There are T-shirts and mugs joking about how relationships, often between spouses, suffer during cattle handling. While handling cattle can be stressful for both humans and animals, several critical factors can make the process less stressful for all.

In a live online event, two experts discussed the importance of thoughtful cattle handling. Dr. Ron Gill, professor and livestock specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, and Dr. Che Trejo, beef technical service veterinarian for Merck Animal Health, discussed cattle handling systems and those who use them.

“The welfare of cattle is paramount to us, not only from a production standpoint, but from a public perception standpoint,” said Gill. “Recent work surveyed consumers, and welfare is the number one thing that comes up.” About 97% of people in the U.S. will eat beef if they believe it has been raised humanely.

Handling cattle properly results in lower veterinary expenses and increased rate of gain. “If we want a sustainable beef operation,” said Gill, “it has to be profitable over time. We also have to take care of the environment and the people working with you.”

There’s no doubt working cattle can be stressful, but Gill said it’s important to avoid inducing long-term stress in which stressors are stacked. “We need to teach cattle to accept stress and deal with it,” he said. “If we’re consistent in how we do things, it isn’t difficult to handle what we’re asking them to do and they’re comfortable doing it. As they go through the production chain, they continue to know how to navigate facilities.”

Gill outlined three ways humans and cattle communicate: sight, sound and touch. “Sight in livestock, whether it’s through body language or visual contact, has a major impact on the way cattle respond,” he said. “It’s the main way we communicate with cattle.

“Sound can be used to add a little pressure or draw their attention to you. I use sound minimally, but it provides an effective means of getting their attention and adding more pressure.”

Touch is also minimal, but if cattle become accustomed to a gentle touch, they learn to not kick and will respond positively to human touch.

The five basics of cattle behavior begin with letting cattle know what is being asked of them. “It’s amazing how much they’re watching us when we aren’t paying attention,” said Gill. “Everything we do around livestock affects their behavior around us.”

The second aspect is that cattle want to move around humans in a circle as pressure is applied, but Gill said that isn’t ideal for handling. He advised teaching cattle to move in a straight line away from human handlers, which involves changing how humans position themselves in relation to the animals’ eyes so they’re comfortable walking away.

The third point is that cattle are herd animals and prefer moving with other cattle. Creating flow in the pasture, pen or chutes is important in teaching them to move correctly.

The fourth handling point is using pressure effectively and remembering that as pressure is applied, cattle need an outlet. Gill said that while some handlers believe cattle want to return to where they came from, movement is more a matter of animals’ desire to remove pressure.

The fifth point is that cattle have one main thought at a time, so humans must keep cattle in thinking mode. Cattle must make a decision about moving while human handlers maintain sufficient pressure to help them make the correct decision about where to go.

“It’s fun to get cattle to think through something and do it quickly enough so it doesn’t affect their flow,” said Gill.

Time well spent up front

Handling beef cattle in suitable facilities contributes to good animal welfare and reduces stress for both animals and those working with them. Photo by Sally Colby

While most cattle handlers understand the flight zone concept, Gill explained that flight zones are not static and vary according to prior experience, genetics and other factors. “We can shrink that flight zone down to a manageable size,” he said. “If we don’t, we create so much stress that when we get cattle in a confined area, they can’t remove the stress. It’s important that while we have them in a pasture or pen, we work the flight zone down to where it’s a manageable size so when they’re in a smaller area (crowd alleys, tubs, chutes) they don’t overreact.”

When a human walks by cattle in the chute, past the point of their shoulders, they should instinctively move forward. But Gill said the shoulder isn’t a static point on the animal, and that the point of balance can be worked out so it’s the front of the animal, which allows handlers to draw cattle toward themselves. The position is less a matter of a location on the shoulder and more about paying attention to cattle eyes and understanding their field of vision.

Gill considers it a success when cattle will move past a handler without the handler having to position themselves behind the shoulder.

Trejo explained the process of acclimation as getting cattle ready to work, which begins with animals feeling “welcome.” When a facility is ready to receive cattle, whether they’re from a sale barn or from your farm, the first (new) place they come to influences their behavior. Distractions such as barking dogs and heavy traffic around the handling system will dictate the health and performance of cattle throughout the feeding period, so it’s important to pay attention to such issues.

During the acclimation period, it’s helpful to both handlers and livestock if the cattle are given some time to become accustomed to the area where they will be worked prior to any procedures. Trejo suggested avoiding eye contact with cattle until it’s time to work with them, using gentle touch and backing off as needed, and allowing removal of pressure to work.

Trejo reminded producers who use open-sided handling systems that cattle can see what humans are doing around the chutes. Human posture can dictate whether cattle will move through the system. Someone standing at the head of the chute, making noise or a hat placed on a post can easily stop movement.

Pre-planning for cattle handling is critical. Trejo said producers should not receive cattle unless everything is in place and ready for use. He explained that mammals can handle short-term stress, and such stress is beneficial because it motivates white blood cells. The key is being able to avoid chronic stress and a potential subsequent chronic inflammatory state.

Cattle should not be forced, only guided, and allowed to acclimate themselves to an area on their own. Make sure there’s hay and feed in the bunk and a clean water source so cattle learn where to go. This is key in receiving cattle. Time spent on the front end of handling is well worth the time because it makes subsequent handling smoother.

“Spend 10 to 15 minutes on arrival day, several times if possible, to allow cattle to become acclimated to people,” said Trejo. “Help the cattle feel confident and welcome.”

by Sally Colby