Keep Safety in Mind When Working Cattle

Published on Thu, 06/23/2022 - 9:28am

Keep Safety in Mind When Working Cattle.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 Most cattle are gathered and worked for branding, vaccinating, pregnancy testing, weaning and other necessary management tasks.  Many cow herds are put through the chute twice or more annually.  It is important to make sure these tasks are accomplished smoothly and safely, for the health of the cattle and safety of the crew doing the job.

Shannon Williams, University of Idaho Extension, says it’s important to make sure corrals and facilities are in good repair and working properly, before you bring cattle in. “Take time to replace broken boards or poles, re-hang a gate, remove boards or poles lying along the fence, grease the equipment, clean the walkways—both the alley down to the chute for the cattle, and the walkways along the chute for the people helping,” says Williams.  You want the footing to be safe for the people as well as the cattle.

Nora Schrag, DVM (Field Service, Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine) recommends walking through the facilities you’ll be using to hold, sort and restrain cattle.  “Be thinking in terms of the people working around this facility and take note of anything that might be dangerous to them.  Many set-ups use pipes behind animals in the chute alleyway to keep them from backing up.  Notice the way gates swing and the directions the levers go,” she says.

“A lot depends on what kind of squeeze chute you have.  If you are standing in the wrong spot when an animal is released, or your head is in the wrong place, you may get hurt.  Make sure your crew—whoever will be working there, especially if some aren’t used to working around cattle, or new to your particular facility—know about the danger areas.  Point out the places they need to be aware of, like ‘Hey, watch that lever because it sometimes gets in the way,’ or ‘Make sure you are standing on the correct side of the pipe, so that if an animal hits it you won’t end up against the fence.’  Walking through the facility with these things in mind is important,” she explains.

“Also look at it from the point of view of the animal.  I always walk into the tub or down the chute alleyway, looking for nails sticking out or bolts, or maybe a flap of tin hanging that an animal could get caught on, or anything they could put their foot through.  There might be something that was perfectly fine the last time you worked cattle, but may not hold up today,” Schrag says.

“Things change.  These facilities are out in the weather, we use them, cattle bounce against them, and sometimes it’s not obvious where something broke the last time.  Then an animal hits it again and it’s very obvious.  So pay attention to these things at the start, and the whole time you are working cattle; keep functionality in mind.”

Most people don’t take time to talk to the crew about how things are going to work, that day.  Make a plan, and go over it with the crew.  If you frequently work cattle with the same people, you know how they think, and know what they are going to do, and everything usually goes smoothly because you’ve worked together a lot, as a team. “If you bring in a new person, they may not know which gate the cattle are coming in, or will be going out, and might not know where to stand—to not be in the way,” she says.

“Have sorting flags or sorting sticks for everyone helping with sorting, so they aren’t having to wave their arms and yell.  You want things to go quietly and smoothly.  Low stress, quiet cattle handling makes things safer for the animals, and people.  Work at cow speed.  Make sure you allow enough time for the job, so no one has to hustle,” says Williams.  If you can work cattle slowly, so they don’t get upset and excited, it actually saves time (and is safer) in the long run.

If they can flow through the facility smoothly and quietly and you don’t have to fight them or chase them, or have to get one back in that runs past the gate or through the chute and gets away, this saves time and reduces safety risks.  Cattle are less likely to get excited and flighty and run over people.

“If there are younger kids helping or spectating, make sure you know where they are and that they are not standing in front of the chute or in a place where they might get hurt,” she says.  If you know there are certain animals that are flighty or aggressive, handle them with care, and give everyone a heads-up warning when that old rip comes through,” Williams says.  Bulls should always be handled carefully.

Use good cattle psychology, and make sure your helpers know how to handle cattle properly.  “If you do have some folks helping who don’t have a clue, or you are stuck with them for the day, give them an easy job, out of harm’s way, where they won’t mess it up for someone else.  There are some tasks they could do, like record-keeping, where they won’t be in the middle of a danger zone,” she says.

“One issue that can be difficult is when you have friends or neighbors helping, handling cattle in a manner that you don’t want them handled.  Don’t hesitate to say something.  Even though you might offend that person, these cattle are your livelihood and paycheck, and you can’t afford to have them made wild by the way someone else is handling them.”  You don’t want the cattle more difficult to handle in the future, or become a safety risk for you or anyone else.

“If you have to load and haul cattle, don’t try to cram an extra animal into the trailer.  All it takes is for that cow/steer to bang that last gate and someone is fighting with the trailer gate and this can be dangerous.  It’s also not good for the cattle to be crammed too tightly on the truck or trailer,” says Williams.

When sorting cattle in a corral or alleyway, be aware that if an animal kicks a gate or rams into a gate, it may fly back and hit someone.  Fatalities have occurred when people got hit in the head by a fast-moving metal gate.  Always think ahead and be aware of potential hazards.

Safety Precautions While Vaccinating
“Before you start, have everything planned for the day.  Talk to your crew so they know what vaccine you are using, where it goes how it should be injected, who is going to do what, which way the cattle will be going, etc. If everyone knows their job, things go smoother,” Williams says.

