Part 1: cattle handling basics
If there’s one thing to understand about handling beef cattle, it’s that they can only think about one thing at a time.
“Cows don’t multi-task,” said Dr. Ronald Gill, professor and extension livestock specialist for Texas AgriLife Extension. “They’re in the moment.”
With that in mind, the goal of those who are handling cattle should understand and work with cattle instinct, use body positions to influence cattle movement, and be ready to respond to both individual and group responses by cattle.
Most cattle work begins in the pasture when animals are being gathered. However, Gill says in the east, most people don’t gather cattle from a significantly large area. “We call them into the pasture, then into a smaller area, then start working on them,” he said. “One reason cattle don’t work very well when you do that is that we haven’t taught them how to work. They’ve been captured, then forced to resist. They have no idea what we’re asking them to do. If it’s a stressful situation every time they go through the chute, they get harder and harder to work.”
Gill provides four key points for cattle handlers to consider regarding how cattle think. “Number one is that they want to be able to see you,” he said. “Their normal instinct is to want to know where you are and keep an eye on you. You have to let them know that you are not a threat to them.”
Next, remember that cattle tend to move around the handler. “That’s where the concept of curved alleyways and tubs came from,” said Gill. “The biggest problem with natural instinct is that most of the time, we want them to go straight. If we stay in one position and they get further out, they’re going to start turning so they can see us better. All we have to do to change that circle they’re going to make is to move sideways. Once they start moving, move to the side where they can keep an eye on you.”
Gill’s third point is to remember that cattle want to be with other cattle. He explains old-time cattle drives employed the concept of drifting, not driving. “They’d start the herd going in the morning, let them graze and drift along, then direct them,” he said. “So that’s what we do in the pasture — we start movement, then direct where that movement ends up. If I can get one of them to go, the rest will go.”
Fourth, and the key to getting cattle exactly where you want them, is understanding how to use pressure. “When cattle move and there’s pressure, their instinct is to try to take the pressure off,” said Gill. “They want to keep an eye on us, which starts the circling motion. But if you put pressure on them and drive them away, let it be their idea to go, then direct where they go.” Gill adds cattle should be aimed in the desired direction before additional pressure is applied, and encourages handlers to think in terms of ‘the cow goes where its nose goes.’
“As I approach the cattle, I want them to walk away from me,” said Gill. “Some animals in the group will respond more quickly than others, but others soon follow. Once they move, I’m going to stop and they’ll learn that the pressure is removed. Then I approach again, let them walk, put pressure by stepping in behind, then stop. If I walk up their side, I want them to stop. Proximity to the animals makes a difference whether it stops them or not. Cattle that continually turn and face the handler (when given sufficient space) are not yet trusting the handler.”
Gill says some animals tend to choose a favorite corner somewhere in the system, and part of the handler’s job is to make sure that doesn’t become their habit. Regarding the presence of corners in working facilities, Gill says not to worry about corners because having them saves in facility design and cost. “How many cows have you seen stuck in the corner of a pasture and don’t know how to get out?” he said. “Cattle aren’t that dumb. If you give them a little time, they’ll figure out how to get out of the corner.”
Rattle paddles and other driving aids are fine, says Gill, but only if they aren’t overused. He suggests not carrying such aids whenever possible because it’s tempting to use them. “Teaching cattle to respond to body position makes more sense than using a paddle or stick,” he said. “If you are going to use one, make sure you are aware of the impact it’s having on the cattle. They’re much more sensitive than we give them credit for.”
Gill says he used to always carry a sorting stick, but while working cattle one day he found that he was having trouble getting cattle to move in his system. “I was holding the stick, but not using or waving it,” he said. “But I noticed that the cattle flinched every time they came around. I put that stick down and the cattle worked better, and I haven’t picked one up again.”
In talking with an auction manager, Gill learned it’s worth having cattle that are accustomed to proper handling. “If people would teach their cattle to stop, it’d make everything else much better,” he said. “If you send a set of feeder calves to the auction and it’s hard to sort them because they won’t stop, they’ll run them back and forth down the alleyway until they’re sorted. That’s money out of your pocket in the form of shrink. Anything you can do to manage how easy these cattle are to work, the better off you’ll be.”
Part 2 will include tips on how to train cattle and how to use chutes for efficiency and worker safety.