Think about your beef operation today, and then reflect back 10 to 20 years. What has improved, and what is the same? My guess is that your improved list is long and may include nutrition, genetics and health protocols — to name a few.
Now, think about how you handle cattle. This topic, just like many others, should be under the “improved” category.
So, what are some things we have learned to make cattle handling a better experience for the cattle and the caregivers, as veterinarian Tom Noffsinger calls us?
Distractions: Cattle are a prey species, and distractions and new experiences put them in high-alert mode. A study showed that a recording of people yelling was much more stressful to cattle than the same volume and decibel level of clanging metal. When we yell at cattle or make any noise, they instinctively turn their heads to look at us. That is counterproductive to the forward movement of cattle. Zero noise is best; and quiet handling equals calm, focused cattle and handlers.
Driving aids: Wouldn’t it be embarrassing to see a video of yourself driving cattle 20 years ago where you are yelling and wildly waving your arms? Yikes! Check out a YouTube video on low-stress cattle handling for some tips. As you are moving cattle into a handling facility, a sorting stick with a flag attached, or a rattle paddle, can be a useful tool if used slowly and gently. If that is unsuccessful, gently pat the animal on the rump to encourage forward movement.
This is preferred over tail twisting; but if tail twisting occurs, the handler should twist the tail near the switch and then release the tail to reward the animal as soon as it moves. If any of these attempts are unsuccessful, one brief touch with the electric prod is acceptable, and is superior to striking the animal or yelling.
Know the facility and how to use it: An experienced farmer once told me, “If cattle work poorly through a handling facility, it’s the human’s fault — not the animals. The cow is always right.”
I personally prefer a Bud Box due to its simplicity and near-foolproof nature. If cattle continuously balk at a certain spot, look for a distraction. Are you asking them to go into a “black hole” from a well-lit area? That does not work well. After each use, clean the facility, check for broken parts and fix where needed.
Acclimate cattle: On the cow-calf ranch, the first time calves walk through a handling facility can be a very stressful event. Remember, they are babies, and this is a brand-new experience.
When producers use management-intensive grazing (MiG) and the working facility is located adjacent to two pastures, you can simply open the gates and allow the cows and calves to move through the facility as they walk from one paddock to the next. When it is time to process the calves, they remember the no-stress movement through the facility, and that makes processing day much less stressful for animals and humans. Be sure to wire all gates and head catches open, as they can mysteriously close at times.
Pressure and release: All cattle have a flight or working zone, and understanding how to slowly pressure this area to get cattle to move is a key to low-stress handling. When cattle move where you asked them to go, back off and release the pressure. That rewards the cow, indicating to her she did exactly as you intended. Cattle should never run through a chute; they should always walk through the chute.
A special thanks to Michelle Calvo-Lorenzo, PhD, Elanco Animal Health animal welfare expert, for assistance with this article.
Hilton, DVM, PAS, DABVP (beef cattle practice), is clinical professor emeritus, Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine; and senior technical veterinary consultant, Elanco Animal Health.