“Make sure the people doing it know how to handle the vaccine, and have sharp new needles (less pain and reaction for the cattle—and therefore less jumping around in the chute).  If a person accidentally gets pricked or vaccinated, be aware that some vaccines could be dangerous.  If someone gets injected with blackleg vaccine, for instance, or a medication is splashed into their eyes, take them to the doctor.  Take the vaccine product box and label with you, to have the serial number, etc. so the doctor can find out what the human risk might be.  Have a first aid kit on hand.  Know what to do in case of a medical emergency,” says Williams.

Do some human safety reminders, depending on how many people are involved.  “If there’s just one person pushing cattle up and one person working at the chute, it’s not very complicated,” says Schrag.  “But sometimes there might be several people doing things, to make it go faster, which might make a difference in how likely you are to get poked with a needle, or have some other kind of accident.”

It pays to do things in a routine, safe way. “When refilling or holding a syringe, keep your elbows down at your sides.  Then if someone walks past you, they’re not as likely to bump your elbow and bump your hand,” she explains.

“If you are refilling syringes, one of the dangers is accidentally poking yourself or someone else.  Avoiding accidental needle pokes should be high priority.  If you are holding a bottle to refill your syringe, stick out one finger and touch your other arm (for stability/steadiness).  Then if someone bumps you, there’s no way the needle will jump into your hand.  You already have your hands locked together and braced.  Thus when you are reaching out in front with both hands in the air, your elbows are tight and one hand is touching the hand holding the bottle.  Then if you are bumped, the needle has no chance of going into your hand,” says Schrag.

Always keep safety in mind.  “When processing cattle, we are reaching through bars to vaccinate or apply medication.  Depending on your facilities this may be easy and safe or risky; pay attention to what you are doing.  Always reach over rather than through, when possible.  If you are reaching through, be aware of what you and the animal are doing, and ready to pull back if the animal moves.  Any time that you can open a bar instead of reaching through it is preferable.”

The animal may lunge or jump and catch your hand, wrist or arm between it and the bar.  “Even people who have been working around chutes for a long time sometimes get hurt.  Anything you can do to minimize situations where your arm could get pinched will help,” Schrag says.

Think ahead to what might possibly happen.  Try to predict problems rather than helplessly watching them happen.  It’s best if the people who are doing the vaccinating have had some experience and know the risks.

Safety Basics Include A Knowledge Of How Cattle Think
Most accidents happen when people handling cattle don’t understand basic cow psychology, being in the wrong place at the wrong time or trying to force an animal to do something it doesn’t understand.  Cattle can be dangerous when handled in confined areas if they panic and become defensive.  Their reaction to perceived danger is to flee or fight, and if they don’t have room to run away they attack.  Wild, nervous cattle are more dangerous in close quarters (such as a small corral or barn stall) because they panic quicker and need a lot more room.  They may become defensive and charge at you, even if you are some distance away.  Accidents at calving time may occur if a cow considers you a threat to her calf.   

Even when working with gentle cattle, make sure you have room to step aside if a cow backs into you or turns around when you try to put her into the chute.  Don’t be where you could get run over or smashed into the fence.  Even a calm cow may kick if you come up behind her suddenly or poke her with a stick.

Know your animals and be prepared for what they might do.  Putting individuals into a corral together (if they don’t get along) may lead to a fight, and they may be so busy fighting that they don’t pay attention to you.  If you get in the way, they may crash into you, or one may suddenly whirl (to get away from the other one) and run over you if you’re too close.

When you know the individuals, you can generally predict what they’ll do in any given situation, and handle them accordingly.  If you’re trying to handle cattle you don’t know, however, it helps to be able to read their body language.  This gives a clue to what they are thinking and you can anticipate their next action.

Cattle are front-heavy and use their head and neck for balance; watching the head and shoulders of an animal will tell you which way it is about to move.  Cattle are somewhat methodical in their actions and once an animal shifts its balance to move, it will move that direction.

You can also determine a cow’s thoughts by her head position and eyes--to know if she is calm, frightened, or angry.  A cow with her head up and alert, giving you a steady stare, may mean she is aggressive, ready to stand her ground and fight.  She may charge at you.  If her eyes are rapidly moving, she may be nervous.  If her eyes are moving slowly, she may still be evaluating you.

A cow that shakes her head at you is upset and angry.  This is a threat gesture.  An animal that bows its head and neck is defensive and prepared to fight; this is the posture taken by a bull or cow when sizing up an adversary--prepared to charge, or to counter and deflect a head charge from the other animal.  Cattle that show this behavior are not in a good frame of mind and may be dangerous.

If an animal you do not know makes aggressive gestures, back away slowly to give it more space, but do NOT run.  Any sudden movement may cause the animal to charge or chase you.  If this is an animal you know, and it should respect you, stand still and project firm, dominating thoughts, showing by your body language that you are not afraid and that you are the boss.  When you work with a potentially aggressive animal, carry a stick (stock whip or prod, or some kind of weapon) to give you a psychological advantage and convey your dominance.  Like the horns of a boss cow, the weapon is your outward show of strength and you won’t have to use it if the animal respects you.