Slow Is Fast

Cattle Handling and Injury Prevention

by Ki Fanning, Ph.D., PAS


Cattle handling is an everyday activity in most feedlots, and can either be a low stress and relatively easy task or a high stress, unpleasant event for both cattle and their handlers. The more stressful cattle handling is, the more dangerous of a work environment it is for both people and cattle. Regarding people, dangerous work environments have significant financial implications in the form of lost work time, medical costs, and insurance to name a few.

For cattle, the effects of stressful or dangerous handling on health and performance are numerous and have gained more attention in recent years. Stress increases cortisol levels, which will reduce the immune response resulting in vaccine failure and/or a higher morbidity rate. In addition, animals that are repeatedly handled in a fast paced, stressful way will tend to be more high-headed (nervous). High-headed cattle gain slower and do not convert as well as their calmer counterparts, and they tend to have more bruising and injuries. It takes 20 minutes for the heartrate of severely agitated cattle to return to normal.

Tom Jones with Hy-Plains Feed Yard talked about taking time processing cattle in a recent video from the American Angus Association. “Nothing here in the feed yard is a timed event. We move cattle slowly, we process cattle slowly; we get asked all the time how many cattle we run through a day, and I really don’t know; not as many as everyone else. It doesn’t matter to us how the cattle are handled. Cattle will tell you how fast they want to go.”

He also echos the “slow down” mindset in his approach to management.

“I just want to make sure we are taking care of the cattle needs right. Cattle will always tell you what they need. The problem is the business is so fast we don’t have time to stop to see what they are asking for.”

He says it’s important for all employees to embrace a low-stress mindset.

When moving a herd, walk in the direction you want them to move while retreating from their flight zone. When they quit moving, enter their flight zone, walking in the opposite direction you want them to move. When moving cattle through a gate (i.e. counting cattle), move in and out of their flight zone to increase or decrease the rate at which the cattle move. Cattle have a herd mentality so by calmly driving the alpha animal (not the most high-headed or aggressive one) where you want them, the others will follow. When driving cattle, do not yell or use high-pitched sounds, including whistling and whip cracking. Cattle have much more sensitive hearing than humans. Making noise will attract attention to yourself instead of the way you want cattle to move. Sounds should be quiet and calm, including music, motors, equipment, air and hydraulic lines. Looking directly at an animal is also more pressure than looking down or away.

All the movements by cattle handlers should be slow and calm. Processing cattle is not a race, and one can still work in an efficient manner by handling cattle slowly and calmly. Arm waving or vigorous waving of sorting sticks should be avoided whenever possible. Flags and paddles can be used as an extension of the body/arm but should not be moved rapidly or loudly. Electric cattle prods should only be used on stubborn cattle (approximately 1% of the cattle). ATVs, while often handy and convenient, are loud and are very difficult to drive at a slow enough pace to be low stress. If an ATV is used, make sure that the cows are always at walking speed; take your time. Likewise, with a horse or a dog, cows should be at a walking speed and remember not to drive cows from directly behind due to their blind spot.

With everything that must be done around the feedlot on a daily basis, it is easy to get in a hurry and rush when handling cattle. The industry is becoming more aware of the negative impacts of stress and poor stockmanship on cattle wellbeing and performance, as well as the health and wellbeing of caregivers. We can all learn and improve in this area, regardless of how many years of experience we have with cattle. Please do yourself and the industry a favor by slowing down a little, and be as safe as possible while handling cattle. Handle cattle in a manner that if someone not from rural America was watching, they would let you take care of their pet.

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