by Sally Colby
When you’re working cattle in a chute, perhaps near the barn or close to the road, would a visitor have a good first impression?
Dr. Ronald Gill, professor and extension livestock specialist for Texas AgriLife Extension, says what the casual observer perceives is a good reflection of cattle handling skills.
“If someone at the farm is watching, or if the chute is close to the road and you’re in the process of whipping a cow into submission, what are they going to think — it’s the cow’s fault or your fault?” said Gill. “They should think it’s your fault, because in all honesty, it is.”
Gill says the biggest stressor in a cattle operation is at the working chutes. He noted when men become frustrated with cattle, women often take the brunt of it. “For the most part, women have better control of temper,” he said. “They might be seething underneath, but they don’t express it.”
Cattle that handle better at the chute will handle better during the stocker or feedlot phase. Gill suggests starting slowly when teaching cattle to work (and learning for yourself how cattle work), then implement each aspect and build speed as you are ready.
Cattle should be trained to enter the chutes, and should become easier to work with each trip to the chutes. “There is nothing done to a cow in that chute that is that painful to a cow,” he said. “Their pain threshold is totally different than ours.” Gill maintains that stress, not pain, keeps cows from coming in the chute. “If you can make it the cow’s idea to go from one place to another, it’s not stressful. It’s that simple.”
To help cattle become accustomed to routine handling, Gill suggests running them through the chutes about eight times a year. “I like to let cattle go through a system for the first time without doing anything to them,” he said. “When they’re weaned, that first time through is a freebie. After that they get processed.” Gill takes advantage of applying Pour-on as an opportunity to teach the cattle how to work. “I’ll run them in, squirt it on and run them through as quick as I can. Then when I need to work them, they’ll work better.”
To work cattle more easily and efficiently, handlers should be slow, methodical and precise. “The problem is that we aren’t paying attention to what we’re doing,” said Gill. “Cell phones and similar distractions affects handling and can be a safety issue. Cattle know what you know, and they know what you don’t know. And they know it pretty quickly.”
Once cattle are in the working area, it’s important to understand what makes them more or less willing to enter the chute. For example, cattle don’t work as well on windy days, or when it’s especially cold or hot. “You have to be willing to adapt, and understand that they’re going to respond differently or wait for another day,” said Gill. “Also, if your attitude is wrong and you’re in a bad mood, cattle will respond negatively. That cow is thinking of one thing, and that’s what you need to be doing. Focus on what you’re doing.”
If the lead up to the chute is too short, it will look like a dead-end to the cattle as they approach. To avoid this time-wasting illusion, Gill suggests a minimum of 12 feet. “If you have a bunch of cattle and go pretty fast when you’re working them, you can have a good, long lead-up,” he said. “That way you can keep the chute full and keep rolling. It also depends on how much help you have and how much walking you want to do.”
Gill doesn’t recommend the use of a crowd gate. “Don’t stand behind them hammering on them with the gate,” he said. “Release it to where they can turn around, then reposition yourself so you can come down their side and send them forward into the system. Don’t put yourself in peril — if you aren’t comfortable with cattle, don’t get in there. You have to have the confidence to step in there to get in and make those moves and not worrying about being kicked.”
Once an animal is safely in the chute, allow it to settle prior to treatment and again before releasing the headgate. As the gate opens, make sure people are positioned in the right spots so that the next animal enters willingly. “If you walk by and run your hand down their back from head to tail, it’ll send them forward,” said Gill. “If you’re good enough to get the timing right, you’ll have it so that there’s always one ready to come in.”
The handler’s proximity to the animal controls their speed. Movement can be predicted — and influenced — by watching the front feet: an animal with the right front foot back means she is likely to move to the right. Once there’s a good flow of cattle moving through, they’ll keep moving through if nothing is in the way to stop them. “Don’t hold cattle in the box or the tub,” said Gill. “You lose movement. The goal is to create movement and manage where it goes.”
When it comes to working with flighty animals, Gill says it’s worth spending time to settle them prior to moving them through the chute. “Movement builds movement,” he said, “whether it’s an individual or a herd. If you take the time to settle the wilder animal and getting them quiet before leaving them, it reduces stress. If cattle are not working, step back, let them rest and reorganize, and start over. Impatience gets nowhere fast.”
Watching adults handle cattle can influence young people who are considering whether or not they want to remain in the industry. “We talk about how young people aren’t coming back into the business,” said Gill. “One reason is that we complain about the business all the time — ‘it costs too much money to do this and that, and we aren’t making any money.’ If you aren’t enjoying it as a family unit or working unit, young people aren’t going to want to do it.”