by Enrico Villamaino

Cows are people too. Well, they’re not, actually, but they still deserve to be treated humanely.

Dr. Temple Grandin is a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University. The proponent for the humane treatment of livestock in both the beef and dairy industries recently presented the seminar “ReTHINKING Animal Behavior and Handling.” The presentation is the latest addition to the Real Science Lecture Series.

“Cattle handling was really quite bad when I first got started in the 1970s,” Grandin said. “Thankfully, today it is much improved. But we have to keep monitoring the industry constantly.” Likening oversight of cattle handling to traffic cameras, she joked, “You’re a lot less likely to run a red light when you know it’ll be seen and documented.”

To better build on these improvements, Grandin pointed to a number of things that herdsmen looking to engage in good stockmanship should focus on:

Cows are people too

Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State, recently led a seminar on how to best keep cattle calm and comfortable. Photo courtesy of Temple Grandin

Keep it down, and don’t let things go to the dogs – Recent studies show that 30% of cattle handlers still make too much noise. “There are handlers that still yell. Cattle aren’t stupid; they know intent and they can recognize hostility.” She recommended speaking in soft yet firm tones when guiding the herd. Barking dogs do more harm than good – keep them away. She stated that while cattle can be startled and scared instantaneously, it can take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes for them to calm down again.

Fight or flight? Give a wide berth to flight – Forty-six percent of all herds are, at some point, kept in an area that is too tightly packed. This can cause panic. According to Grandin, people don’t give enough thought to the “flight zone,” or the distance within which a person can approach an animal before it moves away. Cows turn and face a person when they are outside of their flight zone, but when someone encroaches into the flight zone, the animal becomes agitated, turns and moves away. “Even when you’ve got them penned up, you should still give them enough room so they don’t get overly stressed,” Grandin said. “When you’re moving them from one place to another, and they have to pass by someone else, make sure they have enough room to keep from having to get too close for their comfort.” She also reminded handlers that when they feel too crowded or blocked, cows will follow their natural tendency to turn back in the same direction they came from.

Remember, just like in real estate, it’s location, location, location – While it might seem counterintuitive, you shouldn’t try to lead cattle from the front. The “point of balance” is the spot at the cow’s shoulder and it is determined by the animal’s wide angle vision. “Cattle will move forward if the handler stands behind the point of balance. They will back up if their handler stands in front of the point of balance.”

Who knows what stressors lurk in the minds of cows? The shadows know – Cows are very aware of the shadows cast on the ground. Grandin touched upon how lighting and the shape of a farm’s infrastructure can create silhouettes, shapes and outlines on the ground that cows need to feel comfortable with. “When cows see shadows, particularly sharp ones, they are more likely to stop moving. You should never rush them while they’re adjusting to it,” she said. “If they lower their head, they’re checking it out to make sure it’s nothing harmful. Give them a minute or two. Only after they’ve raised their head on their own should you urge them on.”

The tale of the tail – When a dog wags its tail, it’s happy. But when a cow switches its tail back and forth, it’s nervous. “You’ve got to become familiar with the signs of fearful cattle. Look at their ears – if they perk up and look extra alert, or if they do the opposite and get pinned back, that’s a sign. Defecation is another one. Cows can literally have the poop scared out of them,” she said. Studies have found that cows exhibit an increase in eye white when they are scared or frustrated.

Blinded by the light… – Cattle will often be reluctant or flat out refuse to move in the direction of the sun when it’s on the horizon. If you are unable to reorient the direction of your operations, Grandin recommended timing the movement of your cattle to prevent them from having to move directly toward the sun.

…But beware the dark side – At the same time, cows can become agitated by the disorientation of moving from a well-lit location into a very dark one. Skylights installed in the walls will improve cattle movement into a building’s darker interior. Grandin described an “excellent milking parlor” she had seen that had one entire wall made with frosted plexiglass, ensuring that natural light flooded the room.

This might not be shocking to hear – While she acknowledged that in certain extreme circumstances, electric prods are necessary, Grandin insisted that their use should be avoided whenever possible. “An electric prod is never the primary driving aid,” she stated. “When driving cattle, I’m a big supporter of using flags.” Farms with higher use of electric prods see many more incidents of balking, falling, stumbling and vocalization. It was also noted that beef cattle subjected to electric prods were found to have 63 Ng/ml of the stress hormone cortisol in their system, compared with beef cattle handled quietly (24 Ng/ml) and dairy cattle handled quietly (13 Ng/ml).

Leave the moonwalking to Michael Jackson – Grandin is a big fan of installing non-slip flooring. When cows slip and slide around on a surface, they become highly agitated as their fear of falling rises dramatically.

Tying up loose ends – It’s not uncommon to have hanging chain ends and ropes both inside and outside of farm buildings. Grandin urged herd owners to have them tied up. “It might seem like a little thing, but when they are out of the way, it’s one less thing that the cows will have to feel out and determine isn’t any sort of threat.

“Remember,” Grandin offered a final and simple piece of advice, “calm animals are easier to handle.”

Grandin is the author of “Temple Grandin’s Guide to Working with Farm Animals.” For more information visit