Stress is one of the largest contributors to disease and injury in cattle. Life events such as castration, weaning, vaccination and transport can all be extremely stressful, but it is possible to modify handling to minimize this stress. At first, the idea of slowing things down to incorporate low-stress handling techniques seems inefficient, but if the time and cost associated with chasing over-excited cattle, repeating cattle that darted through the head catch, addressing injuries and treating respiratory outbreaks is taken into account, it is actually a tremendous gain to start slow. A better understanding of cattle behavior is crucial to developing good, low stress handling techniques. As herd and prey animals, they respond to stress by fleeing, which can be dangerous to the handler and to the cattle. Here are some concepts to keep in mind when handling livestock:
Consistency: Consistency and repetition are very important to cattle. They do best when following a routine. There are a few areas of consistency that we can control such as having the same people work the cattle, following the same routine when rounding them up, using the same holding area, working from the same side of the chute and using the same movement techniques. One of the biggest ways in which we can reduce stress in this area is allowing the first experience through the chute to be a positive experience.
Calmness: Cattle experience their world through sight and sound. Adopting a quiet and calm manner, avoiding large gestures and movements and minimizing unnecessary physical contact, are ways to shift a potentially stressful situation into a calm and familiar one.
Groups: As herd animals, cattle work best in groups, but the size of the group relative to the space is important. A common mistake is over-filling a tub or corral. The crowd pen or corral should only be filled to half capacity to allow animals to move and circle. The next group of animals should be ushered into the pen before the alleyway or chute is empty to encourage animals to follow the one in front of them.
Pressure: A key component to cattle movement is pressure. As prey and herd animals, cattle respond to pressure and movement towards them.
Flight and Pressure Zones: Cattle have a flight zone (personal space) which is surrounded by a pressure zone (zone of awareness). Tame animals will have a very narrow flight zone; cattle not often handled will have a much larger flight zone. Cattle will turn and face the handler once they have approached the pressure zone. When the flight zone is entered by the handler, the cattle will turn away. Once movement is achieved in the desired direction, the pressure can be released. Rewarding correct movement by fading away from the flight zone will help to slow their movement and keep them calm. When handling cattle in a chute it is important to avoid continuously standing in an animal’s flight zone when they are waiting in line.
Point of Balance: The point of balance on cattle is usually at their shoulder. If standing behind this point, an animal will move forward; if standing in front of this point, an animal will back up. It is important to work as a team when handling animals to be sure that no one is standing in front of an animal or in its blindspot when it is being encouraged to move forward.
Many of these techniques can be applied to other herd species as well such as sheep, goats and pigs. If low stress handling techniques are utilized, cattle should walk or slowly trot when being handled and should start grazing or nursing shortly after handling. The stress of processing mixed with crowding cattle in tight spaces can contribute to disease and injury, but by using low stress handling methods and efficient cattle movement, we can reduce the stress that they experience during these already stressful life events.