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Work cattle with care

The way you handle cattle goes a long way toward making the work go smoothly. In fact, safety for both animals and humans depends in large part on smart handling practices.

An Oklahoma State University study evaluated causes of injuries to people sustained while handling cattle. Of 150 injuries on 100 cow-calf operations, 50% were due to human error in handling. Shortfalls in equipment and facilities accounted for 25% of the injuries.

“While disposition, previous treatment of the animals, and design of facilities certainly play a role in how livestock handle, the biggest variable in safe cattle handling is people,” says Darrell Busby, retired Iowa State University beef specialist who currently manages Iowa’s Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity.

Busby is involved in the processing activities associated with Futurity members’ 9,000 head of cattle custom-fed in nine Iowa feedyards. In addition to gathering feeding performance on cattle enrolled in the program, the Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity reports disposition scores on cattle and uses these, in part, as a tool in assessing the effectiveness of handling practices and design of facilities at participating feedlots.

“When handling cattle, the primary goal should be ensuring the safety of both people and animals,” says Busby. “Handling should be done quietly and efficiently, thus, reducing the stress on both cattle and people.”

Reduces labor

Such low-stress handling serves as an important tool in reducing labor for father-and-son team Roger and Cale Jones. With minimal outside help, the two run a 175-cow beef herd near Shenandoah, Iowa. Along with that, they operate a 650-head on-farm lot where they finish their own calves and custom-feed cattle for the Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity. They grow hay and row crops to feed to the livestock.

Finding ways to reduce stress on cattle, in turn, reduces stress and labor for them. 

“If things go smoothly while handling a cow, she’ll most likely be willing to do over again what you’ve asked her to do,” says Roger Jones. “On the other hand, if she has a bad experience during handling, she remembers it, and it makes her hard to handle in the future. Cows that are hard to handle are stressful on people.”

Reducing stress while working cattle efficiently can result from taking the following six steps.

1. Check your attitude. “Human error is the primary cause of many types of accidents,” says Busby, “and errors in judgment occur most often when people are tired, hurried, upset, preoccupied, or careless. Human physical, psychological, and physiological factors greatly affect the occurrence of life-threatening accidents.”

If certain days bring general or personal conditions causing you to not want to handle cattle that day, Busby suggests you consider working at other tasks.

“When you really want to work cattle, you are more patient, and everything goes smoother and quieter,” he says. “That makes things better for the cattle.”

2. Understand the animals’ response to environment. Cattle have poor depth perception, and this particular trait can complicate handling unless you find ways to compensate. Moving cattle quietly, for instance, helps because an animal’s poor depth perception actually worsens when the animal travels with its head up, as it does when it is agitated.

“In order to perceive depth, cattle have to stop and put their heads down,” says Busby. “For this reason, unfamiliar objects and shadows on the ground are primary reasons for cattle balking and delaying the animals behind them. That is why it’s important that handling and working facilities be constructed to minimize shadows.”

Another tendency of cattle is to move toward light. This can be a help or a hindrance, depending on the location of the light relative to the desired direction of travel.

Their habit of following the leader is another tendency that can help or hinder. “Each animal should be able to see others ahead of it,” says Busby. “That way you can use their instinctive following behavior to fill the chute. Leaving one animal in the single-file chute serves as bait for the next group.”


3. Work cattle quietly. “We don’t push our cattle hard, and we try to stay quiet, out of their line of sight, and with as few people helping as possible,” says Jones. “We particularly don’t want hyper people helping us. Because cattle are sensitive to sound, we talk as little as possible when working with them.”

Chutes with rubber mounts also help to reduce noises that alarm cattle.

4. Understand flight zone. “The size of an animal’s flight zone depends on the animal’s temperament, the angle of the handler’s approach, and the animal’s state of excitement,” says Busby. “If you are within the flight zone, the animal moves away. The flight zone radius can range from 5 feet to more than 25 feet for feedlot cattle, and as far as 300 feet for some range cattle. Work at the edge of the flight zone at a 45° to 60° angle behind the animal’s shoulder, and cattle should circle away from you.

5. Consider previous handling. Because handling techniques train the animal to certain conditions, altering these will initially cause confusion for livestock. Cattle accustomed to being handled by a four-wheeler, for instance, may be fearful of horses or humans on foot, and vice versa.

6. Expose animals to human intervention. Periodically walking quietly among the cattle can make them calmer when sorting or processing through the chute. 

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