Processing Safety: Working With Cattle

By: Jill J. Dunkel

How many times have you or a coworker been lucky when it comes to not getting hurt in a dangerous situation? Maybe a calf jumped in the chute and you narrowly missed getting your arm trapped or broken? Or perhaps the head gate operator opened it a little too soon and you just missed getting walloped in the head? Processing cattle offers several opportunities for injury if workers aren’t careful. Facility design, training and safety practices can go a long way toward injury prevention.

Gordon Moore is a safety consultant for Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He travels across the state to feed yards offering training on several aspects of safety related to beef cattle production, and he says some simple changes can make big differences in an operation.

First and foremost, teaching someone to handle cattle is very important, he says. “Typically, we take an 18-year-old kid and put them in the back with instructions to put cattle in the tub. We always put the guy with the least experience pushing cattle because we don’t want him at the chute,” he says. “We send him to the back with a hot shot and tell him to keep cattle moving our way.”

But pushing cattle is the worst place to put an unexperienced employee.

“He’s probably going to get run over at least once, or stomped or kicked. We think it’s a way of life when you’re pushing cattle, but it’s really not. I’ve seen some very serious injuries from that,” Moore says.

“We tell them to keep the snake full, so the worker will push as many as he can in there. Then you have cattle jumping over the side, or what if the gate breaks or the latch fails?” he asks.

He recommends telling the employee how many cattle the snake holds, and not to crowd any more that it holds.

“The way we handle cattle is huge in the safety of people.”

Jon Mollhagen of Moly Manufacturing agrees.

“Feedlots are working with a different set of cattle every day. They don’t know the cattle. It’s different than working with cows that are gentle and you know something about,” Mollhagen says.

“Be aware of high pressure locations. Anytime where we start with big pens and reduce down to a 30” alley, whether we are loading cattle or moving into a processing alley, that’s your highest pressure point,” he explains.

Facility design that uses safety and convenience features helps with worker safety. Small walk-through gates that close automatically provide a way for an employee to get in and get out of a pressure area quickly.

Flow is also key, and flow depends if you are shipping or processing cattle. “Loading cattle, if you can get cattle to follow cattle, once you get this flow started, a lot of the time you can sit back and they will follow each other in. However, when processing, you’re starting and stopping every animal. It’s hard to establish a good flow.”

Mollhagen says to educate workers not to put pressure on cattle if they can’t move forward. “Wait until it is that animal’s turn to move,” he said.

He also recommends finding a way to push cattle without being in the high pressure area. Theoretically behind a gate is a safe way to do that, but behind a gate is also a dangerous place to be, he says.

“An animal kicks or bumps it, and a gate comes back at a high rate of speed. You can also get pinched behind a gate if you are near the hinge. There’s no place to go.”

“A hydraulic swing gate, or TurretGate™, allows workers to keep cattle moving in the right direction without being behind a gate in the tub.” It eliminates the need to swing the gate back open into the waiting animals and virtually eliminates the need for humans to be in with the cattle, reducing the chance workers could be injured.

Once cattle are in the chute, Moore says to be aware of the head gate.

“The guy working the head gate may not be able to see the guy on the other side who is implanting. The man with the controls may not know when the other worker is clear of the gate before he opens it,” Moore explains. “You run the risk of hitting him in the head with the head gate.”

There are several ways an operation can address the issue.

Install a mirror so the operator can see the other side of the chute, or develop a dialog where one worker says ‘done’ so the operator knows he is clear, recommends Moore. On some units, controls can be relocated so the operator has a view of the front of the chute. Or simply equip the person on the other side of the head gate with a whistle to blow each time his job is done and he is clear.

Injuries are expensive, and no operation wants to be a focus of an OSHA investigation. Training, work flow and facility changes can make a big impact on worker safety.

In a future issue, Feed•Lot will look at processing safety in relation to items around the chute, such as needles and implant guns.

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