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Commonsense Cattle Handling

Keep cattle calm and send clear body signals at the right time.

A decade ago, Ron Gill learned firsthand how cattle handling could affect the well-being of livestock.

At the time, the Gill family – Ron, wife Debbie, and brother Richard – had as one of the ranch enterprises a business of preconditioning calves. The calves were acquired at sale barns and delivered to receiving lots at one of the ranches that was then a part of Gill Cattle Company in north-central Texas.

Because of respiratory disease, the Gills were treating 20% of the cattle. Illness turned chronic in 1.6% of the calves, and the death loss was 2.7%.The 60-day average daily gain was 2.6 pounds per head.

“I knew we could do better,” says Gill, a livestock specialist for Texas AgriLife Extension.

Simple Changes Make Big Impact

They decided to change the way they handled the cattle, to see whether or not it would make a difference in health.

It had been their practice to vaccinate calves upon arrival. “Instead, we put newly arrived calves in a receiving pen,” says Gill. “Of course, they’d be excited and run around. Our goal was to calm them down.”

Standing or moving quietly in the pen with the calves, a handler would let the calves pass by. At first, the calves would rush. After 30 to 45 minutes of the handler’s quiet presence and slow movement, the calves stopped rushing and began walking calmly past the handler.

“We could just see them relax,” says Gill.

The calves then went to a pen with feed and water. Processing occurred the next day. Afterward, handlers quieted the calves, again by letting them pass by a person in the pen.

“Just doing those simple things made all the difference in the world,” says Gill.

Rate of gain increased to 2.9 pounds per head per day. Treatment rate for respiratory disease was reduced to 5%, and the death loss dropped to 0.7%. No cattle became chronically sick.

Calming the calves upon arrival seemed to give the animals the confidence needed to begin eating, rather than staying off feed.

“When stressed, cattle don’t eat and they get sick, because they’re not getting the energy needed to fuel their immune systems,” says Gill.

The improved health of the calves as a result of better handling shows, of course, how significantly human behavior can impact the well-being of livestock. The experience affirmed for the Gills that they were on the right track with the changes they were also making in their handling of cows.

“I was fortunate to grow up around some great stockmen, but I have also studied handling clinician Bud Williams. As a result, we began to make subtle changes in the way we worked cattle in the corrals,” says Gill. “For starters, we made sure there was no yelling, no whips, and very little noise while we were working cattle.”

They also began paying more attention to each person’s physical position relative to that of the cattle.

“You have to be in the right position to set cattle up to go where you want them to go before you apply pressure,” says Gill, now a cattle-handling clinician himself. “Creating and managing movement is the key to the low-stress handling of cattle.” Direction of desired travel determines the right position for the handler, who gets the cattle to go in the right direction by moving in and out of an animal’s flight zone and past their point of balance.

The flight zone is the animal’s radius of perceived safety, and the range of the radius varies by individual animal. When a handler steps near or into this zone, the animal begins to move or turn, depending upon the handler’s position relative to the animal’s point of balance.

The point of balance varies, too, by individual animal. In general, the animal expresses the balance point when the handler passes its shoulder. A handler’s stance to the side and slightly behind this point will cause the animal to move.

If the handler stands at a sharp angle toward the rear of the animal, this position could potentially stop forward movement. If the handler steps into the blind spot directly behind an animal, it may turn toward the rear in order to see more clearly what is behind.

“Cattle can be easily controlled from the front if they are not afraid of a human,” says Gill. “Working from the front helps keep cattle from wanting to turn back in an effort to keep you in their line of sight. By moving in and out of the flight zone and point of balance, cattle can be easily drawn forward and past you to get them to go where you need them to go.”

Ways To Change

As Gill works with cattle producers to help improve their handling skills, he suggests making the following five changes.

  1. Adopt an open attitude. “Assess what happens when you handle cattle and embrace the idea that there could be a better way to do things,” he notes. “People often become so steeped in tradition that they resist change.”
  2. Spend time with cattle. Spending time out in the pasture acclimating cattle to your presence pays off. “You have to teach, condition, and prepare cattle for working,” says Gill.
  3. Observe behavior. A study of livestock reveals flight zone and point of balance. “It is the responsibility of each handler to be able to read and to determine where these points are on each animal,” he says.
  4. Apply pressure at the right time. If cattle are set up to go where you want them to go and you’re in the right position, the time is right for applying pressure. “Low-stress livestock handling is not about handling cattle with no pressure,” says Gill. “In fact, you might have to apply a lot of pressure, as long as it’s at the right time.” This could be especially true in the case of handling unusually quiet cattle with a small flight zone.
  5. Fix problem areas. “Think about where you have trouble getting cattle to do something,” he says. “Figure out why they don’t want to go in a certain direction. It could be, for instance, because of poor lighting or something in the design of the facilities that needs changing. Figure out what’s causing the problem. More often than not, it comes back to the improper location of people.”

Rating Cattle

Classifying how your cattle behave can help you determine whether their bad attitude was a one-time occurrence or if the animal needs to be monitored further for possible culling.

1 = Docile. Gentle; handles quietly; slightly elevated respiration.

2 = More Active. Elevated respirations but settles down after joining the group once again.

3 = Constant Movement. Occasionally bumps fences and gates; only settles down after several minutes of returning to the group.

4 = Flighty. Agitated by handling and avoids handlers; bumps into gates and fences; always seems to watch handlers when approaching the group.

5 = Aggressive. Bumps gates and fences and might be willing to challenge handlers; attempts to jump fences and gates.

6 = Very Aggressive. Very aggressive toward handlers; jumps and bellows while in the chute. Exits chute frantically and may still exhibit aggressive behavior.

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