Researchers from around the world have consistently shown that ranchers who have invested in well-designed cattle handling facilities and improved livestock management practices have been rewarded with significant gains in their livestock operation.
A quick note on human behavior. Human instinct is to act as a predator. If you want to benefit from low stress cattle handling, you need to suppress your predatory instincts (quick movements, sneaking up from behind, yelling, invading their personal space, etc.). Instead you need to adapt behaviors that will build a trusting connection with your livestock.
Your goal is to connect with your livestock and manage their emotional state. This requires you to apply the minimum amount of pressure to create movement, and also to reward the correct animal movement by removing your pressure. The reward will help to develop a sense of trust. To create this connection you need to be keenly aware of what each animal is telling you with their behavior.
Your cattle will be as good as their last experience. Make sure every interaction builds on this trust.
An introduction to Cattle Handling / Cattle Behavior
Well cared for livestock are happier. Happier livestock are healthier; gain weight faster, and are more productive. The primary way to improve livestock happiness is to reduce or remove conditions that cause animal stress.
Why worry about Livestock stress?
Stressed cattle are more unpredictable and more likely to injure themselves or their handlers. By keeping your cattle calm you reduce livestock losses due to injury and you create a safer working environment for those handling your cattle.
Injuries of any kind can adversely affect your profitability. Severe physical injuries to your livestock clearly show as a loss on your investment. Minor injuries however should not be overlooked as even minor injuries can contribute to your losses.
Minor injuries combined with the associated animal stress, will result in lower animal growth rates and lower resistance to illness. Illness may in turn lead to higher medical costs and/or animal loss. Injured and stressed cows are also less likely to calve. All of these results cut into your profitability.
As you are clearly aware, the risk of injury extends beyond your livestock. Stressed livestock also put handlers at greater risk. An injury to a handler can be far more devastating.
An individual animal who becomes stressed will raise the stress levels of nearby cattle. Stress causes your livestock to hesitate and become more difficult and dangerous to process.
Your livestock will also remember this stress and will become more difficult to handle the next time you need to process your livestock.
Factors contributing to cattle stress
Stress can be caused by many factors including site conditions, the safety and design of your handling facilities and corrals, as well as the behavior of those handling the animals.
By focusing on how your cattle perceive their environment, you can create a safer and more efficient cattle handling environment. A well-designed cattle handling system will consider the instinctive behaviors and sensory traits of your cattle. When done well, your livestock will flow more efficiently, with less stress, and less threat of injury. But before a design can be prepared, the designer should have a solid understanding of the sensitivities and behaviors of the animals that will be using the cattle handling system.
Livestock are acutely aware of their surrounding environment. What they see, smell, feel and hear will have an impact on their behavior.
Your livestock will have memories of stressful experiences. These could be with a dog, or a particular handler. Their presence will elevate your animals stress levels.
Your livestock will also focus their attention on anything that they are unfamiliar with, or anything that they feel may present a threat or risk to their safety.
It is important to remember that cattle have played the role of prey for a wide range of predators for thousands of years. They are instinctively cautious.
When looking for visual threats, remember that cattle see differently than humans.
- Their eyes are located more on the sides of their heads to provide them with panoramic vision. When their heads are in a normal raised position they have a horizontal field of view of approximately 300° (humans see approximately 210°). When a cow lowers their head their field of view increases as their bodies are no longer obstructing their view behind them (~330°). When you pass behind an animal you are in their blind spot. To avoid making this a stressful situation for your animal you can talk to them calmly as you move through their blind spot.
- Cattle also have a much narrower binocular field of view. This means that the horizontal range where both eyes can see an object is very narrow (approximately 25 to 50 degrees). Humans, in comparison have a wider binocular field of view (approximately 114 degrees). If a cow wants to determine how far away an object is, they will need to look directly at it.
- The vertical field of view in cattle is however much smaller than it is for humans (approximately 60° for cattle and 150° for humans). Humans can walk forward with confidence as we can see the ground and the view ahead at the same time. Cattle have a smaller vertical field of view. If they are grazing, their heads are down and they are relaxed (A). When your cattle begin to walk they will raise their heads so they are comfortable with what they can see ahead and still have confidence in the footing below (B). If further they lift their heads (such as when they feel threatened from above) the less confident they will be in their footing which may cause them to stop moving (C).
- Cattle can see colors, but not the same way we do. They are red /green colorblind. For cattle, reds and greens appear as shades of grey to black. If the green and red have similar values they may be very difficult for your cattle to distinguish. A red flag, for example, may not be obvious to a cow if it is in front of a green background.
- Cattle are more sensitivity to light and shadow. This can cause them to hesitate as they approach a shadow, or bright light.
What does this mean?
- It means cattle are sensitive to movement everywhere but directly behind them. If you suddenly appear from directly behind them you can startle them.
- It means cattle can't tell how far away something is unless they look directly at it. Slow handler movements beside the cow will keep them calmer.
- It means cattle are sensitive to contrasting colors and light.
If a cow comes across a dark shadow on the ground you will see it hesitate, drop it's head, and evaluate the potential threat. A dark shadow across the alley would be an example of a potential threat created by contrasting light. Until your cattle are satisfied that the shadow does not pose a threat they will not want to walk across it.
Similarly, sudden changes in light will also slow or stop the flow of your stock. This is often seen when cattle are being brought from the bright sunshine into a poorly lit barn. Until the cattle can adjust their eyes and determine that there is no threat ahead they will refuse to move. Installing better lighting in the barn will help improve the efficiency as your cattle transition from outside to inside.
