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Stress-Free Handling

Poor cattle-handling techniques can cause inefficiency in gain, decreased carcass quality and increase worker safety risks.

It's pure and simple: Bad handling methods cause stress. Cattle can go off feed and suffer from a higher incidence of sickness. That's beside the headaches and hazards that poor, inefficient handling can cause to the humans working those animals.

Cattle that become agitated in the squeeze chute, for instance, have significantly lower weight gains, tougher meat and more borderline dark cutters among carcasses, says Temple Grandin, a livestock handling consultant and Colorado State University (CSU) animal scientist. Frightened, excited animals also pose a greater injury risk to workers.

When an animal is handled poorly or is wild, the chance of bruising increases, Grandin says. A CSU-conducted, national beef-quality audit found that bruises on fed cattle cost the beef industry an average of $1/animal. That amounts to an industry loss of $22 million/year.

Another study indicates that inter-sector cooperation can reduce bruising by 15% when feeders and ranchers work together to improve handling, Grandin says. This amounts to a potential savings of $2 million/year.

Anecdotal reports Grandin has gathered from feedlots show surprising results of improved handling methods on the live performance of cattle:

  • In one feedlot, when quiet handling procedures were adopted and cattle were moved at a walk, deaths due to respiratory sickness were greatly reduced.

  • At another feedlot, getting rid of electric prods in the processing area helped re-implanted cattle get back on feed faster.

  • Canadian feedyards reported that lowering stress during receiving reduced medicine costs.

  • One feedlot reported that toe abscesses were reduced by half when quieter handling methods were used.

When cattle just coming into a feedyard are wild, handling problems are compounded.

“Wild cattle are dangerous to handle; they're difficult to get on feed and don't gain well,” Grandin says. “Such cattle probably were raised on a ranch where they were never handled by a person on foot. When they get into a feedyard and see a person on foot, they go crazy. These cattle tend to have a high incidence of dark-cutting carcasses.”

Grandin suggests these ways to produce calmer cattle:

  • While still on the ranch, familiarize cattle to objects such as vehicles and people on foot or on horseback. “Ranchers should spend time walking out amongst their cattle to tame them down,” Grandin says.

  • Get cattle accustomed to squeeze chutes. Because an animal's first experience with a new person, corral or equipment will leave an indelible impression, it's important the experience be as stress-free as possible. Otherwise, they may fight or balk at subsequent trips through the squeeze chute, increasing their stress load and chance for bruising.

    “The first time cattle come into the corrals, it's a good idea to simply walk them through the squeeze chute and feed them at the other end,” Grandin says. “Make their first experience with the squeeze chute a good one.”

  • Select for calm temperament. This is particularly important in cattle bred for leanness. Grandin says there's a genetic link between leanness and predisposition for flighty temperament. Flighty animals are those prone to be being fearful and apt to panic when placed in novel surroundings — regardless of the amount of quiet training that's done back at the ranch.

“Since there are lean animals that do have calm temperaments,” Grandin says, “cattle can indeed be selected for both leanness and calmness.”

Taking the time and trouble to tame calves down pays off directly for producers retaining ownership of their cattle to slaughter. The dividends, Grandin says, will come in improved feeding performance and carcass quality, and a saver environment for handlers.

Temple Grandin, one of the world's foremost experts in animal handling and behavior, as well as animal handling facility design, is a Colorado State University assistant professor in Ft. Collins. Her books and a video are available by contacting her at 970/229-0703 or at her Web site:

Watch Your Moves

If your own body movements are in synch with the movement patterns of livestock, handling problems will be reduced. In fact, Temple Grandin says that when employees at large slaughter plants received just 15 minutes of instruction on how to move in ways that complement livestock's movement patterns, workers reduced their electric prod use on livestock from 83% of animals to 17%.

Two key principles of livestock behavior to keep in mind are flight zone and point of balance. (Figure 1.)

“The flight zone is the animal's personal space,” Grandin says, “and the size is determined by the wildness or tameness of the animal. When a person enters the flight zone, the animal will move away.”

Tame cattle have no flight zone, range cattle may have large ones.

To keep cattle from panicking when faced with a perceived obstacle, such as the entrance to the squeeze chute, never put continuous pressure on its flight zone.

The point of balance can also be used to move cattle. This point is located right behind an animal's shoulder. By stepping behind the point of balance, you can cause an animal to move forward. By stepping ahead of that point, you can stop or slow its forward movement.

Remember that moving slowly and deliberately is the fastest way to move cattle. Fearful animals are more apt to balk or become unmanageable when moved quickly, Grandin cautions. Sudden, jerky movements frighten cattle because they associate such movements with predators.

Keep yourself calm and your cattle will remain calmer. “Put the electric prods away,” she advises. “Calm down, and slow down. Move the cattle at a walk.”

12 Ways To Reduce Animal Handling Stress

Livestock handling consultant Temple Grandin offers these tips for reducing stress when handling cattle:

  1. Get rid of electric prods. Use plastic paddles or sticks with flags or plastic streamers attached to drive cattle. Because animals can see these clearly, they can be used effectively to turn animals and to “work their flight zone,” Grandin advises. The flight zone is the distance an animal will let a person approach before turning to flee.

  2. Move only small bunches of cattle at a time.

  3. Fill the crowd pen only half full. This gives cattle enough room to maneuver and actually see the entrance to the chute. Avoid using the crowd gate.

  4. Use the animals' natural following behavior. Don't refill the crowd pen until the single-file chute is partly empty. When there's space in the chute, cattle will follow the leader into the chute. If the single-file chute is full, cattle will simply mill around in the crowd pen.

  5. Open the anti-back gates within chutes, except for the gate closest to the squeeze chute. Cattle movement within the chute will improve if most of these gates are tied open, she says.

  6. Eliminate visual distractions and lighting problems in handling facilities. Shadows, water puddles, shiny reflections or objects hanging from a fence can frighten cattle. Lighting should be diffuse and shadow-free. Never try to walk cattle directly into the sun or a blinding light. Air blowing in their faces may also hinder movement. To detect visual distractions, walk through the facilities in a crouched position to get the animal's perspective.

  7. Poorly-lit working facilities can make handling cattle difficult, causing “the black hole effect.” When cattle have to walk into a chute that's markedly darker than the holding pen, they tend to balk. The problem is most severe on sunny days, less severe on cloudy days.

    Finding ways to let more natural light illuminate the working facilities solves the problem. Open all doors in the working facility, if it's inside a building; create more window light or install translucent fiberglass panels in the walls or ceiling to let in more sunlight.

  8. Provide secure footing for cattle. Slipping increases fear and struggling.

  9. Block the animal's vision in critical areas of the facilities. The crowd pen, the lead-up chute and the squeeze chute should have solid sides.

    Covering the sides of the squeeze chute will reduce sudden lunging at the headgate. Close and release the squeeze chute with a steady movement. This will keep animals calmer.

  10. Reduce noise from yelling, whistling or whip cracking. Use rubber pads to silence or muffle clanging noises on steel. Design hydraulic systems to operate quietly. Avoid the sound frequency for which cattle have maximum sensitivity — 8,000 Hz.

  11. Don't isolate individual animals. It increases animal stress and risk of injury to handlers.

  12. View the handling process from an animal's perspective. “Animals don't get excited because they're vicious and aggressive,” Grandin says. “They do it because they're afraid.”