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6 ways to stay safe while handling cattle

“Even if you’ve worked around cows for a long time, you can still get hurt,” Libby Eiholzer of Cornell Cooperative Extension reminded webinar attendees recently as she highlighted safe cattle-handling practices.

In her role as a bilingual dairy specialist, Eiholzer frequently works with dairy farmers and their employees on farm safety.

She said most milking cows weigh between 1,500 and 1,800 pounds. Jerseys tend to be a bit smaller and Holstein cows are often larger. Regardless of the breed, Eiholzer pointed out, “They can really do damage just with their physical size.”

Most accidents are not because cattle are aggressive. She continued, “A lot of times there are things we can do to prevent accidents just by knowing a cow’s natural behavior.”

Eiholzer discussed six key topics and offered safety advice for each.

1. Sounds and Sight

When working with cattle and most other livestock, it is important to remember their eyes and ears do not work like ours.

Cattle have a sharp sense of hearing. “Something that may not be loud or unexpected to us could be very loud or startling to them,” Eiholzer explained.

While some animals have a strong tendency to fight when they are scared, “cows are definitely flight animals,” she continued. This could quickly lead to a dangerous situation if a scared cow is running in your direction or slips and falls.

Cattle also have poor depth perception, which can cause them to be nervous in the dark, around shadows, and skittish of foreign objects. Changes in lighting can make them hesitant, too. Even a sweatshirt you took off and hung on a fence post flapping in the wind could be startling to them, Eiholzer said.

When walking among cattle, be mindful of their blind spots and flight zone. When looking straight ahead, cattle can’t see directly behind them. If you approach an animal from behind, you are more likely to get kicked.

2. Bulls

While keeping bulls for breeding isn’t as common of a practice as it used to be on dairy farms, they are still often used in the beef industry. In either situation, bulls can be extremely dangerous. Between 1987 and 2008, there were 261 people attacked by bulls in the U.S. Close to 60% of those people were killed.

Eiholzer stressed that bull pens should be clearly marked for all farm employees, visitors, and contractors. Keep in mind, it should be something everyone on the farm can understand, so having an image or second language may be necessary.

If you must enter a pen with a bull, it is especially important to stay alert.

Know where the exits are before you get in, and always keep track of where the bull is while you’re working. Putting a bell on your bull may help you know where he is, even if he is difficult to see in a group.

If a bull stars to demonstrate signs of aggression, stop what you are doing, and get out of the pen. Exit slowly and calmly, keeping the bull in sight. Do not turn around and run.

Many times, bulls stomp, put their head down, or arch their back before they attack.

3. Calves

Big cows and bulls start off as calves. Eiholzer stressed the importance of safely handling calves in her presentation.

“Don’t teach them bad habits,” she said. While it may be fun to encourage a little calf to head butt your hand and push them away or to let them chase you, that could lead to a dangerous situation down the road.

Before long, the little calf will not be so little. Even a 500-pound freshly weaned calf outweighs most people and could seriously injure or kill someone just playing.

When working with young calves, be careful of their mothers. A cow who feels her calf is in danger may quickly become aggressive.

4. Handling

Eiholzer reminds farmers and farmworkers to always ask for help when needed. Taking the extra time to do work safely is worth it. Trying to tackle a job shorthanded could result in serious injury or death.

When working in a group of animals, avoid walking in the middle where you are more likely to get accidentally kicked or trampled. However, don’t put yourself in a situation where you could easily be pinned by gates or doors. Hold gates from the side so you can quickly get out of the way if necessary.

Cattle have an excellent memory and can remember bad experiences and things related to fear. If a cow slipped and fell in a certain part of the farm, she may be extra hesitant next time she is there. For everyone’s safety be patient and let her move through the area slowly and calmly.

Also remember, cattle like routine. As a farm manager, keeping things consistent daily and shift to shift is important. Ensure all employees have been properly trained on best practices for feeding and pen cleaning to keep cattle calm and comfortable.

5. Needles

Needles are another common source of injury on the farm. Eiholzer gave webinar participants three tips for safely using needles around cattle.

First, recapping needles actually increases your chances of an accidental needle stick because it is so easy to miss. Instead of recapping the needle, immediately dispose of it in a hard-shelled sharps container. Eiholzer suggested attaching an empty gallon plastic jug to your belt as a practical option for working on-the-go.

Second, never carry needles in your mouth or pocket. If you were to lose your balance or get bumped it would be very easy to stick yourself or worse.

Third, if you do accidentally stick yourself, report the injury immediately. Even if the puncture seems small or not a big deal, it is important to let someone know. Some medicines can be very dangerous.

6. Foodborne and Zoonotic Diseases

Good sanitary practices are an important part of preventing foodborne and zoonotic diseases.

After working with any livestock, wash your hands. Be sure to scrub between your fingers, the backs of your hands, and under your fingernails thoroughly.

If possible, change your clothes and footwear before leaving the farm. At least, wash your work clothes separately from other clothing or household items.

Learn More

To learn more about safely handing livestock, check out these articles from Successful Farming magazine.

To reach Libby Eiholzer or to learn more about bilingual training for your farm, visit

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