Tried &True Cattle Handling Tips

There are many small improvements producers can make in their approach to handling cattle. I have gathered many hints, over the years, in watching experienced producers process and move their livestock. There are also very good videos and written information available through experts such as Dr. Temple Grandin. Here is a summary of a few of my observations that will hopefully provide some useful ideas for improving cattle handling abilities.

Every time we process cattle look for ways to decrease injuries. Stressful handling will result in decreased immune function, decreased weight gains and increased likelihood of injury or sickness. Medical conditions such as pneumonia increase with stressful handling. Anytime an injury occurs stop and analyze whether anything can be improved to eliminate it happening again. With bison, for example, assessing the number of broken horns or bloody noses after handling may point out problems with the facilities or the operators. New facilities are bad for sharp metal, rough welds, especially on homemade systems. Cattle vocalize when being stressed, as most often seen when being branded.

Cattle do not like contrasting light. Going from a well lit area into the dark will cause balking so in enclosed areas make sure light comes from behind the animal illuminating the area it’s walking towards. I personally have seen this on numerous occasions of preg checking cattle in the fall. The sun in the early morning, if shining into the chute from the front, will cause severe balking. Later in the day once the sun has risen, the balking ceases. Time of day, season of year, amount of sunlight and weather should all be considered when processing. Overcast days work the best when processing cattle outdoors. Be mindful of those times when handling cattle goes well versus when cattle are balky. As an example, preg checking almost always goes well within a few days of weaning. The cows are looking for their calves and tend to move easily into open areas.

Take a walk through your facility before starting. Foreign objects such as coffee cups, dangling chains, blowing plastic or hats, if in an area where cattle can visualize them, will result in balking until they are removed. Certain areas may need to have a solid barrier or wall installed. Cattle always feel safe with a barrier, where people especially, are blocked off from view. Use cardboard as a temporary barrier to see if it improves handling. Newer chutes are being designed with controls at the back so cattle don’t balk as much, as it places the operators now at the back versus the front of the chute. Self-catch chutes really help in this regard.

Try to be as quiet as possible when working around cattle so when you do make noise it will elicit a response. Show-cattle can often be desensitized to the human voice by having a radio playing constantly in their pens. Exposing cattle to unusual noises over time makes them calmer and less likely to bolt when handling.

Alley stops, in my opinion, have been overdone. There is a place for them, when two animals are in the back of the squeeze chute or palpation cage. They are ideal. Having one at the very back of the runway often causes balking in that area as cattle don’t want to go under them or push by them at the point of entering the system.

If possible, don’t isolate an animal by itself as it will become frantic and dangerous to either themselves or the handlers. Often if one animal gets behind when bringing them into an area, they want to join up with the rest of the herd. If ignored they often will come in themselves with little effort or you can turn back one or two quieter animals to lead them in.

Don’t load too many animals into a tub system at one time. If they become turned around and jammed, forward progress becomes impossible. If only six to eight cows are brought into most tub systems they will often walk in without even using the crowd gate. This requires more trips for more animals rather than bringing 15 cows at a time, but it will require considerable less poking and prodding, believe me. Solid sides are imperative on the crowd tub and most of the way up the crowd gate. Cattle will flow to the opening but it must be lined up properly with their line of vision off the sweep of the tub.

Equipment necessary to herd cattle has also evolved over the years. At the local auction markets, in our area, plastic rattle paddles or sorting sticks have replaced plastic or wooden canes or whips over the years. I have even seen sticks with plastic flags work wonders at moving cattle. This eliminates the bruising and damage to eyes, which canes can cause. The paddles, rattles or plastic flags are only shook if you want to elicit a response and then work well as a barrier in front of cattle when sorting.

The stock prod should be used sparingly and only in a lead up alley or in loading. If you only use short handled prods you won’t have employees carrying them into the sorting pens and over using them. At packing plants audits are performed on stock prod usage. You do not want to use the prod on more than five percent of the animals. Otherwise analyze where the balk point is in your handling system. With a good system prods should be needed only very occasionally for a very quiet or stubborn animal. I find, especially handling bred heifers, you almost never need a prod. In fact, slowing them down in a good system is often your biggest problem, as they want to bunch up. Prods, though, do eliminate unnecessary twisting of the tails or hitting with other devices and also help keep the frustration level of the workers to a minimum. Use prods with considerable discretion.

A pet peeve of mine is cattle dogs. The place not to have your dog working is right by the chute tearing a strip out of the cattle every time they hit the chute. As herding dogs they are fine, but in enclosed handling facilities they have no place and only make cattle more nervous.

If you do twist the tail, as the animal moves, back off on the twisting as a reward for going forward. The next time you use tail twisting it will be more effective.

There is also a trick to get cattle standing again after they spin out and go down in chutes. Have patience to hold or “pinch” both nostrils off and wait! As the animal runs out of breath it will jump straight up. Try this next time and you will be amazed in almost all cases it is successful. Again this eliminates the twisting of tails or prodding, which most producers may resort to and which causes considerable distress.

Good footing, such as cross bars in the floor of the chute, is imperative to preventing animals from panicking and going down. Having good footing as they leave the chute area is essential to prevent slipping and falling upon release.

I am sure most of you have other tricks for handling cattle, which could be discussed in future articles. Mostly, good handling practices, are based on common sense and understanding the typical behavior and flight zone responses of cattle.

RoyLewisisapracticinglargeanimalveterinarian attheWestlockVeterinaryCenter, northofEdmonton,AB.Hismaininterestsare bovinereproductionandherdhealth.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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