The Importance of Low Stress Cattle Handling

Improving cattle handling practices provides many advantages. Cattle that remain calm during handling have improved weight gain and are less likely to have dark cutting meat. Dark cutting is a serious quality defect where the meat is darker and drier than normal and it has a shorter shelf life at the grocery store. Another advantage of adopting low stress cattle handling methods is to reduce injuries to both people and cattle.

Data collected from workmen’s compensation claims in Colorado indicated that the two activities where the most injuries occurred on ranches and feedlots either involved horses or they occurred where cattle are intensively handled in the squeeze chute area. The first step in adopting low stress cattle handling practices is to develop a calm attitude when moving cattle.
 
No Yelling
Yelling and loud whistling is very stressful to cattle. Research studies have shown that yelling close to the animal’s ears is as stressful as an electric prod. Low calm talking is acceptable but the loud noises need to stop. When cattle become frightened from loud yelling or other poor methods, it takes 20 to 30 minutes for them to calm back down. One of the secrets to low stress handling is to keep the animals calm. Calm cattle are easier to sort and move than agitated scared cattle that are stuck together like glue. Electric prods should never be constantly carried as a person’s primary cattle driving aid. The only place where an electric prod might be needed on a ranch or feedlot is at the entrance of the squeeze chute. If needed, it should only be used on the stubborn cow and then put away.
 
Remove Distractions
Cattle will often balk and refuse to move past visual details in their environment that people often fail to notice. Some of the most common distractions are a loose end of a chain hanging down in an alley, clothing hung on a fence or a hose on the ground. These objects need to be removed. The animals tend to balk at objects that move rapidly and things with high contrast. You need to get down in the chutes and look for things that will attract the animal’s attention. Another problem area is a floor surface that changes from concrete to dirt. Balking where a floor changes can be reduced by spreading a little dirt on the concrete to reduce the contrast between the two flooring types.
 
Lighting can also have a big effect. Cattle will often refuse to move towards either a setting in a rising run. This is the same blinding effect that people get when they are driving at dawn or dusk. In this situation it may be best to change the time that cattle are worked to avoid this problem. In many situations, cattle will move from a darker place towards a brighter place. At night, indirect lighting can be used to attract cattle into a building on a trailer. When sunlight is bright, the most effective way to get cattle into a dark building is to get more natural daylight into the building. This can be easily accomplished by either removing siding on the opposite side of the building or installing white translucent panels. This will result in lots of shadow free light.
 
It is important that approaching cattle cannot see either vehicles or people up ahead. Cattle will often refuse to enter a chute if they can see people up ahead. A solid barrier may need to be installed to block the view of either people or vehicles. One handy trick to encourage cattle to enter the squeeze chute is to put a solid side on the back half of the squeeze chute side. The cattle will enter more easily because they can no longer see the operator standing next to the squeeze chute. You should experiment with pieces of cardboard. Only stiff materials should be used because cattle will be afraid of thin flexible materials that flop. Thin plastic should not be used.
 
Too Many Back Steps
People often put too many backstops (anti-back up devices) in their chutes. If cattle are constantly backing up, either distractions need to be eliminated, people need to change their methods or the facility may need some solid sides to prevent cattle from seeing people up ahead. In most facilities, the only backstop that is need should be two body lengths behind the squeeze chute. This keeps the leaders from backing out. Cattle will often balk at a backstop located near the junction between the crowd pen and the lead up alley to the squeeze. Many ranchers prevent balking caused by their gate by equipping it with a remote control rope so a handler in the crowd pen area can hold it open for the cattle. 
 
Learn Behavioral Principles
The first step to learning low stress cattle handling methods is to fully understand the principle of flight zoned and point of balance. The point of balance is located at the animal’s shoulder (Fig. 1). When a person is behind the point of balance, the animal will move forward and when the person stands in front of the point of balance, the animal will move backward. A common mistake made by many people is to stand at the animal’s head and poke its rear. This confuses the animal because you are telling it to go forward and back at the same time. Figure 2 shows a movement pattern, which will facilitate forward movement of cattle. The handler quickly walks back past the point of balance in the opposite direction of desired movement. When the movement patterns is used, it is often possible to eliminate electric prods.
 
Handlers also need to understand the concept of the flight zone. A completely tame cow has no flight zone. The best way to move very tame cattle is to lead them instead of driving them. To get this animal into the squeeze, it may be best to bribe her with feed. Most cattle in more extensive ranches will have a flight zone and they will not allow people to touch them.
 
The size of the flight zone will vary from a few feet to over 1,000 feet. The size of the flight zone usually depends on three factors. They are genetics, quantity of experience around people, and the handling methods. Cattle that re fed every day by people usually have a smaller flight zone than cattle that seldom see people. Cattle that have been handled roughly will often have a larger flight zone. The best place for the handler to work is on the edge of the flight zone. Deep penetration of the flight zone will cause cattle to run away. In a small confined pen, deep penetration may cause cattle to turn back and run past the handler. They do this because they want to get away. When cattle are moving in the desired direction, the handler should back off and reduce pressure on the flight zone. When they stop moving, the flight zone should be penetrated.
 
Cattle are very specific on how they perceive the world. They differentiate between a person on a horse and a person on the ground. Cattle that have a small flight zone when moved by a person on a horse may suddenly panic and scatter when a person attempts to move them on foot. Since they had not become accustomed to a person on foot, their flight zone had all of a sudden become much bigger. In the animal’s brain, a person on foot and a person on a horse are two totally different pictures. The animals had previously learned that the person on the horse was safe, but the person on the ground was scary because he was deep in the enlarged flight zone.
Cattle should be habituated to both handlers on foot and handlers on horseback so that they will be safer to handle when they go to the next place in the beef supply chain. Cattle that have been exclusively handled on horseback at the ranch can be dangerous to handle by people on foot at auctions, feedlots or packing plants.
 
Fill Crowd Pen Half Full
The biggest handling mistake is jamming the crowd pen that leads to the squeeze chute alley too full. Cattle need room to turn. It should be filled half full. Handlers need to take advantage of the natural tendency for cattle to follow the leader. Wait until the chute leading to the squeeze is mostly empty before filling the crowd pen. When this is done, the cattle will pass through the crowd pen and follow the leader into the chute. This principle applies to all crowd pens regardless of design.
 
Measure Handling
One of my biggest frustrations has been to work with a group of people on low stress handling methods and then return a year later and observe that the people have regressed back to yelling, lots of prodding and other poor methods. What I have observed is that old bad practices return gradually and people often do not realize it. To prevent this, handling needs to be measured. People manage the things that they measure. Weight gain, weaning weight, and the percentage of cows that wean a calf are all measured. Handling should also be measured. Below is a simple measurement system. This will enable ranchers and feeders to determine if their practices are improving or becoming worse. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Guidelines uses numerical scoring. By using numbers, you can determine if your practices are improving or getting worse. Cattle handling procedures need to be improved if numerical scoring exceeds these critical limits. On many good ranches, the scores will be much better.
 
• Percentage of cattle that fall during handling. - 2% or less
 
• Percentage moved with an electric prod. Should only be used at squeeze chute entrance. - 10% or less
 
• Percentage moving faster than a walk or a trot. Score when moving in groups and when exiting the squeeze. – 25% or less
           
• Percentage vocalizing (bellow or moo) when they enter the squeeze chute and during catching in the headgate and squeeze. Score all vocalization caused by electric prods or which occur in direct response to being caught. Cattle that vocalize in direct response to being caught are being hurt by the squeeze chute. Since this is a handling measure, do not score vocalization caused by procedures such branding or ear tagging. – 5% or less