Dairy cattle don’t have a reputation as being dangerous farm animals because they’re handled frequently and are usually placid. Despite their easy-going nature, dairy animals have the potential to seriously hurt or kill humans, so it’s important to understand how they perceive their surroundings and how to handle them.
Libby Eiholzer, dairy specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, says employee training is important when it comes to handling dairy cows, since many workers arrive on the farm with limited or no prior experience with cattle.
“The first thing to remember is that cows weigh a lot,” said Eiholzer. “Weaned calves can weigh 200 to 300 pounds, breeding age heifers weigh 700 to 800 pounds or more, and lactating cows weigh 1500 to 1800 pounds. For a person who weighs 150 pounds, a weaned calf already outweighs us.”
Eiholzer explained that cows are flight animals, and before they were domesticated, their sharp sense of hearing helped them survive. Cows can be easily frightened by sharp, loud noises, so when working around cows, it’s important to be calm and quiet to avoid startling the group. Moving a single cow to a different part of the farm may expose her to sounds she isn’t accustomed to, and she may be more easily startled until she adjusts.
Another factor that influences cow behavior is their poor depth perception.
If there’s something unfamiliar in the cow’s path, such as a footbath, the cow might stop and place one foot in to test the depth before proceeding. Cows tend to become nervous in the dark, around shadows and foreign objects, and may hesitate or spook at something such as a sweatshirt hung on a gate.
A cow’s vision is similar to that of other prey animals: they can see well on either side of themselves, but from their shoulder and back, their vision is blurry. Cows also have a blind spot that begins at their hip and toward their back, and standing in that blind spot can result in being kicked. To avoid scaring cows, approach them from the side or the front, but never from behind without making yourself known.
Understanding the cow’s flight zone helps handlers recognize the best place to stand and how to safely and effectively move cattle either individually or in a group. Entering the cow’s flight zone causes her to move in the opposite direction and can be used effectively to influence her direction, but entering the flight zone too fast might startle her and cause her to run, and perhaps lead to a serious injury if she falls. The shoulder is the cow’s point of balance, and when the handler is behind the point of balance, the cow will move forward. If the handler continues to walk past the cow’s shoulder toward her rear, the cow will probably turn and walk in the opposite direction. If the handler stops precisely at the point of balance, the cow will stop and wait to see what the handler is going to do, then makes a decision about where to move. People who have spent a long time working around livestock usually understand and work with the flight zone intuitively, but newcomers to the industry should be trained so they can understand how to safely move cows.
Although dairy cows are usually quiet and predictable, they can become aggressive. Fresh cows in pens or in the pasture are often protective of their newborns, so be aware of signs that may signal erratic behavior. Cows in heat can be pushy, and it’s important to recognize those individuals in a group and stay out of their way. “Cows can also become aggressive when they’re separated from the herd,” said Eiholzer. “Sometimes this happens when we move a cow that’s starting to freshen into a separate pack, or any time you’re sorting a cow from a group. It can happen when cows are feeling rushed, threatened or afraid.” Cows can also become aggressive when they’re sick or being treated with injections or other medications.
A cow should be safely restrained prior to treatment so she is unable to injure herself or others working with her. Headlocks are ideal, with the handler standing off to the side or in front of the animal. Don’t place yourself where you might be kicked, and lean against the cow so she is aware of your presence and can sense your movements. Remember that the behavior of other cows in the vicinity can affect the cow that’s confined, and vice versa. A handler working with a cow in a headlock should know where and how to properly reach through bars to administer injections. Make sure others in the area are aware that you’re working with cattle so they don’t accidentally release headlocks.
If you’re working with a cow or a group of cows and a task is more difficult than you predicted, it’s worth the time to stop and get a helper. When working in a group of cows in a freestall or a pen, always have an escape plan — know the locations of man passes and gates. Avoid walking through the middle of a group of animals or moving through tight areas such as the holding area for the milking parlor where cows are close together and may be jockeying for positions.
Bulls, especially dairy bulls, should always be handled as if they’re dangerous. Although the majority of dairy farms no longer use bulls for breeding, some still do, and anyone who works with cattle on a farm where bulls are present should fully understand the dangers. Eiholtzer says that between 1987 and 2008, 261 people were attacked, and 149 were killed by bulls. Just recently, two New York farmers were killed by bulls.
If there are bulls on the farm, it’s imperative that their pens are clearly marked and that all employees know when a bull is in a group with cows. Basic guidelines for working around bulls begin with never playing with bull calves that may be retained for stud, and never entering a pen with a bull unless it’s absolutely necessary. If entering the pen is unavoidable, make sure another competent person is nearby to assist if necessary. Have a plan for what you’re going to do once you enter the pen, keep an eye on the bull while you’re working with him, and have a planned escape route. Recognize the signs that a bull is becoming aggressive: head down, back arched and pawing the ground are all signs that the animal is about to strike. However, bulls can suddenly attack without warning, and bulls responsible for maiming or killing humans are often animals that never showed any sign of aggression. If an animal is aggressive, avoid running — instead, exit slowly but deliberately and always keep an eye on the bull.