Low Stress Cattle Handling

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On any cattle operation, trips down the chute for this treatment or that is inevitable. Whether it is vaccinating, treating diseases, fly/pest control, or any number of other things, producers with any sound management plan will send their cows and calves down the chute at least once a year. While everyone has their own system, is yours set up to be low-stress for both you and or your animals? Working your cattle in a way that works best for their natural behaviors and anatomy can result in a very east-going process that puts minimal stress on your animals, and minimal stress on you.

Eye Placement/Anatomy:

One of the most important pieces of low stress handling is understanding what cattle see and why they see things the way that they do. Cattle are prey animals, so their eyes are placed on the side of their head as opposed to the front like humans or dogs. Because of this, they have a 300-degree field of vision. Most things that cattle see are with only one eye, so their depth perception is not the best. They have limited vertical vision, and have to move their heads down to see the ground. Cattle are quick to sense movement out of the corner of their eye and when far enough away, will often turn in that direction to get a better look with both eyes. Because of these limitations in their vision, something as insignificant as a shadow cast across an alley will cause a cow to be disturbed.

Hearing

While the eyes of a cow are not the greatest, they have excellent hearing. Any loud noise will be disturbing to a cow, and while they hear it well, they may not be able to tell exactly which direction they hear it from. Loud noises such as yelling or hitting gates will cause stress to the cattle.

Behavior/Instincts

Cattle are herd animals. They like to be in a group and they like to travel and stay together. Separation of one animal from the others for too long will put a great stress on that animal. They like to follow one another because it means they will stay together (and their mindset is “safety in numbers”) and so they will not have to look down to see where they are going. Cattle also prefer to move toward light and would prefer to move up hill more so than downhill.

Point of Balance and Flight Zone

Like people, cattle like to have their own personal space. When something that they are afraid of, or something they perceive as potentially dangerous comes within their personal space, they will move away. This space is called their flight zone. Stepping into the flight zone of the cattle is like ‘asking’ them to move. Another important thing to note is their center of balance, which determines the direction that the cattle will move in. The center of balance of cattle is at their shoulders.

How does all of this relate to low stress handling?

We can use all of this information in our favor to move cattle using their natural instincts.

First things first: getting rid of any distractions that may cause your cattle to stop moving. I mentioned earlier that shadows and sudden movement will disturb cattle and cause them to move differently than you want them to. Things like coats, bailing twine, or plastic bags hanging on the side of your chute can look like a threat to cattle, and will cause them to stop and not continue moving through the chute. Removing objects that can move, make noise, or startle the cattle in some form from the chute will lessen the chances of cattle stopping in the chute. Sudden movements also make cattle nervous and jumpy, so moving slowly and calmly is the best way to move around your animals.

Loud noises will also cause cattle to startle. Keeping voices low and not yelling to each other, or at the cattle will limit the stress on the cattle when you are working them. Since they can hear well, but not hear where a noise is coming from, they often will move to be able to see the source of the noise. This makes it hard on the producer to move the cattle where you want them to be.

Cattle like to travel together. Typically if you can move a few cows at one time, the rest will follow. If you have the room in your chute, letting several in at one time and separating as they move through can lower the stress on them as they like to follow one another. If you have to separate a cow for thing such as observation or treatment, try to hold her in a place where she can at least see other cattle rather than completely isolating her from the herd.

Cattle like to travel up hill, and towards light. While up-hill may not be possible for a chute, making the head gate the only source of light is a simple process. Something such as plywood or sheet metal mounted to or propped against a chute so that cattle cannot see out to the sides, only to the front will draw them towards the light coming through the head gate, which is exactly where you want them to be.

Using flight zones and centers of balance will aid in moving cattle towards the holding pen or chute in a low stress manner. As I mentioned earlier, walking into the flight zone is like ‘asking’ the cattle to move. If they sense someone in their personal space, they will move away on their own accord, and will typically do it slowly and calmly. It is important to remember however, that if they are headed in the direction you want them to go, to stay behind their shoulder. The shoulder is the point of balance, and determines what direction they go in. Walking towards the right shoulder will cause the cow to turn left, and walking towards the left shoulder will steer them to the right.

One more important point to make about low stress handling has nothing to do with movement of the cow, but can be considered one of the most important. Cattle are very easy to be HEAT STRESSED. Cattle are most comfortable from roughly 40-70 degrees. Anything higher will decrease feed intake and increase rate of respiration. It is important to work your cattle in the coolest parts of the day such as early in the morning as soon as the sun is up, or later in the evening.

For any questions regarding low stress handling of cattle, contact Katelyn Stovall, Livestock Extension Agent at knstoval@ncsu.edu or (704) 983-3987.