Low-stress animal handling was the topic of the day at the Tri-County Ag Day seminar, held recently at the South Dakota State University ( SDSU) Cottonwood Research Station near Cottonwood, S.D.
The featured speaker was Tom Noffsinger, DVM, of the Twin Forks Clinic in Benkelman, Neb. A graduate of Colorado State University ( CSU) Veterinary School, his duties at the clinic include consultation to beef feeding and cow/calf operations in the areas of health, performance and animal behavior.
Dr. Noffsinger began his presentation by explaining that good-doing cattle are a result of both good genetics and people who take care of them properly. “Since cattle are prey animals,” he said, “their instinct is to conceal weakness and illness from predators.” Their entire behavior is relative to this, and if the handler is perceived as a predator, the animals will react accordingly.
On the other hand, proper and empathetic handling can actually instill a sense of trust in cattle. “Cattle that trust their handlers will willingly exhibit symptoms,” he added. This is especially important in a feedlot situation, when pen riders are looking for animals which need to be treated.
Dr. Noffsinger stated that there are three tools employed when cattle are being worked: handler position and distance, handler angle and handler speed. To slow down an animal, move parallel to it; to speed one up, move against it at a perpendicular angle. When it is doing what you are asking, step back and release the pressure. Do not get behind the cattle and chase them. This is a predatory move, and they will just go in circles. Cattle like to know what is pressuring them, and usually a predator is back there. “If you can’t see the animals’ eyes, you’re not in the right position,” cautioned Dr. Noffsinger. Do not look directly into their eyes, however.
Young calves can readily learn to trust their handlers as well. For example, if a calf needs to be tagged, lay it down gently and first rub it all over. Also handle its ears, and when it’s been tagged it won’t even be aware that anything has happened.
When cattle are in a chute they can be encouraged to move forward by touching their backs from front to rear. This is the same movement that a mother cow uses to get her baby calf up. The opposite motion will move an animal backward.
Dr. Noffsinger ended his presentation by answering questions from the audience. It is his hope that handlers will adopt his methods and dispense with the hotshots, shouting, etc., that so often seem to accompany cattle work. You will have calmer, better performing animals as a result.
Following Dr. Noffsinger’s address, attendees enjoyed a lunch of barbecue beef brisket sandwiches. They were then transported by van to the Pat and Mary Lou Guptill ranch near Quinn, S.D. When they reached the Guptill property, Pat was preparing to turn 500 head of heifers out, and into an adjacent pasture. He did this on a daily basis. All the heifers were in the corner of their own pasture, waiting. Guptill walked up the hill to the fenceline and began taking the wire down. He turned his back to the cattle as he went, and they filed in behind him into the fresh pasture and immediately began grazing.
When asked what the heifers would do if he was to turn and face them while removing the wire, Guptill’s response was, “They would split at the moment I turned around and end up in two groups. I would have to do the whole process all over again with the second group.”
Guptill has been doing this pasture rotation for about six years. He has had the current bunch of heifers for almost a month. He says it takes three to four days for them to get accustomed to the routine and to him.
Next the tour traveled to the Guptill Ranch working corrals. There they learned what a “Bud box” is and how it functions. The concept is a creation of Bud Williams, a world-reknowned expert in cattle handling. The “box” is a single pen which is actually the blind end of a drover’s alley. It is generally about 2-feet wider than the alley and should not be filled more then halfway with cattle. After the animals enter the box, the gate from the alley is shut behind them. The handler should wait a short time as the cattle reach the back of the pen and begin to turn around. They will look for the place where they came in and can be moved into an alleyway through a second gate inside the box. From there they can be run through a chute as necessary. This method has proven to be very efficient.
Back at the research station, participants were shown the working facilities there. Dr. Ken Olson, Extension Beef Specialist from the West River Ag Center in Rapid City, explained how their cattle tub functions. A tub is a semicircular structure that ideally should not have corners. “Like the Bud box, it is used to temporarily hold cattle before moving them into an alleyway,” said Dr. Olson. Again, never fill the tub more than half full.
The alleyway at the research station is curved rather than straight, and opinions differ as to the desirability of each. The important thing to consider when designing working pens is to be sure that they fit your particular situation.
Attendees were able to take time to visit the trade show, which had been set up that morning. An ag appreciation banquet wrapped up the day’s activities. ❖
“This has been a wonderful event. In fact, it has been so exciting to put on — having everybody coming back from last year and people offering to volunteer. The Expo is really growing and it is becoming that event for everyone to come and participate in.”
Bill Scebbi Colorado Horse Council and Executive Director