Cattle will also hesitate or stop if there is too much light such as when the alley they are walking up is facing directly into the rising or setting sun. In this situation, they simply can’t see what is ahead. For this reason, designers should avoid having the working alley facing where the sun might be when they are handling their cattle.
Visual movement or motion in the path of your livestock may cause your livestock to hesitate too. This is particularly true for items that would be considered strange or unusual to your livestock.
For example, a discarded paper cup blowing around in the alley can stop a cow in its tracks. Loose chains or ropes blowing in the wind, an unfamiliar coat draped over a panel, or the sudden movement of a handler can also slow your cattle flow.
Many of these distractions can be eliminated with a quick walk-through inspection before handling begins, to ensure these distractions are eliminated.
For best results the sides of your working alley should be enclosed. With the side of the alley enclosed many of the visual distractions disappear and the animal can focus on where you want them to go. Additionally, the handler can move in and out of view and in and out of the cows’ flight zone to effectively encourage cattle flow. If your alley is open, anyone, or anything moving outside of the alley can be hindering your handling process.
Sensitivity to sound
Cows are much more sensitive to high frequencies than we are. As a result, livestock find whistling and shouting to be highly stressful. Loose chains, barking dogs and squeaky wheels or hinges will also threaten your stock. If you wish to minimize stress in your herd you’ll reduce or remove noise sources and learn how to work your cattle quietly.
Heightened sense of smell
Cattle have an excellent sense of smell and can feel threatened by unfamiliar smells. The following are examples of smells that may be foreign to your livestock.
- New handling equipment
- A new ranch hand or even the ranch hand’s new coat
- A cup of coffee that has been spilled in the alley
Stress-free introduction to new situations.
To avoid adding stress at handing time, many ranchers will let their cattle investigate their corrals and handling equipment well before it is time to handle their livestock. By letting their livestock investigate the equipment at their own speed, they allow their cattle an opportunity to become familiar with the shadows, sounds, and smells of the handling system in a low stress situation.
NOTE: To allow cattle safe access to your handling equipment we recommend that all doors/gates are securely tied open so that your stock cannot become trapped.
Just as you prefer driving on dry pavement over black ice, cattle are also happier, and hesitate less, if you provide them with stable footing.
Avoid setting your cattle handling facilities where water might gather and create slippery conditions. If your ground conditions are susceptible to mud you should consider adding a ground reinforcing such as Hi-Hog's paddock slab, or installing concrete with a diamond grooved surface.
If your working site has a slope, orient the working alley so that it is level or points slightly uphill, as cattle are more cautious when going downhill.
Avoid forcing your livestock
Livestock become stressed when they are forced to move. To minimize the need to push cattle, provide them with a clear route through your handling system.
Cattle have poor peripheral eye sight and can only see depth in a narrow range directly in front of them. This trait requires you to position your working alley so that, as the cattle flow through the crowding tub, they can clearly see the exit into the working alley. The exit should be free from distractions, and, under optimal conditions, your livestock should see two body lengths into the cattle working alley.
As your cattle enter the working alley they should continue to see clearly at least two body lengths ahead. If your livestock don't see a path forward, such as when there is a sudden change in the direction of the alley, or if they see a solid gate crossing the path of the alley, they will hesitate, stop, or attempt to back-up or turn around.
One of the solutions to this challenge is the use of curved alleys. Curved alleys work particularly well for this as your livestock can see far enough ahead that they want to continue up the alley but not far enough ahead that they can see the closed end of the alley.
Livestock are a social animal and they have a strong desire to stay with the herd.
To take advantage of their desire to stay with the herd you should design your alley so that movement up the working alley allows your livestock to maintain visual contact with their herd mates. With Hi-Hog’s S-Alley and U-Alley, after the first animal leaves the crowding tub and begins to disappear around the corner of the curved alley, the remaining animals will follow the lead animal in an attempt to stay with the herd.
The opposite of this is also true. Cattle do not wish to be isolated from their herd. Your livestock will not, for example, want to be left behind in the crowding tub so they will voluntarily enter the working alley in an attempt to catch up with their herd.
To operate efficiently your working alley should be long enough to accept all the animals in your crowding tub. The curved alley should also be long enough for the lead animal to move out of sight of the remaining animals in the tub. A curved alley over twenty feet in length will accommodate this. An alley that is long enough to accommodate all the stock that are put through your crowding tub is optimal. Your alley should be empty when your cattle are brought into your tub so that they can Flow Through the tub.
NOTE: Do not overcrowd your tub. Give your livestock room to find the exit. When you crowd your livestock in the tub you make it difficult for the animals to turn to face/find the tub exit. Additionally you are taking away your animals freedom which will increase the stress they feel in the tub. (see crowding tubs).
The compound effect of removing stress from the cattle handling environment
Ranchers will find that if they can minimize the stress on their livestock there will be less stress on the handlers as well. This is because cattle are much easier to handle when they are comfortable and relaxed.
- If you can create a calm environment for handling your cattle, you can process the cattle in less time
- The less time you are handling your cattle, the less time your cattle will have to become stressed
- With calmer, easier to handle livestock, you may not require as many people to help you process your livestock
- Reducing the number of handlers converts to fewer possible threats in the eyes of your cattle, which can result in a further reduction in the level of stress your cattle feel.
Any time you can remove a potential threat from the cattle handling environment you can raise the comfort level of your livestock.
Comfortable, happy cattle are healthier and good for your bottom line.
More cattle handling resources:
- How to work cattle with a Bud Box
- How to sort cattle in a livestock sorting alley
- How to sort cattle with a sorting hub
- How to effectively work your cattle's flight zone
- Cattle facilities design guide
- Cattle handling systems and livestock corral design service
- Sample cattle handling system designs
- Sample cattle corral plans