Fine adjustments to cattle handling equipment can help flow
Cattle are a prey animal. It is the instinct they use to protect themselves. Low stress cattle handling techniques are based on the behaviors of cattle and how they perceive what is happening around them, according to the chief animal welfare consultant with Elanco.
Michelle Calvo-Lorenzo tells producers during the annual open house at the Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory in Whitman, Neb., that when cattle turn and face a handler, it is their way of protecting themselves by keeping a safe distance between them and people. “Some cattle behaviors are fixed, but others can be changed,” Calvo-Lorenzo said.
From the first time a producer works with a group of cattle, they need to make it a positive experience. Producers should approach the animals in a slow, calm manner so they don’t stimulate fear, fight or panic in the animal. “Make that first experience when you interact with cattle a positive one. It helps them learn calm behaviors. What these animals experience will impact how they act in the future,” Calvo-Lorenzo said. Eliminate noise, aggressive pace and approach, as well as sudden movements and distractions. “Consistency is important in order to train the animals to understand how they will interact with you. The more you work with the cattle, the more they will trust you,” she said.
Cattle have panoramic vision, which means they have a wide field of peripheral vision of -300 degrees. Due to the placement of their eyes on their face and their pupil shape, they can see more around them. However, they have a blind spot directly behind their head. If they know the handler is behind them, they will keep trying to look behind them instead of moving ahead.
“Cattle want to see you, so they can go around you,” Calvo-Lorenzo said. “If you are entering their personal space, it leads to a flight response where they want to escape. Their personal space is called the flight zone. Flight zones can vary depending upon how tame or wild the animal is. The flight zone can change depending upon how much and how you work with your animals,” she said.
“The way to work cattle fast, is to work them effectively.” – Bud Williams
The only cost of low-stress cattle handling is taking the time to learn about cattle and practicing the necessary skills. Calvo-Lorenzo said help is available through conferences and workshops. Producers can also use the internet to study different handling techniques used by expert cattle handlers.
Calvo-Lorenzo encouraged producers to take their time to work cattle, especially if they are arriving at a new location. “It can reduce stress. The cattle will start to relax and become calm,” she said.
Animal movement can be controlled by working the flight zone, point of balance and blind spots, appropriately. “The handler’s position, posture, and movement all affect what the cattle do in our presence,” she said. “By keeping control, you are presenting clear, consistent ways to communicate with animals and establishing leadership, which allows the animal to relax.”
Cattle use their five senses to communicate, Calvo-Lorenzo said. “They are more sensitive to noise than humans, so avoid whistling, yelling, whip cracking, clanging, banging on metal, and air hissing when working with cattle.”
Producers need to know when, where and how to apply pressure, and when to remove that pressure. “With cattle, you need to ask. Don’t force them to do something,” she said.
Approach them calmly and apply pressure properly to stimulate a little anxiety, not fear or fight. Calvo-Lorenzo recommends using a pressure and release system, which requires the handler to penetrate the edge of the flight zone to move the cattle, and then retreat away from the edge of the flight zone. “The release of that pressure is like a reward to cattle. Constant pressure mimics predator behaviors, which they consider dangerous,” she said.
Alternate pressure while using a point of balance. Its keeps cattle moving forward. Walking inside the flight zone in the opposite direction of the desired movement helps control the flow of cattle. “By alternating pressure, you can slow the speed of the cattle by your forward and backward movements. Stay on the edge of the herd, and don’t focus on a single animal,” Calvo-Lorenzo said.
Although well-designed facilities won’t replace poor handling techniques, it makes cattle handling easier. “Think about how cattle perceive their environment, and be willing to make modifications to make handling facilities more efficient and usable,” she said.
After making an adjustment, test it out to see how cattle work through it. If the facilities aren’t conducive to low stress handling, it can cause the animals to develop habits and dangerous behaviors, Calvo-Lorenzo said.
Improper handling leads to increased body temperature, increased heart rate, reduced immune system function, and higher glucorticoid values, which all translate into lower productivity and cost money. Low stress cattle handling impacts profitability and production. “It starts with the handler. Cattle handling needs to be safe, effective and humane,” Calvo-Lorenzo said. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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