Cattle handling is stressful — that’s probably why a creative soul came up with a T-shirt proclaiming those who work cattle with a spouse deserve some sort of prize for surviving the ordeal.
But there might be some truth to the personality issue when it comes to handling cattle. Heidi Carroll, South Dakota State extension livestock stewardship associate, conducted research for several years to study handler personality type and animal responses.
Carroll reviews the importance of proper cattle handling, including potential for decreased growth performance if cattle are stressed during handling. Poor handling or impatience during handling results in increased lameness, which becomes especially important as animals approach market weight. Stress during handling can result in dark cutters and bruising, which makes meat undesirable.
Another factor, and one which has become increasingly important, is consumer expectations of how animals are handled before they end up on the plate. But cattle handling shouldn’t be done correctly simply because someone might be watching.
“The handler impacts a lot of different areas,” said Carroll. “Some of the research talks about increasing treatment costs when there is poor handling because there are more injuries. You might be increasing the number of illnesses or potentially decreasing a vaccine response and getting more sick animals.”
And it isn’t just a matter of how handling affects animals — it’s important to maintain a safe work environment for all people who are interacting with the cattle. Carroll noted the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a high incidence rate of non-fatal injuries among stockmen. “The key factor is human error,” said Carroll. “That makes sense — not everyone can make the right decision at the right time, situations arise, and animals are going to react with their instincts.”
What has happened to stockmanship, or the ability to handle cattle safely and efficiently? Carroll says stockmanship expertise and innate ability to work cattle is decreasing simply due to a lower number of people growing up on farms and ranches. The subsequent loss of livestock know-how contributes to errors. “We’ve slowly gotten rid of a lot of experiences of youth growing up on farms with livestock,” said Carroll. “There are challenges we see with the expertise of young people coming into the industry. We’re throwing people who didn’t grow up in the industry into the mix and they don’t necessarily understand how animals react.”
For her study, Carroll recruited feedlot workers and graduate students with a livestock background. The interactions included approaching a steer pressure zone to read paint brands/ear tags, entering a pen of 14 animals and splitting them into two equal groups, then moving the entire pen out to an alley system and sorting them back to their home pens one at a time.
The 12 handlers did the exercises with two different pens of cattle. Each pen was handled eight times but not more than twice a day. The most desirable behavior responses of cattle included attention toward handler, not running into fences, curious enough to investigate the handler, no extreme excitability, moved away from the handler at a safe distance (desirable flight zone), sure-footed without slipping, overall relaxed demeanor, maintained motion when desired and moved at a relaxed pace.
The objectives of Carroll’s study included developing a scoring method to quantify cattle handling proficiency by observing human-cattle interactions, and determining the effect of personality type on cattle handling proficiency. Carroll used the Myers- Briggs personality scoring method to determine personality type, but cautions such assessments are being made by those whose expertise is livestock and not human psychology.
Carroll says in comparing the ‘sensing’ versus ‘intuition’ aspect of a personality type, “sensing people tend to have a practical application of ideas and like reality, and they like to have concrete facts and details. If you’re able to live in the reality of things, you’re probably more attuned to what the cattle are doing and respond appropriately.”
When it comes to ‘thinking’ versus ‘feeling’, Ag students tended to be ‘thinking’ and are reasonable and level-headed. “That’s important when you’re working with livestock that can be unpredictable,” said Carroll. “The challenge is that those with the ‘feeling’ side might be more empathetic and be able to relate more to an animal and be more patient, but you still want to be reasonable and level-headed.”
Regarding ‘introverted’ versus ‘extroverted’ personalities, Carroll says the person with an introverted personality tends to observe first, then think things through and work at a slower pace. “An extroverted person might want to work their ideas out loud, or bounce their ideas off someone else,” she said. “They might get more energy when there’s more going on.”
Carroll says observations were typical of human/cattle interactions people would typically do in the industry. “In exercise one, looking at ear tags, there wasn’t a lot of pressure on cattle,” said Carroll. “But when we started to force interactions on an animal, we got behavior responses that helped differentiate people.”
How is this information useful when hiring new employees or job training of existing employees? If an employer can watch someone go into a pen of cattle and observe them sorting those cattle and have a good means by which to evaluate performance based on animal response, it might be easier to place people in the appropriate jobs. Although employers cannot discriminate based on personality type, awareness of those traits might help place them in the most suitable position. If the person is willing to learn more about cattle handling, the employer will have a good idea of what the person’s potential might be.
Personality type assessment isn’t just to determine who you are, but to also understand one’s own tendencies. “Personality assessments create self-awareness,” said Carroll. “When a person becomes more self-aware of how they make decisions or how they react in a stressful situation, it’s key to think back to think ‘am I overreacting, are my behaviors helping or hurting the situation?’”
In a stressful situation — are you task-oriented or concept-oriented? A task-oriented person may forget about the quality of work and focus on getting the job done as quickly as possible. “On small operations, cattle are just a part of the farm,” said Carroll. “There are probably crops, and potentially a full or part time job off the farm. Being aware of how you manage your time and how you respond to your ‘to-do’ list can help you slow down in respect to interacting with cattle.”
Carroll says the bottom line challenge is ‘what is the language of people’? “We all communicate differently,” she said. “We want to be sure that owner and manager expectations for the care of livestock are communicated effectively to the people doing the task. Make sure you stress the importance of low-stress handling and do on-the-job training.”