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Outsmart your cows

Management before medicine

Good management doesn't come in a bottle, and using an antibiotic indicates our management practices have failed.

To me, a major part of good management is reducing stress. As veterinarians, we're often asked about products such as vaccines for cattle when they come into the feedyard. But there's much more to receiving cattle than simply selecting the correct products. People can make a huge difference in cattle stress levels. Here are a few examples of what not to do:

The sifter

I really struggle to watch this guy work cattle. He'll bring 50 head of cattle to the alley, hoping to have 10 left by the time he gets there. After a couple of attempts, virtually all the cattle have learned this guy will let them by. Then the sifter gets mad because he can't understand why the cattle keep turning around and running back on him.

The fact is he's trained the cattle to do this by letting them by so easily. Of course, the sifter gets mad and soon the cattle are excited, running around and becoming more stressed. The key is to break the pen of cattle up into small groups of no more than 30 head and only bring a few (seven to 12) up to the alley at one time.

The yeller

This guy is extremely frustrating, especially when processing in a building. Often, processing alleyways are solid-sided, so it's difficult for the calf to see his handler. Inside the building, sound bounces around everywhere. If the calf can't see the yeller, he can't tell where the sound is coming from. So the yeller gets frustrated and yells even louder.

A handler must let the calf know he is there. He should position himself where the calf can see him and respond, or simply touch or pat the calf so the calf knows the handler is there.

The lazy buzzer

This guy stands around with a 5-ft.-long, electric prod and moves cattle by simply buzzing them. He doesn't give cattle a chance — he just regularly buzzes them.

This is the kind of person who animal-rights activists like to film and then tell the rest of the world we all handle cattle this way. Put the electric prod away; it's nothing but a crutch. Once it's gone, the lazy buzzer is forced to figure out how to truly handle cattle.

The filler

This guy overfills the tub behind the alley “because it will hold 30 head.” He can barely get the tub gate closed because he has too many cattle in there. It takes so long to get all 30 head into the alley that the last 10 head become frustrated and may try to jump out or simply refuse to move. Then the filler must work even harder to get these last few to go in.

The key is to only take enough cattle to the tub to fill the alley. This may mean taking as few as five head at a time. In my opinion, the tub gate should never stop moving until it's opened up to accept more cattle.

Stress is real

When we take in cattle that have experienced weaning, marketing and transportation, all in a 24- to 72-hour period, stress is definitely a concern. Behaviors such as those described above simply add to stress.

Correct handling takes effort. When I offer workers guidance on their cattle handling, they often express an inability to handle the cattle the way I have suggested. When this happens, I simply ask, “Do you mean to tell me you can't outsmart a cow?” This usually gets the point across.

Dave Sjeklocha is a feedlot consulting veterinarian at the Haskell County Animal Hospital in Sublette, KS. Contact him at 620/675-8180.

For more information, check out these animal-handling resources: