered numerous hints in watching experienced producers handle their stock. There are also very good tapes and written information available through experts such as Dr. Temple Grandin. This article will attempt to summarize some of these findings. I guarantee everyone will gather some useful information to improve their cattle-handling abilities.

Every time we process cattle look for ways to decrease injuries. Stressful handling will result in decreased immune function, decreased weight gains and increased likelihood of injury. Medical conditions such as pneumonia increase with stressful handling. Anytime an injury occurs stop and analyze whether anything can be improved to eliminate it happening in the future. With bison for instance, assessing the number of broken horns or bloody noses after handling may point out problems with the facilities or the operators. New facilities are bad for sharp metal or rough welds, especially on homemade systems. If cattle vocalize they are being stressed, and I hear the most when cattle are being branded.

Lighting important

Time of day, season of year, amount of sunlight and weather should all be considered when processing. Overcast days work the best when processing cattle outdoors.

Cattle do not like contrasting light. Going from a well-lit area into the dark will cause balking so in enclosed areas make sure light comes from behind the animal, illuminating the area it s walking towards. I have seen this on numerous occasions when preg. checking cattle in the fall. If the sun is shining into the chute from the front in the early morning it will cause severe balking. Later in the day once the sun has risen the balking ceases.

Take note of conditions when handling cattle goes well versus when they are balky. For example, preg. checking almost always goes well within a few days of weaning. The cows are looking for their calves and tend to move easily into open areas.

Take a walk through your facility before starting. Foreign objects such as coffee cups, dangling chains, blowing plastic or hats if in an area where cattle can visualize them will result in balking until they are removed. Certain areas may need to have a solid barrier put up. Cattle always feel safe with a barrier, especially where people are blocked from view. Use cardboard as a temporary barrier to see if it improves handling.

Newer chutes are being designed with controls at the back so cattle don t balk with operators now at the back versus the front of the chute. Selfcatch chutes really help in this regard.

Keep quiet

Try to keep as quiet as possible when working around cattle so when you do make noise it will elicit a response. Show cattle can often be desensitized to the human voice by having a radio playing constantly in their pens. Exposing cattle to unusual noises over time makes them calmer and less likely to bolt when handling.

In my opinion, alley stops have been overdone. There is a place, two animals back of the squeeze chute or palpation cage, where they are ideal. Having one at the very back of the runway causes balking at the back as cattle don t want to go under them or push by them right at the point of entering the system. If possible you do not want to isolate an animal by itself as it becomes frantic and dangerous to either itself or the handlers.

Often if one animal gets behind you when bringing it in, it will want to join up with the herd. If ignored it will often come in itself with little effort or you can turn back one or two quieter animals to lead them in.

Don t load too many animals into a tub system at one time. If they become turned around and jammed in, forward progress becomes impossible. If only six to eight cows are brought into most tub systems they will often walk in without even using the crowd gate. This requires more trips than if bringing 15 cows at a time but it will require considerable less poking and prodding, believe me.

Solid sides are imperative on the crowd tub and most of the way up the crowd gate. Cattle will flow to the opening but it must be lined up off the sweep of the tub.

Modern equipment

Equipment necessary to herd cattle has also evolved over the years. At auction markets in our area, over the years plastic rattles, paddles or sorting sticks have replaced plastic or wooden canes. I have even seen sticks with plastic flags work wonders at moving cattle. This eliminates the bruising and damage to eyes, which canes can cause. The paddles, rattles or plastic flags are only shaken if you want to elicit a response and then work well as a barrier in front of cattle when sorting.

The stock prod should be used very sparingly and only in a lead-up alley or in loading. If only short-handled ones are available, you won t get employees carrying them into the sorting alleys and overusing them. At packing plants audits are performed on stock prod usage. You do not want to use the prod on more than five per cent of the animals. Otherwise analyze where the balk point is in your handling system. With a good system prods should be needed only very occasionally for a very quiet or stubborn animal. I find especially when handling bred heifers you almost never need a prod in fact slowing them down in a good system can be our biggest problem as they want to bunch up.

Prods do eliminate unnecessary twisting of the tails or hitting with other devices and keep the frustration level of the workers to a minimum. But use prods with considerable discretion.

Keep dogs away

A pet peeve of mine is cattle dogs. The place to not have your dog working is right by the chute tearing a strip out of the cattle every time they hit the chute. Dogs are fine for herding but in enclosed facilities they have no place and only make cattle more nervous.

If you do twist the tail as the animal moves, back off on the twisting as a reward for going forward.

For which spin out and go down in chutes, there is a trick which most producers don t know about. Have the patience to hold both nostrils off and wait! As the animal runs out of breath it will jump straight up. Try this next time and you will be amazed in almost all cases it is successful. Again this eliminates the twisting of tails or prodding which most producers may resort to and which causes considerable distress.

Good footing such as crossbars in the chute is imperative in preventing animals from panicking and going down. Good footing leaving the chute is essential to preventing slipping and falling upon release.

Roy Lewis is a large-animal veterinarian practising at the Westlock Veterinary Centre. His main interests are bovine reproduction and herd health.


The Stock Prod Should Be Used Very SparinglyAnd Only In A Lead-Up Alley Or In Loading.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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